The words, you might imagine, could have been spoken by a breathless young heroine in a Hollywood blockbuster: ‘You know, I’m sure you’re looking at me in this picture. Because you always look at me like that.
‘I wish every woman had such looks. Only those who truly love look like that. I always feel your love. As long as you look like that, I’m not afraid of anything.
‘We still have things ahead of us. So take care of yourself. We have to realize everything we dream of together. Happy birthday, my love! I promise to look back at you. Just like that. Always!’
But you’d be wrong. These heartfelt words were written by Olena Zelenska on January 25 to accompany a black-and-white photo of her husband of 18 years, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, posted on Instagram for his birthday. Then, they garnered little attention.
Yet just 30 days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Now the eyes of the world are on this incredible couple, who have humbled us all with their resolve, patriotism and bravery — and drawn us in to their epic love story, which has spanned 27 years.
The pair have never been afraid to declare their love for one another in adoring social media posts.
In a January 2020 post, Olena describes a ‘real man’ who gave her ‘butterflies’ and made her complete; a lover whose presence she felt when they were apart, and whose shared dreams destroyed all fear. ‘Safe. Cozy. Never calm, but always interesting. That’s how you feel when a real man is next to you,’ she writes. ‘The one you can count on in everything.’
For her birthday in February last year, Volodymyr wrote of Olena: ‘I love the way you think. Thank you for being there … For the truth, for the eyes, for the jokes. For who I wouldn’t have become without you … Thank you for everything.’
Now the eyes of the world are on this incredible couple, who have humbled us all with their resolve, patriotism and bravery.
Their body language is electrifying. Multiple photos on Olena’s Instagram profile show husband and wife side by side, beaming, holding hands, wearing superhero face paint with their children.
They look indestructible. And they need each other now more than ever. Forced into hiding, swapping suits and speeches for the sound of air-raid sirens, Olena knows that, like the man she loves, she is ‘targeted for death’ by Vladimir Putin.
Yet she has risen to her horrific new role as Putin’s ‘target number two’ with astonishing bravery, refusing to flee the country with the couple’s children and galvanizing not only Ukraine but the rest of the civilized world with her grace under fire.
Just hours after the Russians first attacked Ukraine, Olena, 44, wrote on Instagram: ‘I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident. My children are looking at me. I will be next to them. And next to my husband. And with you.’
So how has this mother of two — a limelight-loathing writer who was ‘not too happy’ when her husband announced he was running for president — managed to maintain such extraordinary resolve? And how did she capture the heart of the former comedian who’s won the respect and admiration of the Western world?
Little-read interviews from over the years in the Ukrainian press found by the Daily Mail reveal a love story even more compelling than the one Olena has charted online.
Just 12 days younger than Volodymyr, Olena, like her husband, was brought up in the run-down former mining town of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine. Although at the same school, the pair rarely crossed paths. ‘It was only on our last day of school that it hit me,’ he has revealed of his feelings for her.
Olena went on to study architecture, while Volodymyr studied law at Kryvyi Rih National University.
As a newly enrolled undergraduate in 1995, he bumped into Olena on the street and asked to borrow a video she was carrying — despite having watched the film eight times before — in order to have an excuse to ask for her phone number so he could arrange to return it. Romance blossomed, with Volodymyr describing how he ‘fell in love deeply, irrevocably’.
Harboring dreams of a career in comedy, in 1997 he created a production company, Kvartal 95, recruiting Olena as a writer. Its aim was to poke fun at the political class, lampooning corruption in Ukraine, and the couple spent their final year at university creating scripts together.
Kvartal 95 quickly grew, amassing hundreds of friends and colleagues. Having traveled across Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to perform, the couple married in September 2003.
Their daughter, now 17, was born the following July, and the couple moved to the capital, Kyiv.
Around this time, Volodymyr began starring in TV shows, appearing in Ukraine’s first season of Dancing with the Stars.
As his star soared, it seems Olena took a back seat. Recently she recalled: ‘There was a period when I had to stand aside … He was always a workaholic.
‘And when it’s creative work, and there are a lot of interesting people around, you realize that maybe now you are less interesting to him than you would like to be … Thank God he and I had enough patience, and everything went smoothly enough.’
Olena knows that, like the man she loves, she is ‘targeted for death’ by Vladimir Putin.
Beyond the marital sacrifice, meanwhile, lay a growing sense of unease at the suffering of Ukrainians. With the appointment of billionaire Petro Poroshenko as president in 2014, she says the country became more authoritarian, adding: ‘That’s when we decided to do something to save our democracy.
‘When TV channels fell under the leadership’s control, we realized if we didn’t act, we’d end up in the same situation as Russia.’
Both were devastated when Russian-backed separatists started war to annex the Crimean Peninsula that year — the year after their son, now nine, was born.
‘Volodymyr came home and gazed at our children with sad eyes,’ Olena said. ‘I asked him to calm down; we had to do something about it.’
From 2015, Volodymyr starred in the TV series Servant of the People, in which he played Holoborodko, a history teacher unexpectedly elected president after a video rant goes viral. Both Poroshenko and Putin were targets of the show’s satire.
Olena stayed home while Volodymyr did shows for soldiers on the front line, performances ‘written with heart’ but which nonetheless put her family’s life at risk. After a sketch about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov breaking down in tears resulted in death threats, the couple had to hire security.
Eventually, Olena dispensed with her own protection ‘but kept the bodyguards for my children’.
When, in 2017, Kvartal 95 created a political party, Servant of the People, it was intended to stop others using the name for ‘cynical political purposes’, but quickly became a real contender. Olena initially ‘aggressively’ opposed her husband’s political ambition, because ‘everything would change’.
She has quipped that she discovered he was running for president only after reading it on social media, because he ‘forgot’ to tell her, but added: ‘We had been discussing this for a long time and I said I would always support him.’
Their son, then six, was underwhelmed by his dad’s new career path — ‘he’s more concerned whether he will be able to play with him today’ — while their daughter was distraught.
‘She doesn’t want her father to become like those political elite representatives that she sees on TV,’ admitted Olena.
‘She sobbed and said, ‘How will I go to school, what will they tell me?’ But thank God that the school situation was just normal, there were weak jokes on this subject, but that was it.’
She says her husband’s ‘adoration’ of his children is impossible to describe. ‘For me, it is very important how a man treats his children and, thank God, I am lucky.’
Nonetheless, when Volodymyr won the election by a landslide in May 2019, the change to her life must have felt seismic.
Suddenly, she was constantly surrounded. ‘I do not have enough time alone with myself … Now a bathroom is my only retreat.’
She tried hard to maintain normality, encouraging her husband to walk to work. ‘Why not? The Dutch prime minister goes to work on a bicycle.’
Thrust into the limelight as a fashion icon, she was determined to showcase Ukrainian talent, such as the suit by Elenareva she wore to meet Brigitte Macron. ‘I am pleased when they ask me in New York or Paris who is the designer of my outfit. And they do ask me,’ she told Ukrainian Vogue.
‘How nice it is to promote Ukrainian designers to the world.’
Though she has kept up her screenwriting career, she knows being First Lady gives her ‘responsibilities that can’t be delegated’ and ‘the opportunity to attract people’s attention to important social issues’.
She has reformed nutrition in Ukraine’s schools and campaigned against domestic violence. She gave a speech at the third Ukrainian Women’s Congress in 2019, supported Paralympic athletes and staunchly defended freedom of speech.
Olena wrote on Instagram: ‘I will not have panic and tears. I will be calm and confident.’
Although stressing she does ‘not have the right to interfere in the president’s work’, she’s never shied from disagreeing with Volodymyr. ‘He criticizes me too. We criticize each other,’ she once said.
Friends of the couple have said their bond is so great they can understand each other without uttering a word. Yet despite her gushing social media posts, she eschews romance.
‘And I don’t like surprises, I’m afraid of them, because his imagination is limitless,’ she said.
‘He does not know how to relax, it only seems that he is so cheerful, a joker, but when we go on vacation, he lets go only on the third day.’
Throughout it all, she’s given her husband unwavering support, because ‘on the emotional level, it’s not that easy for him and he needs someone who will be around’.
She admits they’ve both tried, unsuccessfully, to resist reading comments about them on social media. Now, of course, the glamorous social media poses are gone, in their place reminders to her 2.6 million Instagram followers of the lives ravaged by war.
She has drawn attention to the plight of Ukraine’s citizens, particularly children, sharing heartrending images of young cancer patients forced to flee the country to escape shelling, of sick babies pulled from hospital to be treated in bomb shelters.
And photos of children killed in recent weeks, who she is determined will not be forgotten. In an open letter headed ‘I testify … ’ on March 8, she condemned Russia for causing the deaths.
‘Eight-year-old Alice who died in the street of Okhtyrka, whose grandfather tried to protect her.
‘Polina from Kyiv who died in the shelling with her parents. Or 14-year-old Arsenji, in a once peaceful suburb of the capital… whom the ambulance simply could not reach due to heavy gunfire.
‘When Russia says that it is ‘not waging war against civilians’, I call out the names of these murdered children first.’
For where others may have crumbled, Olena has led from the front, her influence never more powerful as she fights for the country, and the man, she loves.
Antonia Hoyle is a London-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, The Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, Grazia, and Marie Claire, among other publications