Ukraine’s The First Lady
Olena Zelenska Takes on the Trauma of War
The First Lady of Ukraine
With reporting by Mariah Espada and Simmone Shah / New York
THE TRAUMA OF THE WAR
The Russian attack began before dawn the next day, and it split the First Family much like millions of other Ukrainians. Zelensky stayed in his compound in central Kyiv to lead the country, while his wife went into hiding with their two children. Her projects to improve the nation’s education and health care had to be halted, as was her career as a screenwriter. Surrounded by soldiers, she was seldom sure where she would sleep on any given night.
But 10 weeks into the invasion, Zelenska emerged from hiding, and she has since found her voice as a wartime leader of a different kind. While her husband has focused on securing weapons and other support from the West, the First Lady has devoted herself to helping the country cope with its traumas, both collective and personal. In May, she launched a government initiative to make psychological support available to every Ukrainian. It has now begun training trauma counselors, setting up mental-health hotlines and tapping foreign experts for clinical support.
In early May, she read a few pages from the diary of an 8-year-old boy who had survived the Russian siege of Mariupol, a port city on the Black Sea that has been reduced to rubble by Russian bombardment. “My two dogs died,” the boy wrote in one entry. “So did my grandma Galya, and my beloved city.”
The boy’s story brought home the depth of the trauma that Ukraine’s children are facing. “Imagine how this could affect the psyche of a normal child, who was not raised for war, not taught to hate,” the First Lady says. “And there are thousands of these children.” It will be a generational challenge to help them heal after this war, and Zelenska has tried to make that challenge her own.
START OF A NEW ROLE
On May 8, Mother’s Day, Zelenska emerged from hiding to meet Jill Biden, the American First Lady, at a school in western Ukraine that had been turned into a shelter for displaced families. The appearance marked the start of a new role for Zelenska. She has since become a vocal and visible advocate for Ukraine’s defense on the international stage. Much of her work has focused on empowering organizations that specialize in the treatment of trauma and connecting them with state institutions, like the Ministry of Health, that can facilitate care for people who need it.
After more than two months in hiding, she is making up for lost time. Her days are packed with speeches, meetings, panel discussions, and interviews. Her peers from around the world have offered to help. The First Lady of Israel, Michal Herzog, has helped Zelenska create training programs for Ukrainian trauma counselors. The First Lady of Poland, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, has worked closely with Zelenska to aid Ukrainian refugees. “This club of ours has been a big help,” Zelenska says. “We understand each other.”
She and her husband still live apart, and Zelenska understands that her family has little hope of returning to normal while the war rages. When they reunited briefly in May, the children clung to Zelensky, savoring the chance to hug him for the first time in months. “It was touching,” the First Lady says. “But I can’t tell you more than that.” She only admits that they still see him most often on television and they have not been able to return to their family routines of watching movies and sharing meals.
In some ways the separation feels appropriate. Millions of families have been divided in Ukraine. Like them, the Zelenskys will need emotional support as the fight grinds on and the casualties mount. “Every day you read about them, you hear about them, you absorb it, and it has an effect,” says the First Lady. “Each of us, including myself, have felt that our psychological state is not what it should be.” After four months of war, she adds, “none of us are OK.”