Two soldiers armed with military rifles step into the canteen. They survey the people lunching on borshch, dumplings and sausage rolls before locking in on me and assessing whether I might be a threat to my guest, the first lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska. A quick evaluation seems enough to convince them that I pose no danger. Their approval is sealed with a couple of fist bumps.
A moment later, Zelenska strolls in with two young assistants, one armed with a hair brush, the other a lint roller. They remove her shawl to reveal the first lady in a crisp blue pantsuit over a brown sweater.
One of the assistants gives her hair a quick brush to make sure it is neatly coiffed and Zelenska tucks a strand of it behind her ear, revealing a gold hoop earring. I notice that she is trembling. “It’s so cold outside,” she says, offering her hand. I shake it gently and feel that it is almost frozen to the touch. “Winter is coming,” she mutters.
We are inside the presidential office’s canteen on a Monday afternoon. The place is a fortress, with metal detectors, sandbags piled in front of the windows, and snipers’ perches. It’s dark except for a few scattered lanterns placed on the floor.
I begin our conversation with a question that many Ukrainians have come to loathe since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of their country in February, brutalising and killing them and destroying their cities. But I ask it because I am curious how she will answer.
“How are you?”
“Well,” Zelenska sighs in English before switching to Ukrainian to better express herself. “On the one hand, it’s a simple question. But on the other hand this is the kind of question I don’t exactly know how to answer. We are all living in a period in which it is hard to assess whether we are OK or we are not.”
Zelenska and I are meeting three days after Ukrainian forces liberated the south-central provincial capital of Kherson following almost eight months of Russian occupation. It’s one of Ukraine’s biggest military triumphs since the invasion began.
“We feel something close to euphoria because this is a great victory for us,” Zelenska says, adding that she spent much of the weekend watching videos of Ukrainian troops entering Kherson and the emotional reunions between families and friends.
“But I would say that we should also be very cautious. When the people met our troops in Kherson, of course they were very happy,” she says. “But as for the people in Kyiv who I know, they are a bit afraid to be too joyful, because we don’t want to put a jinx on this luck we are having.”
Soviet apparatchiks once strolled this building when it housed the central committee of the Communist party of Ukraine. The canteen feels almost stuck in that time. The tables are covered in pressed white tablecloths and the chairs are wrapped with brown covers. Large drapes cover the floor-to-ceiling windows. Portraits of plated salmon, kebabs and boiled potatoes flecked with dill hang on the walls.
If the president’s policies and digital savvy have transformed his administration and Ukraine’s government into a 21st-century European country, they haven’t spread to the dining hall. In any case, it’s cosy and warm and Zelenska and I have the place mostly to ourselves.
“So, shall we get some lunch?” the first lady asks in slightly accented English. Three women in white hats and striped aprons greet her, and ask what she’d like from the buffet of traditional Ukrainian dishes. She opts for a cabbage salad with corn and parsley doused in sunflower oil and a fish cutlet.
I ask for the same but with a scoop of mashed potatoes. Zelenska orders black tea and I get a black coffee and a muddy-looking glass of uzvar, my favourite Ukrainian drink, made with dried and smoked fruits and spices. The first lady begins to bring out her wallet to pay before I stop her and insist on picking up the tab — 171 Ukrainian hryvnia, or less than £4.
We don’t know it yet but we are meeting less than 24 hours before Russia will fire 96 missiles at targets across Ukraine — the biggest aerial attack since the invasion began — temporarily knocking out power and water to much of the country.
The Presidential Canteen
Office of the President of Ukraine
Bankova St, 11, Kyiv, 01220
Fish cutlet x2
Cabbage salad x2
Black tea with lemon
Total: 171 Ukrainian hryvnia (£3.81)
“We are, I would say, more worried about our enemy because of his losses, because of his defeats,” says Zelenska. She is talking about Vladimir Putin without mentioning his name. It’s something Ukrainians have begun doing regularly, along with using a lower-case r when writing the name of his country.
“We know that he will launch another missile attack against our cities. So our happiness has limits, because we know that these victories are not the end of the war and we’ve got lots of things to do still.”
And, she adds: “After each de-occupation of a city, unfortunately, we find awful things.”
When Putin’s forces fled the towns of Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel and others near Kyiv in April, bodies of civilians were found in the streets, piled in basements and buried in mass graves. There was evidence that many had been tortured and some raped before being coldly executed.
“We are afraid to find those things again in Kherson’s case,” she says. Sure enough, on the day that we meet, authorities and journalists find more disturbing accounts of torture, disappearances and killings.
Zelenska was born in the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih in 1978, growing up in the post-Soviet 1990s, a period marked by gangster capitalism and extreme inflation. Her father taught construction at a university, while her mother headed an engineering department at a local factory. The family spoke Russian at home but, like most Ukrainians, they were bilingual.
She and a young funny boy named Volodymyr Zelenskyy crossed paths at secondary school but didn’t become close until they went to the same university, where she studied architecture and he dabbled in law. With friends from the neighbourhood where they grew up, they formed a comedy troupe. In 2003, the couple married.
While her husband was the face of their entertainment company, Zelenska preferred a behind-the-scenes role, writing skits that the group performed during their popular live shows, which toured throughout the former Soviet Union.
I wonder whether she wishes she could go back to writing jokes, like her old friends at the sketch troupe. “They are supporting society by helping to keep up morale with humour,” she says. “But I wouldn’t be able to do that now because I am in a different emotional state now. I don’t know whether I can go back to feeling like I did before.”
Later she wrote sketches and scenes when the group began making television programmes, including the hit political satire Servant of the People, in which Zelenskyy plays an everyman hero who accidentally becomes president — and which helped propel him to the real-life role in 2019.
Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for Ukraine’s top political office on New Year’s Eve, as the clock struck midnight on December 31 2018, in a highly coveted television spot traditionally reserved for the current president. To call it a coup would be an understatement. What’s more, he hadn’t told Zelenska he was planning it.
“What was your first reaction to your husband’s announcement?” I ask.
“I was angry. He could have told me. When I heard it, I think my facial expression was the same as it was in the breakfast comment meme,” she says wryly, referring to a screenshot taken from a joint interview the couple gave to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, which went viral on Ukrainian social media. In response to a question from Amanpour, Zelenskyy lamented that, since the invasion began, nobody makes him breakfast any more. As he grinned, Zelenska flashed him a glare that led to countless online jokes.
When I ask about her husband’s comment, Zelenska rolls her eyes. “First of all, he lives in the presidential office. So his breakfast is brought to him by the same people who bring him lunch and dinner,” she says. “But I think he just wanted to emphasise that he misses this normal element of family life, since we used to have breakfast together every morning. And actually, he liked to cook breakfast himself.”
“Is he a good cook?” I inquire.
“Yeah! He makes perfect fried eggs. And often he made them for me,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that he would be totally successful making borshch.”
Zelenska tells me she longs for those “normal” days. “We lack normality in everything now,” she says, explaining that their time together is always fleeting. “Anytime we talk, we think about how little time we have and when we need to part.”
Zelenska’s life as she knew it changed shortly after 4am on February 24. She awoke to the muffled roar of explosions on the edge of Kyiv and noticed her husband was already up and dressed in a suit and tie. When she asked what was going on, he answered simply: “It’s started.”
I inquire how the president and first lady could seem so unprepared for an invasion that everyone had been saying for weeks was inevitable. “I wouldn’t say that what happened was unexpected, but I would say that we still felt the shock that it really happened,” she says, adding that they had not made any plans for what to do in this case. “We did not discuss any of the details, what I should do with the children, what he should do.”
Zelenska quickly packed a bag and then woke the children, Oleksandra, then 17, and Kyrylo, nine, telling them to do the same. After hours in a bunker, the three of them reunited with Zelenskyy before being taken to an undisclosed location, where the family would remain for almost three months before resurfacing.
When Russian forces were pushed back from Kyiv, Zelenska returned to her duties and public life. Her first appearance was a meeting with the US first lady Jill Biden to tour a school in western Ukraine. Her days now begin in Kyiv at 7am, getting Kyrylo off to school, “if there are no air raid sirens”, she says. Then she heads to the gym for a quick workout before changing into her professional clothes and going to the office. Her workday is a deluge of meetings and interviews. “Sometimes I’m lucky to get lunch with my husband.”
Before the invasion, Zelenska focused on advocating for children with special needs, reforming school meal programmes and campaigning against domestic violence. While passionate about these causes, she tells me, she was uncomfortable with the public aspect of her job.
“I had to study,” she says. “I had to consult with coaches on my speaking skills, because I feel that there is a lack of force in my voice. For instance, that I don’t speak loud enough, or speak with a lack of energy. Because when you are making a public speech, you need to express energy.”
She recalls one of her early public speeches, given to a group of students at a conference. She was “nervous” and “my voice somehow vanished”, she says. Watching it back later, she didn’t recognise the sound of her own voice. “It definitely was not mine.”
Sitting here with me now, after dozens of public appearances and interviews, Zelenska speaks confidently, rarely breaking eye contact, but still softly and carefully, conscious of the weight of her words. She has transformed herself into a first lady, but from what I’ve been told by her friends and people inside the presidential office, including her husband, this is still Olena — professional, thoughtful, calm, modest.
With her husband largely confined to his presidential suite, she has flown across the world on his and the Ukrainian people’s behalf to drum up support. She visited the UK for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, who she said had “shared the values Ukraine stands for today”.
In Washington, she became the first spouse of a foreign leader to address a joint session of Congress. Her speech was personal, emotional and affecting. She shared horrific tales of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, including children, and showed lawmakers gut-wrenching images of the aftermath of Russian missile attacks. And she pleaded for weapons.
Asking for missiles felt strange, she admits. “I do understand that it goes beyond the standard and formal understanding and perception of the function of the first lady,” she tells me. “But we know in this situation we need to use every opportunity to be heard.”
At home, Zelenska is leading efforts to address the impact that Russia’s war is having on Ukrainians’ mental health, an issue the World Health Organization has described as being “on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the end of World War II”.
Through her eponymous foundation, and in partnership with Ukrainian NGOs and the WHO, Zelenska is teaching first responders, military medics, pharmacists, teachers and social workers to moonlight as counsellors, working to break a stigma that has existed in Ukrainian society for generations.
“I would like to create a system that will help people with their mental health, first of all to make mental healthcare accessible, and secondly, comprehensible,” she says.
She is also working to repair and rebuild some of the roughly 300 schools that were destroyed and about 2,500 that were damaged by Russian missiles and artillery, while also scrambling to secure special equipment for medical facilities, such as incubators for premature babies. “We desperately need these,” she adds.
We’ve spent more than an hour talking before we realise that we haven’t even cut into our food. “Shall we eat?” Zelenska smiles. “I’m hungry.” Her assistant offers to see about having her cutlet reheated. But the first lady shrugs it off. “It still tastes great.”
She’s comfortable now, and switches from Ukrainian back to English. We talk more about food and our mutual dislike of holodets, a jiggly meat jello traditionally served at Christmas and New Year.
I thank her for her time and she thanks me for mine. Her troops converge, wrapping her back up in her shawl and standing guard beside her. Before she leaves, she asks that I make sure people read this interview, adding that she’s concerned that many are suffering from “Ukraine fatigue”.
“We wouldn’t like for people to get used to what is happening in Ukraine,” she says. “Unfortunately, we can’t turn off the news and have this problem disappear. War is our life now.”
Christopher Miller is the FT’s Ukraine correspondent
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