While First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska attracted the attention of world media after her husband was elected as the President, since the outbreak of war with Russia, she has been giving more interviews to the media, making appeals regarding the difficult situation in her country and attracting aid.
In an exclusive interview with the Eastern European Bureau of Report, Mrs. Zelenska spoke about the consequences of the war, the difficult situation of people in her country, the destruction of cultural monuments, the differences and similiarities of the mission she carries compared to the missions of other first ladies, especially in collecting aid, and the Olena Zelenska Foundation that she founded. We present the interview with the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska:
In the established circumstances, your husband Volodymyr Zelenskyy is under great pressure as a Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. How did your life, your role and responsibilities as the first lady of Ukraine change in this situation? What is your main activity in assisting the President of the country and your homeland?
First Ladies usually perform traditionally feminine functions in accordance with their role – they take care of medicine or culture. As you can see, I have had the opportunity to change this traditional view of the First Lady’s function somewhat – not by choice, but by circumstance. First Ladies do not ask for weapons. First Ladies do not ask for an international tribunal – but I am doing it, because the war in Ukraine has partially leveled the “protocol” roles. We are just all trying to make the most of the opportunities we have to win.
My opportunity is to be one of the participants of the diplomatic front. My pre-war activities were the development of a barrier-free society together with the relevant ministries, cultural diplomacy projects, school nutrition reform, mental health. Now, in addition to this, together with our embassies, state institutions, I carry out an information mission: I talk about our war abroad, convince them to provide us with assistance (both humanitarian and military), take care of our internally displaced persons, do everything possible to make our culture sound powerful in the world. We are working to ensure that no country stops talking about the war unleashed by Russia, understands our needs and that Ukraine is fighting not only for itself. It is fighting for democracy and freedom, for human values of the whole world.
There is a saying, ‘When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent’. But in the current conditions you continue your projects, including in teaching the Ukrainian language in other countries and publishing books in the native language. How did these projects change in the war time?
But the fact is that Russian cannons are attacking our culture – that is why it cannot remain silent. They attack purposefully and deliberately, destroying cultural heritage and those who create this heritage. Russians loot our museums (more than 15 thousand paintings were taken from Kherson region alone), they destroyed not only the Mariupol theater with bombs – we have already documented the destruction or damage of more than 1,100 objects of cultural infrastructure. Therefore, our task now is to make sure that Ukrainian culture spreads around the world like never before. It is our witness, and it is our voice in what we are experiencing now, so it must sound, strengthening us in the fight against the enemy invasion.
How can we strengthen this voice in the world? By the work of each of us. Today we are all ambassadors of our culture, no matter to which country the war has thrown us. We carry with us our language, tradition, music and literature. Through our culture we clearly show what we are fighting for, what we stand for, what our values are.
Therefore, the projects I launched before the war are not just relevant – they have gained additional meaning. For example, Ukrainian-language audio guides in cultural landmarks of the world, which we have already launched in 35 countries, are no longer a convenient tourist option, it is a sign that Ukraine and the civilized world have a common language – the language of culture. By the way, such guides are also available in Azerbaijan, one of the first Ukrainian-language audio guides under my initiative appeared at the National Carpet Museum in Baku in August 2020, and recently we opened our second audio guide in the Gobustan National Park, for which I am extremely grateful to our diplomats and the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan. I dream that the next audio guide in Azerbaijan will appear in the Heydar Aliyev Centre.
Ukrainians were forced to move all over the world, and we are doing everything to keep them in touch with their native language. We have printed 280 thousand books in Ukrainian for children who left their homes due to Russian aggression in the framework of the “Books without Borders” project. We have delivered these books to 20 European countries. The “Ukrainian Bookshelf” was opened in the largest libraries of 25 countries – these are translated editions that help foreigners better understand Ukraine, and books in the original – again for Ukrainians who are abroad.
Ukrainian culture is a part of world culture, so if we lose it, the whole world will lose it. When the war ends with our victory, when our people can return home, this knowledge about us and our culture will remain.
In an interview with the BBC, you said that you can run a marathon when you know how much is left. How much do you think is left for Ukraine to hold on? Do you have any idea where the end of this marathon is?
There is a feeling that the marathon has gradually turned into something similar to Iron Man – it is indeed perhaps the most difficult ordeal that falls to human destiny, and it fell to Ukrainians. No, we do not know when the finish line is – but we are sure that this race will end with our victory, that is the main thing. And this is what gives us strength to hold on.
And the people who are “running” next to us – they are really “iron”, I mean all Ukrainians without exception. With faith in the victory, in the justice of our struggle, in the people who are next to us on this long distance, we have withstood 10 months and we will stand for as long as it takes.
Many people admired you after the photos in Vogue, but there were also those who were critical. What was your answer to the latter? Why did you agree to this project?
I take every opportunity to be heard in the world. If that opportunity is a feature in the world’s most respected glossy with an audience of millions, should I turn it down? If this opportunity is eloquent photos by one of the most professional and famous photographers in the world, which will allow me to draw attention to the war once again – of course I will use it! Even more – it is my duty. For me, it is important that the shooting and interviews gave me the opportunity to tell tens of millions of people about what is happening in Ukraine, and this truth, I am convinced, was converted into help. Criticism of “good or not so good” photography does not matter.
Do you maintain contacts with the first ladies of other countries and have their support of your activity in the current conditions?
Continuous cooperation with colleagues around the world is one of the most important victories for me in this difficult year. Last year, I founded the First Ladies and Gentlemen Summit – the world’s first professional community of spouses of first persons. Back then, this community was conceived to make the world a better place by sharing experiences. At that time no one imagined that we would have to save it. And specifically – our country.
The second Summit took place this year, despite the war, part of it was held live in Kyiv, and I now see how right this decision was! It was held with twice as much representation – 23 first ladies and more than 40 invited speakers, and most importantly, we raised $6.4 million, which allowed us to purchase 84 ambulances for the needs of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine. This is a concrete result of our joint work.
But the main result is that the Summit has turned from an event into a permanent platform. My colleagues and I regularly make calls to discuss what we have managed to do. In September during the UN General Assembly we held a meeting in the format of a brunch of first ladies and gentlemen. Some of the projects we are implementing together are unprecedented – for example, the medical evacuation of Ukrainian children, which we carried out with the First Ladies of Poland and France.
The summit as an event will definitely take place next year, we have already started planning. So I invite first ladies and gentlemen from all over the world to join it – the example of Ukraine shows that this is an extremely effective tool that helps fight global humanitarian crises.
Azerbaijan is among the countries that provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and support its territorial integrity. How do you assess this support?
We are grateful for any help that comes to Ukraine. The war has been ongoing for 10 months already, the scale of destruction is incredible. Our energy infrastructure, hospitals and schools, cultural landmarks need recovery. People need recovery! Both mental and physical. I created my Foundation – Olena Zelenska Foundation – for this very purpose: to find resources for the urgent recovery of our medicine and humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. And so that any person, business or organization around the world can help. So if you are looking for a way to get involved, the Foundation is one of them. I know that recently Azerbaijan sent us a large batch of generators and transformers – this is much needed equipment that our people in all regions need, we are grateful for it. There are many ways to help Ukraine and Ukrainians, and we are grateful for any of them.