Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska was in Washington last week, where she worked to reawaken awareness about Ukraine’s plight in its ongoing efforts to defend against an unprovoked, brutal Russian attack. She asked Congress for additional defense systems to block Russian missiles and spoke with first lady Jill Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Agency for International Development head Samantha Power, among others.
During her congressional visit, Zelenska displayed highly emotional evidence of the toll Russian airstrikes are taking on her nation, and particularly its children. Her heart-wrenching photo presentation included pictures of a 4-year-old girl killed in an air strike that badly wounded her mother, a girl in a pink headband shot by Russian soldiers, a 3-year-old boy learning how to use a prosthetic limb and one showing three generations of a family — grandmother, mother and baby daughter — killed in an air strike.
The carnage in Ukraine from the punishing attacks by Russian forces is undeniable. But, unfortunately, we have reached the point in the ongoing war where the daily devastation has become just another news story for most Americans. Coverage has slipped from front page headlines to less prominent news stories buried among many others. Perhaps it’s the summer malaise or maybe we have become numb to the violence. And maybe it’s just hard to remain focused upon a war taking place halfway around the world.
Which begs the question whether Zelenska is the right person to help recapture the world’s attention and support for war-weary Ukraine?
Zelenska was a scriptwriter for her husband, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was an actor and comedian before winning the presidency in 2019. They have been married since 2003. During her husband’s rise to political prominence she has kept mostly out of the spotlight, describing herself as “a non-public person.” But the war forced Zelenska into a more prominent role, and she seems to have embraced it.
Zelenska has earned good reviews for her advocacy. She received a standing ovation from Congress for statements such as, “Our family represents the whole world for us, and we do everything to preserve it. We cry when we cannot save it. And we remain completely broken when our world is destroyed by war.”
There is precedent for a first spouse to play an important role in history. Eleanor Roosevelt comes to mind, as she was once called “The First Lady of the World” by President Harry S Truman in recognition of her human rights advocacy and achievements. Eva Peron is another example, as her 1947 “Rainbow Tour” of Europe helped Argentina improve its global relations.
Whether history remembers Zelenska in the same vein remains to be seen. But regardless of how she is portrayed we cannot ignore the fact that her tragic message of continuing death and devastation in Ukraine needs to remain front and center in our international consciousness. Her visit was an urgent summer wake-up call.