The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s first lady asks Congress for more arms to counter Russia

Olena Zelenska said Russia’s ‘Hunger Games’ are devastating peaceful families and cities in her country

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska addresses members of Congress at the Capitol in Washington on July 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska addressed Congress on Wednesday, making a rare personal appeal as the wife of a foreign leader for the United States to provide Ukraine with air defense systems, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth month.

In a brief but emotional speech, Zelenska spoke about the increasingly dire security, economic and humanitarian conditions in Ukraine.

“I want to address you not as first lady, but as a daughter and as a mother,” Zelenska said in Ukrainian, as a woman interpreted her speech in English, their voices breaking at times. “No matter what positions and titles we reach in our lives, first of all, we always remain part of our family. … This is the great truth of our life. Our family represents the whole world for us, and we’d do everything to preserve it.”

Zelenska did not hold back in displaying images of victims of the war on a screen behind her: There was Lisa, a toddler whom she had met months ago, who was killed July 14 by a Russian missile attack in the city of Vinnytsia, she said. A picture of Lisa’s toppled stroller flashed on the screen, and Zelenska added that those close to Lisa’s injured mother did not tell her for days that her child had died. Other victims included 5-year-old Eva, whose tiny body was shown curled up amid the rubble of a destroyed building, and a Holocaust survivor killed in Kyiv.

Ukraine's first lady Olena Zelenska spoke to U.S. lawmakers on July 20 about the conditions in her country, as Russia's war approached its sixth month. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Saul Loeb/The Washington Post)

Zelenska noted that first ladies are usually “exclusively engaged in peaceful affairs.”

“But how can I talk about [peaceful affairs] when an unprovoked invasive terrorist war is being waged against my country? Russia is destroying our people,” she said.

Russia’s “Hunger Games” are devastating peaceful families and cities in Ukraine, she said, referring to the dystopian film series in which a group of children must fight to the death. The devastation in Ukraine would never be broadcast on Russian news, she added.

“That’s why I’m showing you here,” Zelenska said.

She closed her speech with an appeal for more weapons, saying the war in Ukraine is not over and that the answer lies in Washington, where U.S. lawmakers could indulge in the normalcy of planning months ahead.

“I am asking for weapons — weapons that will not be used to wage a war on somebody else’s land but to protect one’s home and the right to make up a life in that home,” Zelenska said. “I am asking for air defense systems in order for rockets not to kill children in their strollers … and kill entire families.”

Zelenska received a standing ovation from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle when she took the stage of the main auditorium at the Capitol Visitor Center shortly after 11:10 a.m., as well as when she concluded her remarks about 10 minutes later. It was the same location where her husband’s virtual speech was streamed to Congress months ago, near the beginning of the war, when he pleaded with U.S. leaders to help defend not only Ukraine but also the very notion of democracy around the world.

At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that his family was a top target for Russian troops. In a rare joint interview with him in May, Zelenska said she and her two children did not see Zelensky for 2½ months after the war started, as they sheltered in an undisclosed location apart from him.

“Our family was torn apart, as every other Ukrainian family,” Zelenska said then.

Zelenska’s remarks to Congress on Wednesday came less than two months after Congress approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine in May, which included $20 billion in military aid, nearly $8 billion in economic aid, nearly $5 billion in global food aid and more than $1 billion in combined support for refugees.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues Tuesday about Zelenska’s upcoming visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) highlighted the toll on women and girls that the war in Ukraine has taken, a topic she said has been of particular concern to the women in Congress.

“In the course of visits from Ukrainian leaders — from members of parliament to grass-roots heroes — many of us have heard horrific stories about the brutal treatment of women and girls by Russian forces,” Pelosi wrote. “Indeed, we have sufficient evidence of kidnappings and deportations into Russia, rape of women in front of family members and even rape of little girls. … Let me be clear: Rape of children cannot be a weapon of war. It is a war crime!”

Zelenska’s speech capped her high-profile trip to Washington.

On Monday, Zelenska met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power to “address the long-term psychosocial impacts of Russia’s war” in Ukraine, according to the White House.

On Tuesday, Zelenska visited the new Victims of Communism Museum in Washington to accept a human rights award on behalf of the people of Ukraine. In remarks at the museum, Zelenska noted that there were three photographs of Ukrainian dissidents who had been tortured or sent away for “questioning the cult of Stalin.” She compared those to some of the atrocities Ukrainians have faced in the past five months as a result of Russia’s invasion.

“Through all this suffering and pain, we send a strong warning to the war: Remember the darkest past can be easily beaten,” Zelenska said at the museum. “In certain places, the darkness has never faded away. It just figured out how to operate more advanced weaponry and use social media.”

Ukrainians are not only fighting for their freedom today, she added, but also “so that Stalin’s great terror will no longer be repeated anywhere, ever, in the civilized world.”

In the early 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin carried out policies that led to mass famine in Ukraine. An estimated 4 million people died during that period, known as the Holodomor, or death by hunger.

On Tuesday afternoon, Zelenska visited the White House, holding a private meeting with first lady Jill Biden and then an expanded one with several U.S. officials. Jill Biden, who met Zelenska over Mother’s Day weekend when she made an unannounced visit to Ukraine, on Tuesday recalled the “sorrow and pain” of the war zone and told Zelenska that her team has been working on ways to help with the mental health of Ukrainian mothers and children forced to flee their homes.

Karina Tsui contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.