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Ukraine’s first lady details war’s toll on the Zelensky family

Olena Zelenska says she didn’t see President Volodymyr Zelensky for 2½ months

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska, attend the funeral of the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, in Kyiv on May 17. (Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters)
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In a rare joint television interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has “torn apart” their family as it has for millions of other households across the country.

Zelenska, who has two children with Ukraine’s wartime president, admitted that she had barely seen Zelensky since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine. She said she and her husband have been mainly communicating by phone since then.

“Our family was torn apart, as every other Ukrainian family,” Zelenska said. “He lives at his job. We didn’t see him at all for 2½ months.”

Yet Zelenska was quick to dismiss the idea raised by one of the interviewers from the Ukrainian television network ICTV that the war had “basically taken her husband away.”

“Nobody takes my husband away from me, not even the war,” Zelenska replied.

The interview marked the second time the couple, who married in 2003, have appeared together since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. During the sit-down, Zelenska said she was “grateful” for their joint television appearance because it meant they could finally spend time together.

“A date on TV, thank you,” she joked. Zelensky nodded alongside her.

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In the early days of the war, Zelensky said he was Russia’s “target No. 1” and that his family was “target No. 2.”

“They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state,” he told Ukrainians in a February address, although he refused to flee. Instead, Zelensky took to the streets of the capital, posting defiant videos on social media that earned him global praise, while his wife and children hunkered down in an undisclosed location for their safety.

During their interview, Zelenska said she remembered waking up to “weird noises” as Russia began its invasion and noticing that her husband was not by her side. Zelensky was already awake and in the next room, putting on a suit.

“It has started,” she remembers him telling her before he left — words she said left her in a state of “anxiety and stupor.”

The war has raised the profile of Ukraine’s president, who has delivered video addresses to Ukrainians most nights and has spoken to parliaments around the world. He has appeared virtually at events including the Grammys and the Cannes Film Festival, which opened last week.

Before becoming president three years ago, Zelensky was a comedian and actor who played the role of a president on-screen. The 44-year-old also voiced Paddington Bear and, in 2006, won Ukraine’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

Zelenska, 44, is a screenwriter and has rarely been seen in public since Russia’s invasion. She was spotted for the first time earlier in May as Ukraine celebrated Mother’s Day, meeting in western Ukraine with U.S. first lady Jill Biden, who had crossed the border from Slovakia.

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“We understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today,” Zelenska said at the time.

“The people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine,” Biden told her.

Zelensky and his wife made their television appearance as Russia scrambled to rebound in Ukraine after suffering huge losses. Prospects for victory are fast dwindling for Vladimir Putin’s troops — despite early predictions that Moscow would sweep to victory largely unchallenged, The Washington Post reported.

“We broke the back of the largest or one of the strongest armies in the world,” Zelensky told the interviewers.

During the couple’s hour-long interview, Zelenska expressed hope that once the war is over she could return to focusing on issues that affect Ukrainian women, such as unequal pay.

“After the victory, we will remember the heroism of our Ukrainian women,” she said.

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