Until recently, there were few mentions of Olena Zelenska, Ukraine's president-elect's wife, in the press. But this started changing when comedian and businessman Volodymyr Zelenskiy's election success became apparent.
Stories about suspicious property ownership in Crimea, her job as a scriptwriter for Zelenskiy's Kvartal 95 comedy empire – all of this has emerged from the media coverage that the new first lady received so far. Hromadske has gathered everything we know about Olena Zelenska.
It Started With a... VHS
Like her husband Volodymyr, Olena Zelenska (née Kyiashko) is 41 years old . With less than two weeks’ age difference, they were in the same school year in their native central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih. But it wasn't exactly love at first sight, Zelenskiy said in a 2014 interview to Ukrainian newspaper Komsomolska Pravda, with Volodymyr only noticing Olena during graduation.
“It was only on our last day of school that it hit me,” he said.
They then parted ways by enrolling in different universities and, a couple of months later, he bumped into Olena on the streets. Noticing that Olena held a Basic Instinct VHS tape, Volodymyr asked to watch it, “despite having watched [the film] eight times before.” He also asked for her phone number.
"As in, how will I return [the tape] otherwise," Zelenskiy recalled.
They then started seeing each other and, eight years later, married. Today, Olena and Volodymyr have two children: 14 year-old Oleksandra and 6-year-old Kyrylo.
In a March 6 interview to Ukrainian website Iod.media, Zelenska said that Kyrylo is not very interested in his dad’s new career (“he’s more concerned whether he will be able to play with him today”). But Oleksandra, on the contrary, actively expresses her discontent.
“She doesn’t want her father to become like those political elite representatives that she sees on TV,” Zelenska explained.
Zelenska is a veteran of her husband’s Kvartal 95 production company that mainly produces comedy shows and films. Volodymyr and her started writing comedy during their last years at universities, she told the BBC Ukraine in an interview published on April 22.
Olena Zelenska (L) and her husband, Ukraine's President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy went to the same school in their native Kryvyi Rih. Photo credit: Kvartal 95 press service
“I filed my dissertation and we left for a gig. Since then, we have been doing comedy,” she said.
She soon stopped performing on stage in the Kvartal 95 shows, opting to stay behind the scenes and write scripts instead. Zelenska assures that other than his forthcoming presidency, Volodymyr has little in common with his TV-persona, fictional Ukrainian President Vasyl Holoborodko in the Servant of the People series.
“Zelenskiy is definitely not Holoborodko! Volodymyr is much more street-smart… Of course, there are shared qualities: honesty, ethics. And sometimes unjustified love for people,” she told Iod.media. “But that’s only my opinion!”
In the BBC interview, Zelenska admits that politics intimidates her – she previously mentioned that she was strongly against her husband’s decision to run for presidency. She is also worried about her role as the first lady and the responsibilities that it may pertain, such as doing charity work.
"I would really like to retain my [current] job," Zelenska said. "Honestly, I want to stay away [from politics]. But we'll see what happens... Maybe there are [first-lady] responsibilities that can't be delegated."
Despite her husband's longstanding celebrity status, Zelenska has managed to keep a relatively low profile so far, with very few interviews and public appearances.
Recently Zelenska gave an interview to the Daily Beast where she reassured that Zelenskiy “is never going to be anybody’s puppet,” a comment on her husband’s much-discussed ties with Ukraine’s fugitive oligarch and former PrivatBank owner Ihor Kolomoisky.
Kolomoisky and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko are known to have a ferocious rivalry, which triumphed in the nationalization of Kolomoisky's main asset PrivatBank in 2016 and the oligarch's escape to Europe and later Israel. Kolomoisky is accused of executing a multi billion-dollar bank fraud scheme during his PrivatBank ownership period, a crime that he denies.
To back her point about Zelenskiy’s and Kolomoisky’s strictly business relations (Zelenskiy’s Kvartal 95 shows are aired on Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel), the first lady-elect recalled the time Kolomoisky allegedly tried to censor one of Zelenskiy’s shows.
“Volodymyr called him on the phone and yelled so loudly that I thought we would never air our shows on TV again,” Zelenska told the Daily Beast.
“That was the turning point when we defended our independence,” she added.
Olena Zelenska (L) and her husband Volodymyr vote in the second round of Ukraine's 2019 presidential election, which Volodymyr went on to win by a landslide. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/ZOYA SHU
Another recent media story claimed that Zelenska bought a luxurious apartment in Crimea for "less than half market price" in April 2013, almost a year before the peninsula was occupied and illegally annexed by Russia. The Reuters story states that Zelenska bought the property from Donetsk-born MP and business tycoon Oleksandr Buryak, a former owner of Brokbiznesbank entity that is now under criminal investigation. There have so far been no explanations as to how Zelenska managed to acquire the high-end property (that, according to Ukrainian property register, she still owns) for a low price. According to Reuters, Buryak also volunteered for Zelenskiy's presidential campaign by monitoring the violations at a polling station in Kryvyi Rih.
Neither Olena Zelenska, nor her husband Volodymyr has reacted to the story.
/By Maria Romanenko