Washington — Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, joined her husband in the U.S. last week to highlight the toll that the war in her country has taken on Ukraine’s children and way of life, telling “Face the Nation” that Russian invaders “want to destroy our culture.”
Zelenska sat down with Margaret Brennan in Washington, D.C., at the end of her visit to speak about her humanitarian work in the midst of the devastating war with Russia.
“I’m confident that we have strengthened the strong power of friendship that exists between the United States and Ukraine,” Zelenska said. “And we’re thankful to the United States for helping us to sustain this war effort.”
In Washington, Zelenska spoke to students and faculty at Georgetown University, met with President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, and gave a joint address with her husband, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, at the National Archives.
Earlier in the week, the couple attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York. There, Zelenska addressed alleged war crimes perpetrated by Russia and attempts to preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
She discussed these topics as well as her work to provide mental health care to Ukrainians.
When asked if Ukraine has received enough military aid that it needs from Washington, Zelenska deferred.
“That is a very political question,” she said. “It would be better if you ask it directly to the president.”
However, Zelenska was clear that American aid is necessary to counter Russian attempts to destroy the Ukrainian way of life.
“We hope that all Americans understand what’s going on, and we do not believe that this assistance that we now receive from Americans will stop,” Zelenska said.
“Of course, there are political debates,” she continued. “This is a democracy. But nevertheless, truth has to win because it is clear that truth is on Ukraine’s side.”
One of the facets of the war in Ukraine that Zelenska is focused on is the effort to return Ukrainian children to their homes. A report released by the Conflict Observatory in February found that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children had been taken to camps in Russia and Russia-occupied territories with “the apparent goal of integrating children from Ukraine into the Russian government’s vision of national culture, history, and society.”
The forcible transfer of children is part of the United Nations’ definition of genocide, a crime under international law.
“We’ll knock every door and raise this issue at any political platform possible,” said Zelenska. “This is a true problem because these are kids, sometimes they do not fully understand what’s going on.”
The Ukrainian government estimates that the number of children who have been taken is close to 19,500. Recently, Belarusian state media reported that children have arrived in Belarus from Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.
“That is why when we spoke at the United Nations, we proposed to develop a new system of joint efforts that would make Russia return Ukrainian children to their country,” Zelenska continued. “We are responsible for these children, we cannot play with those children’s destinies. It is not human.”
Zelenska also spoke about the sexual violence perpetrated by Russian soldiers against women and children in occupied territory.
“It’s very difficult to describe in words,” said Zelenska. “This is not an individual case. It means that the leadership of the Russian army allows Russian soldiers to do this. This is something they commit consciously. They try to threaten the population in Ukraine to demonstrate that they are in charge.”
The Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has recorded 231 cases of sexual violence committed by the Russian military. Thirteen children are among the victims. Zelenska noted that the real number of victims may be much higher, due to the stigma of reporting incidents of sexual violence.
“You need to be truly courageous to let others know that you’ve become a victim yourself,” Zelenska said. “And people will only start talking about it when they will see that those who committed those crimes have been taken to justice. And that is why the restoration of justice will be the key element of letting people acknowledge these crimes and start speaking more openly about them.”
Zelenska also spoke about Ukraine’s cultural heritage, and how vital it is to preserve.
“Culture is also the area of the battlefield. We see that the occupiers want to destroy our culture. We see hundreds of libraries which have been burned by the occupiers. Thousands of museums and cultural institutions have been destroyed,” she said. “It is one of the frontlines. It is one of the ways for us to demonstrate who we really are.”
Zelenska’s trip to Washington included a visit to Georgetown University, where she donated a set of books as part of her “Ukrainian Bookshelf” initiative to share Ukrainian literature around the world.
“American specialists, who helped us to document those crimes, say that those museums were targeted intentionally. They were not collateral damage,” Zelenska continued.
In July, Russian missiles severely damaged the Transfiguration Cathedral, a landmark in the historic city of Odesa.
“There were no military objects next to them. So we see that Russians specifically wanted to destroy our cultural sites, because they want to destroy our identity. By destroying our identity, they just want to destroy our nation, and that is why we have to inform about our culture.”
Zelenska is also an advocate for mental health care for Ukrainians, an increasingly pressing issue as the war continues to impact daily life.
“When people ask for psychological support, we need to overcome the problem of stigmatization,” said Zelenska. “People need skills to understand their mental issues better. Unfortunately, Ukrainians do not always feel that they need support in the field of mental health.”
The push to provide mental health care includes a campaign called “How are you?” Ukrainians can find resources to address struggles with mental health on the campaign’s website.
USAID has supported the campaign, as well as other efforts to provide psychiatric help to Ukrainians, including children.
“We have developed a special program protocols of how psychological assistance will be given to children,” Zelenska said.
“In the beginning our psychiatrists relied very much on the experience of our international partners. But later we realized that not all protocols can be applied in Ukraine because we now undergo the war, which Europe and the world has not seen in many years. So we needed to adjust the protocols which had been shared with us.”
Excerpts of the interview:
A report released by the Conflict Observatory in February found that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children had been taken to camps in Russia and Russia-occupied territories with “the apparent goal of integrating children from Ukraine into the Russian government’s vision of national culture, history, and society”?
Unfortunately, only 1/3 of Ukrainian children can now attend school because our schools have to be safe- safe- be located in safe areas. And we need schools with bomb shelters, and my foundation continues fundraising resources to ensure that we have comfortable bomb shelters in all Ukrainian schools. Well, the rest of Ukrainian children, two-thirds, continue going to school online because they live in frontline areas. Many children left Ukraine- they live abroad. When children were leaving Ukraine, sometimes they could only take their documents with them and left everything behind. That is why both children and teachers require laptops, require iPads to continue education, and we receive a lot of support including from our American partners.
You spoke at the United Nations. And you said to a gathering of leaders there, the horrific sexual violence being conducted by the Russian military, including against children, a four-year -old child. What was it like in that room when you shared that?
We say that there are sexual crimes committed by Russian occupiers. And this is a war crime. Leadership of the Russian army allows Russian soldiers to do this. This is something they commit consciously. They try to threaten population in Ukraine to demonstrate that they are in charge. When we address people from many countries, and share these terrible numbers with them, indeed, you see pain in the eyes of those people, you feel horror. But this is not enough. We have to unite our efforts to ensure that those who committed those crimes face justice. Sometimes people are concerned this is a taboo in many cases to say and acknowledge that you’ve been a victim of a sexual crime. You need to be truly courageous to let other- others know that you’ve become a victim yourself. And people will only start talking about it when they will see that those who committed those crimes have been taken to justice.
That’s a powerful statement. “You need to be courageous to admit you’ve been a victim.” You know, your- your husband, President Zelenskyy, said that genocide is underway in Ukraine. He said Russians had elected their own Hitler. These are powerful statements. And I wonder, given the stakes of what you’re talking about, how you think about, in a Capital like this, debate over whether to help continue Ukraine or not?
Well, clearly it is a natural reaction of any individual who lives in a country which became a victim of genocide. You become deeply concerned that some people cannot understand what’s going on. But we hope that all Americans understand what’s going on, and we do not believe that this assistance that we now receive from Americans will stop. Of course, there are political debates. There are discussions, there are different opinions, some people agree, some disagree. This is a democracy. But nevertheless, truth has to win because it is clear that truth is on Ukraine’s side.
Part of genocide is destroying a culture. And you’ve been working to get Ukrainian books out publicly, I saw you at the Metropolitan Museum of Art getting things translated, is that your way of fighting back?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: It is one of the ways for us to demonstrate who we really are. Culture is also the area of the battlefield. We see that the occupiers want to destroy our culture. We see hundreds of libraries which have been burned by the occupiers. Thousands of museums and cultural institutions have been destroyed. By destroying our identity, they just want to destroy our nation, and that is why we have to inform about our culture and this is an important vector of our work.
The President also said, Ukraine knows the names of tens of thousands of children, and has evidence hundreds of thousands of other kids have been kidnapped by Russia. Do those children get to know their culture? What happens to them when Russia takes them? And how do you get them back?
We know about 19,500 children who were officially deported. This is the children who are currently in the occupied territory, and we know that cases have been documented, they have been taken to Russia. We managed to return back approximately 380 children. We have the list of children who are being looked for by their parents. There were a lot of children who started in orphanages and boarding schools, and those boarding schools were taken to Russia as an institution. This is a true problem because these are kids, sometimes they do not fully understand what’s going on. It is easy to manipulate them, manipulate the emotions. Almost all children whom we managed to return to Ukraine told us that in Russia, they were told that no one cares about them in Ukraine, that no one is looking for them. They’ve been preparing them for adoption on the territory of the Russian Federation. So they try to make them leave their roots, so to say, made them forget that they’re Ukrainians. Of course, children who have almost reached their adulthood- they have great understanding of what’s going on, but small children can be much more susceptible to this Russian disinformation. And that is why when we spoke at the United Nations, we proposed to develop a new system of joint efforts that would make Russia return Ukrainian children to their country. We are responsible for these children, we cannot play with those children’s destinies. It is not human.
There’s a warrant out for Vladimir Putin’s arrest because of this program.
Well, this was a very powerful political statement. And we very much hope that one day this statement will be fully implemented.
I do want to ask you- you were a comedy writer before the war?
Former. And now you have this extraordinary life and circumstance, and you’ve sacrificed a lot with your family. Do you get to spend time with your children and your husband together as a family?
I have no complaints. Because when you see what’s happening to people close to you, the problems of our family cannot be compared to those things which are currently faced by other Ukrainian families. Children die, children have been killed. The President lives at work. Sometimes we see each other once a week. Sometimes we see each other several times a week, but my children next to me, and I’m confident that we will overcome. Because we know what is the goal- what is the final goal.
When people in America think of Ukraine, they think of President Zelenskyy and your family. How would you feel about him running again in 2024 if elections are held?
Well, you know, this was a very difficult question for me. You know, even when he ran for the first time, I didn’t fully endorse it. But if he runs again, if he runs for the second time, if he decided it is necessary, well, we have some experience, we’ve been there. It is not as scary as- as it was in the first time. I don’t know whether he has made this decision or not. It will depend on the situation in our country and the situation and the possibility of organizing free and fair elections. It will also depend whether our society would need him as a president, if he will feel that Ukrainian society will no longer wish him to be the president, he will probably not run. But I will support him whatever decision he takes.