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Being backstage ‘suited’ Ukraine’s first lady. War thrust her into the limelight

Sana Noor Haq, CNN

Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska didn’t have a burning desire to be in the limelight — she says being backstage “suited” her.

But earlier this year she was thrust onto the world stage in a way that would have been difficult to comprehend a few months ago.

Now, as a war rages on in her home country, Zelenska has opened up about what it’s like navigating the conflict as a separated family and her hopes for the future.

Starring on Vogue’s latest digital cover, Zelenska tells the magazine that she didn’t want to be first lady.

“I like being backstage — it suited me,” she said. “Moving into the limelight was quite difficult for me.”

When her husband Volodymyr Zelensky decided to run in the 2019 presidential election, Zelenska was concerned about the toll politics and public life would take on her family.

“I respected his choice and I understood that this was an important step for him to make. At the same time I felt that my life and the life of my family would change quite radically. The change would be long-lasting and quite complex,” she said. “I knew there was going to be a lot of work for me, and I was right.”

Their family’s separation since the war began mirrors countless stories of displacement in Ukraine. Zelenska could not contact her husband or her parents for a long time.

“I don’t even know how I would have survived these months if we had been apart,” she said of her two children.

Speaking about the President, she added: “He’s having a much harder time in this regard. He suffers. And then my kids do, too, because they can’t see each other.”

Thrust onto the global stage

The gravity of the war hit the first lady within the first few weeks of the conflict.

“The first weeks after the war broke out we were just shocked,” Zelenska said. “After Bucha we understood it was a war intended to exterminate us all. A war of extermination.” After Russian forces withdrew from Bucha following a failed bid to encircle the capital Kyiv, accounts of alleged atrocities against citizens emerged.

Zelenska has since used her position to maintain diplomatic relations with global leaders and highlight the human cost of the war.

In May, she met with Jill Biden when the US first lady traveled to Ukraine. The two convened on Mother’s Day in the southwestern city of Uzhhorod, at a converted school that was turned into a refuge for displaced citizens.

Earlier this month, Zelenska also visited the White House to privately meet with Biden and participate in a bilateral meeting with American officials, including US President Joe Biden. She thanked the US for their support and asked the government to send air defense systems to Ukraine in an address to lawmakers in the US Congress.

‘My greatest friend’

The Ukrainian President, who also spoke to the magazine, told Vogue that his wife “sets an example” for women and children in their home country.

“I believe that she plays a very powerful role for Ukraine, for our families, and for our women,” Zelensky said.

“She has a strong personality to start with. And probably she is stronger than she thought she was. And this war — well, any war is probably bound to bring out qualities you never expected to have.”

He added: “Of course she is my love. But she is my greatest friend. Olena really is my best friend. She is also a patriot and she deeply loves Ukraine. It’s true. And she is an excellent mother.”

Since the war in Ukraine started in February, more than 12,000 civilians have been killed or injured, according to recent figures from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Millions have been displaced — both internally and externally.

Zelenska told Vogue that “nothing” could have prepared her for the war.

“We were living happy lives and we never thought this would happen. But we have hope,” she said. “These have been the most horrible months of my life, and the lives of every Ukrainian.”

She added: “We have no doubt we will prevail. And this is what keeps us going.”

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