When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Moscow had made him “target No. 1,” in what he said was its effort to “destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state,” he also noted that his family was “target No. 2.”
The grim proclamation drew attention to the plight of his family, first lady Olena Zelenska and the couple’s two young children, Sasha and Cyril.
The couple was married in September 2003, before Zelensky’s political career began. He famously forgot to loop in his wife on his decision to run for president.
Zelenska found out about her husband’s candidacy on social media, she told Vogue Ukraine. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked him. His response: “I forgot.”
Zelenska at first was “not too happy when I realized that those were the plans,” she told the magazine. “I realized how everything would change, and what difficulties we would have to face,” she said in the 2019 interview, years before her husband became a wartime leader and the face of the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion.
Still, Zelenska has adapted to the role of first lady, supporting causes including the Paralympics, children’s nutrition and the fight against domestic violence.
Zelenska, 44, grew up in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, where Zelensky was also raised. The pair met at college, where she studied architecture and he studied law, but the couple found careers in comedy. Zelensky, also 44, started a production company, Studio Kvartal 95, where Zelenska became a scriptwriter.
For security reasons, the location of Zelenska and her children has not been publicly revealed, though Zelensky has said they remain in Ukraine.
In the days since the Russian invasion, Zelenska has taken to social media to voice her encouragement for the Ukrainian people. “Today I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident,” she wrote on Instagram last week. “My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.”