“That’s the most I’ve laughed in five months!” chuckled war-ravaged Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The cause of his amusement was my entreaty that he finally publicly apologize to his wife, first lady Olena Zelenska, for not telling her he was going to run for president.
Instead, incredibly, she found out by watching the then-comedian announce it live on a New Year’s Eve variety show he was hosting back in 2018. “He forgot,” she explained, diplomatically, about what has turned out to be a spectacularly important, life-changing decision of historic proportions.
“You FORGOT TO TELL YOUR WIFE YOU WERE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT!?” I exclaimed incredulously, as Zelensky smirked sheepishly. “What were you thinking?”
“This was a very difficult decision for our family,” he said. “I knew it would hit them, that it would be a tough call, it’s not a joke. These are serious
matters. My family wasn’t prepared to let me go…”
“He understood that probably I wouldn’t have been fond of this idea,” Zelenska interrupted, “and that it would take very difficult negotiations with
me. That is why probably each day he was thinking that, THIS is the day, that THIS is the moment, I should tell her. But he kept postponing it. And then it was on TV, I saw his New Year’s address and found out he was actually running!”
It was time for him to atone for his marital failing.
“Mr. President, this is your opportunity to apologize to your wife…,” I suggested.
So he did.
“OK. I’m sorry!” he said directly to Zelenska, and they both laughed loudly.
It was a very rare moment of levity for a couple who’ve been widely praised for sustaining the morale of Ukraine’s devastated people in their darkest hour.
They were sitting opposite me in a grand old government building, for their first-ever international television interview together.
And they couldn’t hide their excitement at seeing each other after a sustained period when a few snatched moments are all they’ve had, holding hands like the teenage high school sweethearts they were when they first met 26 years ago.
“Is this like a TV date?” I joked to Zelenska.
“Yes!” she replied. “Thank you for this TV date! Volodymyr has been living at his workplace. I am with the children, but we are in another place. But all of the Ukrainian people are in this situation — too many are separated, and all of us are waiting for and waiting for normal life — to be reunited again and just to lead normal lives like ordinary people live.”
Zelensky agreed: “This interview is one of the good opportunities for us to see each other. This is very important for us. As you know, we are all human beings, and we have to be strong. Sometimes we want to have someone close to be next to us and that is what you miss in these moments. Yes, I miss my children, I miss my wife. It is impossible to get used to it. Everything else you can get used to.”
A crisis of this magnitude, with all the myriad strains it brings, could break any relationship, but not the Zelenskys’.
“I agree with the theory that marriage gets stronger with challenges,” said Zelenska. “I think in our case it will be the same. We have become more interested in each other. That is why I hope this challenge can make us more united.”
Then she turned to her husband and asked: “What do you think about it?”
“My answer wouldn’t be different,” Zelensky replied.
Zelenska shook her head. “You should have your own opinion about it!”
He smiled. “When you are talking, your opinion has priority. What I would say is I don’t have any other experience. I’ve got only one wife and I am happy. I have one wife, one love and one family. I never got any feeling there was anything wrong with us in or in our relationship. Or maybe do you feel unhappy with me sometimes?”
“Not with you,” she replied, “but without you, I am very unhappy.”
“That is why I can’t notice any big changes,” he said. “The war is making our relationship stronger, that’s for sure.”
“We are managing?” suggested Zelenska.
“Yes, but managing is not the right word. We are in love with each other. OK?”
“OK,” she smiled.
Zelenska is a radiantly beautiful woman, which prompted me to ask her husband if he felt he was “punching above your weight?”
Zelensky looked bemused, until the meaning of the English phrase was clarified to him by an aide, and he replied: “I think I’m very lucky with my wife and family, and my children.”
He then confirmed a story I’d heard that he and two of his friends all proposed marriage to their girlfriends, including Olena, at the same time, and got married on three consecutive weekends.
“True!” he smiled.
Zelenska laughed as she recalled the unusual mass wedding agreement. “I remember three of you (guys) saying, ‘Let’s do it,’ and everything will be OK — and we agreed.”
I’d come to Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv, five days before at the invitation of Zelenska to co-host her Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen, which featured moving speeches of solidarity by many of the world’s most powerful and famous people, from America’s first lady Jill Biden to David Beckham and Richard Gere.
It’s not a trip many people are making right now.
In fact, millions of terrified Ukrainians have been fleeing their country to escape Vladimir Putin’s missiles and murderous thugs since the illegal Russian invasion five months ago.
Nor is it an easy trip.
My journey involved a three-hour flight from London to a town in Poland, then a 90-minute drive to a railway station near the Polish border, where I caught the special overnight presidential train that all world leaders like Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have been forced to use since civilian air travel over the country was banned, arriving in Kyiv 11 hours later.
It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.
I felt quite relaxed on the train until a stewardess suddenly appeared to urgently press down my cabin window black-out blinds. “We don’t want the Russians to see any lights,” she said matter-of-factly.
She had good reason to be fearful: Numerous trains have been attacked in this war and dozens of her rail network colleagues have been killed.
The center of Kyiv felt relatively normal with shops and cafes open, and locals milling around the streets, albeit amid a considerable military presence, but then I heard the air raid sirens that go off several times a day and it was an unnerving reality check that Ukraine remains a war zone and nobody is safe from Russia’s long-range cruise missiles. Before I interviewed the Zelenskys, I spent some time with other people with deep connections to this war, including the Klitschko brothers, both former world heavyweight boxing champions, now fighting for their country’s very existence, Wladimir on the front line, and Vitali as mayor of Kyiv.
The stories were horrifying, and heart-breaking, and represent just a tiny fraction of the misery so many Ukrainians have been enduring.
But their resolve is strong, their resilience extraordinary, and in their leader President Zelensky, they have a modern-day Churchill rallying them to defy the modern-day Nazis.
The comparison is appropriate as both men were pint-sized powerhouses, around 5-foot-7, and possessed of a fierce intelligence and sharp wit, dogged determination, resolute refusal to give up, and the ability to inspire whole nations with extraordinarily eloquent rhetoric.
As I walked with Zelensky outside before the interview began, I told him why I thought he was Churchillian.
“My grandmother was 19 when World War 2 started,” I said, “and often spoke of how the family used to sit around the radio, listening to Winston’s rally-cry speeches and it genuinely inspired them to believe they would beat Hitler against all the odds. You have been doing the same for Ukrainian people through television and social media.”
“Thank you,” he said, “but I would not compare myself to Churchill.”
Zelensky is the No. 1 target for the Russians and his family No. 2, and there have been regular plots on his highly prized life as merciless Putin tries to silence the man leading the resistance against him.
“It’s an unpleasant feeling,” admitted Olena. “I don’t want to think that they want to do this to our family. I’m trying to push these kinds of thoughts away. You can see what they did to civilians and what they are doing now, in any part of our country. I don’t understand what they’ve got in mind, and possibly we are in danger. I don’t want to allow these kinds of thoughts to go deep into my mind because I could feel scared, and this is not what we need right now.”
But the fear is real. Just getting to see the Zelenskys involves many layers of security including multiple sandbagged checkpoints, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, scores of heavily armed soldiers patrolling everywhere, snipers on the roofs, and his own elite personal protection team who spent an hour with my production team working out exactly where they could sit, so they wouldn’t be seen on camera but would be close enough if anything untoward happened. Nothing is left to chance to keep the main man alive.
After they told me some heart-stopping revelations about the night Russia invaded, and the frantic deadly days that followed, I asked the Zelenskys for their opinion of Putin.
“It seems to me the scariest thing about it is that he is in fact sane, and he understands what he’s doing,” the President replied. “I’d say that’s the scariest conclusion I can make — that he understands what he’s doing, he knows how many people he kills. He knows how many people were raped, and by who, and the number of children killed or deported. Therefore, I only understand one thing: the world allowed this situation to develop, it allowed such a person to emerge, with that ideology and attitude towards people. The world should understand that this result – this mistake, to allow this situation — is the responsibility of the whole world.”
The First Lady couldn’t even bring herself to describe her contempt for the Russian dictator.
“It’s difficult to put it into words,” she said, her face etched with cold fury. “It’s not possible to understand how one crooked idea can throw the whole of mankind into the mediaeval ages. I really don’t have words, and I really don’t want to say anything aloud because normal words don’t exist to describe this.”
I told the President that everywhere I’d been in Ukraine, the people react with horror at the thought of him doing any deal with Russia that cedes an inch of territory.
“They hate and it is understandable,” he replied. “When so many families have lost for example their neighbors, their children. Can Russia give a child back? There are no emotions, only one emotion, hate.”
Then he added: “We are not prepared to exchange or trade the territory of the independent state of Ukraine.”
Olena said she understood the hate.
“Any civilized person during this war would have terrible feelings, fear and hate towards the enemy. If you try to explain what kind of feelings the ordinary person has during the current war, I would tell them when they take their child to bed try to imagine what is going to happen at night if they heard the sirens, and explosions next to the building where they live. What would they grab from their children’s bedroom and where would they run to if they recognize there is already a large queue of cars trying to leave the city. Are they going to take their pets with them? And imagine if you stayed there, and you are under occupation.
“Imagine the road you usually take your child to school with tanks on it. The grave of your close relative in your back garden because you can’t have a normal funeral to remember them. And imagine you have to search for water and your only source is a dirty puddle like it was in Mariupol. The medical service is not available. Just imagine you are in your home, and in two hours’ time, you are forced to deal with these kinds of problems just to survive and you don’t understand why this is happening.”
It was the most powerful illustration of the reality of war among civilian population that I’ve heard.
As their 18-year-old daughter Oleksandra prepares for university, their 9-year-old son Kyrylo now wants to be a soldier.
“As a father, I would be proud if my son became a soldier, I can provide the support for him. I know he is wearing military style clothing. He’s got quite a lot of weapons, not the kind of weapons we’ve got from our partners. He’s ready to protect his mother and our family.”
As for whether he really believes he can win this war against a far larger military force, Zelensky was unflinching in his certainty he would defeat Putin.
“Yes, I don’t only believe it, I know it will happen. We will win, we already showed the whole world that he can kill us but to conquer our people is impossible. He can occupy these towns and villages, but all of them would be destroyed. Because without ruining them they will not be able to take those places.”
The First Lady had just returned from a trip to Washington, DC, to plea for Congress to provide Ukraine with more tools to fight the war.
And the Ukrainian leader wants that to change.
“Would like you like President Biden to come?” I asked.
“Very much!” he said in English.
Then reverting to Ukrainian, he said: “I believe this would be a great signal, a big signal. Everyone sees Ukraine’s attitude towards the US. This would be the highest support. And we had huge support from the First Lady. She met with Olena, and it was the correct visit. Very, I would say, unexpected. I would say we were waiting for it a lot, but we didn’t expect it to happen. These are very important things.
“Then the trip, Olena will not say it for herself, I can say it — that was a very important moment, she did a great job. And her efforts really worked. There are quick decisions from the Congress and the White House that emerged after her speech and her visit. And these are very important things. And of course, the visit of President Biden to Ukraine would be the strongest signal which can be given in support of Ukraine.”
“Have you invited him?”
“Are you hopeful he will come?”
“I don’t know, that is his choice. I mean, not even his choice, it’s his security, it’s their choice. I think if he has a chance he will come.”
“Is there more America could be doing right now?” I asked.
“As the President of a country that is in a war, I can tell you that the help would not be sufficient until the war is over, and until we win. A few times I’ve spoken with President Biden and I told him about our people and about our country, I said ‘forgive me if I’m quite firm in my position’ — maybe some things are not very diplomatic, but he gave me quite a dignified response, that he understands and he would do the same in my place.”
When I said there were a growing number of Americans who don’t think the country should be spending so much money on a war in Europe when there are so many problems domestically, he responded passionately:
“We are fighting for absolutely communal values. The war in Ukraine is still the war against those values that are professed in the United States and in Europe. Russian rockets can fly over a few thousand kilometers. And tomorrow they will have rockets that can cover tens of thousands of kilometers. What difference does it make? They kill civilians who do not agree with the politics of the President of Russia. So, this war here and now in Ukraine, and forgive me that I’m saying it so cynically, is for the safety of Europe.
“As long as we are resisting it, the integrity of the United States will continue, therefore we are giving our lives for your values and the joint security of the world. Therefore, inflation is nothing, COVID is nothing. Ask those people who lost their children, their peace, their property at the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Who is thinking about masks and COVID? Who is thinking about inflation? These things are secondary. The most important thing is to survive and preserve your life, your family, and your country. Therefore, at the moment we are doing this job but the West has to help us.”
Throughout the interview, the Zelenskys turned down the use of a real-time translator device to understand what I was saying, indicating they both have a good grasp of English.
But my Ukrainian is severely limited, to just two words in fact, but they were all I needed.
“Mr. President, First Lady, I salute you, we’re all behind you. We need you to win this war, keep fighting. SLAVA UKRAINI!”
“Glory to the heroes!” replied Zelensky. “Thank you.”
I don’t know if Ukraine can win this war against such seemingly difficult odds, but I do know the Zelenskys believe they will, and this remarkable couple’s fierce certainty fills me with the same hope they’ve instilled in their people.