KYIV—Ukraine’s new first lady, Olena Zelenska, cracks jokes for a living. Until a week ago, she was a professional scriptwriter on her husband's comedy show. Now it's time to become, well, not only serious but "passionate about democracy,” she said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Millions of Ukrainian fans of Servant of the People, the television program that starred her husband Volodymyr Zelensky as a fictional president, came to see him as a true fighter against corruption.
Now that he has been elected president for real, and by a landslide, will he stick to the model he and she created?
“It will be easy for my democratic husband to be the servant of the people, and not a master,” Zelenska said, then shook her head and gave a pensive little smile as we sat down to talk at Zelensky’s office here.
“It’s interesting what is happening now,” she said. “Not only our opponents, but even our supporters try to fit Volodymyr and me into some sort of caricature, discussing appearances—’Oh, he scratched himself!’ ‘Oh, she turned the wrong way!’ ‘Look at that gesture!’ ‘Look at him laughing!’ And we want to say, ‘Guys, you are used to the Soviet nomenklatura.’” She was referring to the stern-faced gray politicians and bureaucrats once appointed by the Communist Party. “A human being should stay human,” she said.
Criticism of Zelensky before the election focused on whether the untested politician was a puppet of the highly controversial exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, owner of the television station that aired his comedy show.
“Volodymyr is never going to be anybody’s puppet,” Zelenska insisted. She said in 2015 she watched her husband fight against the oligarch’s effort at censorship. “We had a famous scandal when Kolomoisky canceled a broadcast of our political stage show on his TV channel 1+1 because of political jokes. Volodymyr called him on the phone and yelled so loudly that I thought we would never air our shows on TV again.”
“That was the turning point when we defended our independence,” said the first lady-elect.
Zelenska has known her husband since they met in high school in their hometown of Kryvyi Rih. They are the same age, 41, and sometimes they can understand each other without words, their friends told me. Over the last 15 years the couple created a political comedy club, Quarter-95, together with a team of some 700 friends and colleagues. But it hasn’t been a laugh a minute.
As we talked, Zelenska looked back on the last five years, from the “tragic” time when Russia annexed Crimea, to the scary days when her husband went touring the war zone in eastern Ukraine putting on shows for patriotic soldiers near the front lines.
Zelenska and her husband realized they had to do something to try to stop the crisis in Ukraine, she said, and finally they decided to participate in politics, not just satirize them. On election day, after winning more than 70 percent of the vote in a crushing defeat for incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the two kissed on stage with fireworks above them and dozens of cameras trained on them.
So, Volodymyr Zelensky is no longer the fictional president he and Zelenska used to discuss in their kitchen, writing jokes and snickering at preposterous situations, but a real leader, and head of a country still at war. But their personal style may not change that much.
Olena and Volodomyr share an apartment with their two children, two dogs, a guinea pig and fish tank, across the park from the parliament. The first lady thinks that her husband could walk to work. “That would be healthy for him. Why not? The Dutch prime minister goes to work on a bicycle,” she said.
More importantly, Zelenska is convinced the new team should keep away from the immense presidential administration building on Bankova Street known as a den of scheming office holders and operatives. Generations of bureaucrats and political advisers, including Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman who is now in U.S. federal prison, wove their intrigues in that building.
“We don’t want to ever step inside," she said. "The place is infected with its dark, negative past. We would be happy to make a contemporary museum out of that building, or pass it on to some university.”
The main question that millions have for the new president is how he is planning to develop his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the first lady has a strong opinion about that hard question. “It is impossible to start from scratch. I don’t think there will be a direct bilateral negotiations any time soon,” Zelenska said. “Volodymyr is not ready for a curtsy before the aggressor, but he is ready to negotiate with Russia in the presence of international leaders.”
Indeed, new tensions between Moscow and Kiev erupted last week, when Putin announced that his government would give Russian passports to all interested Ukrainians.
President-elect Zelensky’s response: “I would not advise Russian authorities to waste time tempting Ukrainian citizens with passports of the Russian Federation. Ukrainians are free people in a free, independent, sovereign and indivisible country; and Ukrainian citizenship means freedom, dignity and honor.”
Ukraine’s president elect offered shelter and help to anybody who is ready to fight side by side with Ukraine “for our freedom and yours,” a resonant phrase that dates back to Polish and Russian uprisings in the 19th century.
“We satirists used to joke about all public figures non-stop,” Zelenska said, harking back to the early days ribbing President Leonid Kuchma, who left office in 2005. “Most politicians took our humor with dignity, the way it should be, like in the United States where you can call the president anything,” she said. “But in the last five years authorities indicated ‘the game is over.’ President Poroshenko’s elite tried to punish us for our jokes.”
Zelenska’s big eyes grew serious. “That’s when we decided to do something, to save our democracy. When TV channels one by one fell under the leadership’s control, we realized if we didn’t act, we’d end up in the same situation as Russia.”
In 2014, news poured in from the front lines of the war that was begun by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern or Donbass region of the country after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. At the time the Zelenskys’ little girl was 9 and their boy only 1 year old. “I remember Volodymyr came home and gazed at our children with sad eyes,” Zelenska said. “I asked him to calm down; we had to do something about it.”
Soon Zelensky and his friends from Quarter-95 traveled along the front line giving shows and Olena stayed home to wait for them. “That was his civic position,” she said. “All our songs and performances were written with heart.”
Accusations suggesting they lacked patriotism were especially painful for the Zelensky couple. “For months our critics were creating and feeding scandals around us."
Zelensky’s gang of comedians made sharp jokes about local and Russian politicians, which sometimes infuriated dangerous people. In 2014 their sketch about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov breaking down in tears provoked death threats. A video on YouTube featured Chechens telling Zelensky to “get prepared for the cold earth.”
The Zelensky couple had to hire security. “We still don’t know if the threat was true or our law enforcement agencies were trying to scare us with stories of Chechen criminals arriving in Kyiv to go after us,” Zelenska said. “I sent my security away, but kept the bodyguards for my children. The guys have become like members of the family. Hopefully we can keep them now.”
After a career making fun of everything she could, Ukraine’s first lady is quite serious about fighting for freedom, especially freedom of speech.
Her voice was strong and confident when she spoke about assassinations of journalists and activists, and the cases in particular of Pavel Sheremet and the activist Yekaterina Handziuk: “Reporters and activists get killed—that’s the worst nightmare; years pass by and the crimes have not been investigated. Now we hope to see justice, starting from investigating the shootings on Maidan square during the revolution,” she said.
“For some people it’s easier to exist without freedom, under restrictions defined for them,” Olena Zelenska told me. “But when politicians feel free to make decisions and give no freedom to journalists who want write openly about the truth, that is not honest.”