In a significant escalation of the conflict in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that he is annexing around 20% of Ukraine.
Due to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia controls only a portion of the eastern and southern regions of the country. Putin spoke to nuclear weapons and accused the west of satanism in a bellicose address. He declared that the land will “forever” be Russian. President Biden answered that the United States will never acknowledge the annexation and will continue to support Ukraine’s military.
Seven months of conflict have been devastating for Ukrainian families, and many of them look to Olena Zelenska for hope. The first lady of Ukraine was schooled as an architect and supported herself as a comedy writer, but in February of last year she awoke to a catastrophe. She became the ambassador, mourner, and healer of a nation struggling for its existence overnight.
On the day of our interview, we agreed not to identify the location of our meeting in the Ukrainian capital. Ukraine compelled Russia to retreat and exposed the atrocities of the invasion.
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska
What have the families of Ukraine lost, asks Scott Pelley?
Olena Zelenska translates as follows: Half of [our] families are split, [Because] someone is in the front, someone fled to another country to save their children, and someone is under [Russian] occupation. People fear leaving their [homes] due to the shelling. They fear even attempting to evacuate. There are thousands of deceased. Thousands of children have died.
This is Scott Pelley: The last time we were in Chernihiv, the soccer stadium had been bombed. The library, a hospital, Public School 18, Public School 21, and Public School 21. What are the Russians’ objectives?
Olena Zelenska translates: They attempt to terrify the populace into fleeing so they can take the vacated towns and villages.
Scott Pelley: Is this conflict or terrorism?
Olena Zelenska (translated): Definitely, terrorism. The conflict is being fought with modern technology, but from a moral and ethical standpoint, it is the Middle Ages.
Olena Zelenska is 44 years old and has been married to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for 19 years. In Slavic languages, surnames are frequently adjusted according to gender.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and First Lady Olena Zelenska
Early in April, when we contacted with her husband, he informed us that his wife and two children were in hiding. However, he employed his wife as a weapon weeks later. In May, she showed First Lady Jill Biden the homeless in western Ukraine as a result of the war. In July, she traveled to Washington and delivered the inaugural address to Congress.
She remarked, “I’m asking for weapons that would not be used to wage war on someone else’s land, but rather to safeguard one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.”
When we first met, we noted that she was determined to disregard her exhaustion. It was the cost of her chosen path to meet her people, see their suffering, and shoulder the burden of empathy.
Scott Pelley: Yesterday, we met a man in Bucharest. His family fled the Russian invasion together. The Russians fired onto his vehicle. His leg was severed, the automobile caught fire, and he witnessed the deaths of his wife and children. I find it difficult to convey the gravity of the situation, and I wonder how you convey the sorrow of your people.
Olena Zelenska translates, I feel a part of this community. I believe this to be my suffering. The accounts are terrible, and we attempt to assist the survivors in some way. You just informed me that this man in Bucharest lost a leg. In any case, Sasha lost her arm. She is currently in the United States. [I initiated a program with] the Ukraine House in Washington as well as other American benefactors and hospitals. We discovered a way to provide the girl with an artificial prosthesis. But whenever she looks at her hands, she will be reminded of what she’s lost. Sasha will never forget what she lost during the war.
annihilation in Ukraine
The world has observed Ukraine’s destruction of entire cities. Affected are nearly 500 hospitals and clinics. Schools are decimated, Mrs. Zelenska informed us.
Olena Zelenska (translated): Approximately 150 schools do not exist. About 900 schools have been damaged.
We witnessed what she refers to in Chernihiv, around three hours north of Kiev. The public school number 21 served as a shelter during a Russian bombing. We invited several of those present to join us.
Why would the Russians bomb a school, asks Scott Pelley?
Inna Levchenko, the principal of the school, told us, “I believed it to be a secure location for all of us. Even the phrase “Children” was written on the windows.”
Principal Levchenko lost one eye’s vision.
Nataliia Horbach and her two sons were seeking sanctuary.
Nataliia Horbach’s face and ear were damaged, while her head and right arm were slashed by shards. A man assisted me in standing and transported me to a vehicle that brought us to the hospital. When he assisted me in standing up, I inquired about the…
She had difficulty pronouncing the word “children.”
Scott Pelley speaks with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
There were injuries to children, but seven adults were killed. Another explosion struck the residence of Valentyna Vasylchenko.
My grandson’s heart was still beating, as Valentyna Vasylchenko translated. They were providing him with medical care, but a significant amount of time was lost, and he died in the ambulance outside his home. In the rubble, the bodies of my granddaughter, her fiance, my daughter’s husband, and my mother were discovered.
This is Scott Pelley: In Chernihiv, Public School 21 had 850 students. How do you currently educate the children of Ukraine?
Olena Zelenska translates: Approximately 3,500 schools will function exclusively online due to a lack of students and parental reluctance to send their children to school. This year, [Ukraine’s] children began attending school, and the first thing they were taught was where the bomb shelter is, how to get there, and what to do in the event of a missile attack. We shall battle. We will not surrender our children. How can we possibly forgive this? I do not believe we will.
After the Russians broke links with the seized lands, Ukrainians threw messages into the Dnieper River, against the odds that they would reach those beyond the new iron curtain.
Olena Zelenska translates: We sincerely hope that someone received our love notes and that they can hear us. I sincerely hope [our people] will prevail. We shall never abandon our people. Moreover, [there is this notion of ceding territory in some sort of agreement.] Our personnel are present. Never will we betray them.
Scott Pelley: According to your government, this is non-negotiable.
Olena Zelenska (translated): I am averse to expressing political beliefs. This is not my job. Imagine, however, that you have been attacked by bandits. They threaten you by murdering your children. And someone argues it might be preferable to negotiate? Now, [that] is impossible. This is only my viewpoint as a Ukrainian citizen.
In college, Olena Zelenska dated her future husband, and she later worked as a writer for Zelenskyy’s comedy performances. In the sitcom “Servant of the People,” he portrayed a teacher elected president of Ukraine. In 2019, when he stood for office and received 73% of the vote, he converted mockery into power. The Zelenskyys have a nine-year-old boy and an eighteen-year-old daughter.
This is Scott Pelley: Are you stronger than you previously believed?
Olena Zelenska (translated): Everyone has grown in strength. I’m not unique. Through overcoming adversity, you immediately get stronger. So, we are indeed growing stronger, but will it help? I wish so.
This is Scott Pelley: May I show you some images of the United States, Madam First Lady? This is a photograph I took on New York’s Fifth Avenue. This is the city of San Francisco. This residence is located in Florida. This is a bumper sticker from the grocery store where I shop. This photograph was taken on the east side of Manhattan. This baseball game is taking place in Denver, Colorado. And this is also from Florida. What do you say to the people of America?
Olena Zelenska: I can honestly tell that I feel the support. When I was in Washington, I received a brief letter from a man named Hector. He is 14 years old, making him an adolescent. He wrote me a little note of encouragement. Moreover, if Hector is able to view this software, I would like to inform him.
Olena Zelenska (in English): Dear Hector, I recall it because I brought your letter with me to Ukraine. And it was both delightful and quite moving.
It appears to me, Olena Zelenska, that normal people comprehend what evil is and that the attacker is wicked. That it is reasonable to defend one’s nation, one’s children, and one’s home. I am confident that Americans are like that.
Scott Pelley: What’s in store for the future?
Olena Zelenska translates, We’re imagining this. These last months have demonstrated that the human being is the core of everything. This is what differentiates us from the attacker. They do not tally their [dead]. We keep track of every life lost, and we want everyone currently living to feel secure and have opportunities for growth. That is what we fantasize about. This is how we envision our nation in the future.
Kristin Steve and Nicole Young are the producers. Michelle Karim and Matthew Riley, colleagues in broadcasting. Jorge J. Garca has edited this document.