LVIV, Ukraine — As her husband has become a global symbol of leadership in the face of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, has taken on a less public role. But on Tuesday evening, she emerged into the media spotlight, sending an open letter that she said was her “testimony” from Ukraine.
“What happened just over a week ago was impossible to believe. Our country was peaceful; our cities, towns and villages were full of life,” she wrote. But now, Russian military forces were engaged in the “mass murder of civilians.”
Since Volodymyr Zelensky’s overwhelming election victory in 2019 — a bid that the comedian turned politician famously did not consult his wife about — Ms. Zelenska, 44, has focused on issues of female empowerment, literacy and culture in Ukraine. The war has forced her into a new position, using her platform to raise awareness of crimes against children and the elderly, and reaching out beyond her country’s borders to call for help.
“The war in Ukraine is not a war ‘somewhere out there,’” she wrote in her letter, which was addressed to international media. “This is a war in Europe, close to the E.U. borders. Ukraine is stopping the force that may aggressively enter your cities tomorrow under the pretext of saving civilians.”
She echoed the pleas of her husband for international military force to help protect Ukraine’s skies by establishing a no-fly zone — an idea that NATO fears could drag the West into a broader war with Russia.
“Close the sky, and we will manage the war on the ground ourselves,” she said.
Ms. Zelenska, who met her husband when they were studying at different universities in their hometown, the industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, was a script writer at Kvartal 95, the production company that her husband founded. His turn from comedian to president thrust her into a new life — and new danger.
In a speech only days after the first Russian missiles fell on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Mr. Zelensky said he knew he was the first target for assassination in case of an occupation. His wife and children, Oleksandra, 17, and Kyrylo, 9, he said, were “target No. 2.”
Their location has been kept a secret for security reasons, but Mr. Zelensky has said that they remain in Ukraine.
On her social media profiles, Ms. Zelenska has shared photographs of children with cancer, some of whom are now being treated in hospital basements, and told the stories of children who have been killed in the war.
“Our women and children now live in bomb shelters and basements,” she wrote in her letter. “The first newborn of the war saw the concrete ceiling of the basement, their first breath was the acrid air of the underground and they were greeted by a community trapped and terrorized. At this point, there are several dozen children who have never known peace in their lives.”