Two troopers armed with navy rifles step into the canteen. They survey the individuals lunching on borshch, dumplings and sausage rolls earlier than locking in on me and assessing whether or not I may be a risk to my visitor, the primary woman of Ukraine Olena Zelenska. A fast analysis appears sufficient to persuade them that I pose no hazard. Their approval is sealed with a few fist bumps. 

A second later, Zelenska strolls in with two younger assistants, one armed with a hair brush, the opposite a lint curler. They take away her scarf to disclose the primary woman in a crisp blue pantsuit over a brown sweater.

One of many assistants provides her hair a fast brush to verify it’s neatly coiffed and Zelenska tucks a strand of it behind her ear, revealing a gold hoop earring. I discover that she is trembling. “It’s so chilly outdoors,” she says, providing her hand. I shake it gently and really feel that it’s virtually frozen to the contact. “Winter is coming,” she mutters.

We’re contained in the presidential workplace’s canteen on a Monday afternoon. The place is a fortress, with metallic detectors, sandbags piled in entrance of the home windows, and snipers’ perches. It’s darkish apart from just a few scattered lanterns positioned on the ground. 

I start our dialog with a query that many Ukrainians have come to detest since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of their nation in February, brutalising and killing them and destroying their cities. However I ask it as a result of I’m curious how she’s going to reply.

“How are you?”

“Effectively,” Zelenska sighs in English earlier than switching to Ukrainian to raised specific herself. “On the one hand, it’s a easy query. However then again that is the type of query I don’t precisely know how you can reply. We’re all residing in a interval wherein it’s arduous to evaluate whether or not we’re OK or we’re not.” 

Zelenska and I are assembly three days after Ukrainian forces liberated the south-central provincial capital of Kherson following virtually eight months of Russian occupation. It’s certainly one of Ukraine’s greatest navy triumphs for the reason that invasion started.

“We really feel one thing near euphoria as a result of this can be a nice victory for us,” Zelenska says, including that she spent a lot of the weekend watching movies of Ukrainian troops getting into Kherson and the emotional reunions between households and buddies. 

“However I might say that we must also be very cautious. When the individuals met our troops in Kherson, after all they have been very glad,” she says. “However as for the individuals in Kyiv who I do know, they’re a bit afraid to be too joyful, as a result of we don’t need to put a jinx on this luck we’re having.”

Soviet apparatchiks as soon as strolled this constructing when it housed the central committee of the Communist social gathering of Ukraine. The canteen feels virtually caught in that point. The tables are lined in pressed white tablecloths and the chairs are wrapped with brown covers. Massive drapes cowl the floor-to-ceiling home windows. Portraits of plated salmon, kebabs and boiled potatoes flecked with dill cling on the partitions.

If the president’s insurance policies and digital savvy have remodeled his administration and Ukraine’s authorities right into a Twenty first-century European nation, they haven’t unfold to the eating corridor. In any case, it’s cosy and heat and Zelenska and I’ve the place largely to ourselves.

Olena Zelenska has Lunch with the FT on the presidential workplace’s canteen in Kyiv © Serhii Korovayny

“So, lets get some lunch?” the primary woman asks in barely accented English. Three girls in white hats and striped aprons greet her, and ask what she’d like from the buffet of conventional Ukrainian dishes. She opts for a cabbage salad with corn and parsley doused in sunflower oil and a fish cutlet.

I ask for a similar however with a scoop of mashed potatoes. Zelenska orders black tea and I get a black espresso and a muddy-looking glass of uzvar, my favorite Ukrainian drink, made with dried and smoked fruits and spices. The primary woman begins to carry out her pockets to pay earlier than I cease her and demand on selecting up the tab — 171 Ukrainian hryvnia, or lower than £4.

We don’t comprehend it but however we’re assembly lower than 24 hours earlier than Russia will fireplace 96 missiles at targets throughout Ukraine — the most important aerial assault for the reason that invasion started — quickly knocking out power and water to a lot of the nation.

The Presidential Canteen
Workplace of the President of Ukraine
Bankova St, 11, Kyiv, 01220

Fish cutlet x2
Cabbage salad x2
Mashed potatoes
Black tea with lemon
Black espresso
Complete: 171 Ukrainian hryvnia (£3.81)

“We’re, I might say, extra anxious about our enemy due to his losses, due to his defeats,” says Zelenska. She is speaking about Vladimir Putin with out mentioning his title. It’s one thing Ukrainians have begun doing usually, together with utilizing a lower-case r when writing the title of his nation.

“We all know that he’ll launch one other missile assault towards our cities. So our happiness has limits, as a result of we all know that these victories usually are not the tip of the struggle and we’ve acquired numerous issues to do nonetheless.”

And, she provides: “After every de-occupation of a metropolis, sadly, we discover terrible issues.”

When Putin’s forces fled the cities of Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel and others close to Kyiv in April, bodies of civilians have been discovered within the streets, piled in basements and buried in mass graves. There was proof that many had been tortured and a few raped earlier than being coldly executed.

“We’re afraid to search out these issues once more in Kherson’s case,” she says. Certain sufficient, on the day that we meet, authorities and journalists discover extra disturbing accounts of torture, disappearances and killings.

Zelenska was born within the industrial metropolis of Kryvyi Rih in 1978, rising up within the post-Soviet Nineteen Nineties, a interval marked by gangster capitalism and excessive inflation. Her father taught building at a college, whereas her mom headed an engineering division at an area manufacturing unit. The household spoke Russian at dwelling however, like most Ukrainians, they have been bilingual. 

She and a younger humorous boy named Volodymyr Zelenskyy crossed paths at secondary faculty however didn’t turn into shut till they went to the identical college, the place she studied structure and he dabbled in legislation. With buddies from the neighbourhood the place they grew up, they fashioned a comedy troupe. In 2003, the couple married.

Whereas her husband was the face of their leisure firm, Zelenska most well-liked a behind-the-scenes position, writing skits that the group carried out throughout their fashionable stay reveals, which toured all through the previous Soviet Union. 

I ponder whether she needs she might return to writing jokes, like her outdated buddies on the sketch troupe. “They’re supporting society by serving to to maintain up morale with humour,” she says. “However I wouldn’t be capable of try this now as a result of I’m in a special emotional state now. I don’t know whether or not I can return to feeling like I did earlier than.”

Later she wrote sketches and scenes when the group started making tv programmes, together with the hit political satire Servant of the People, wherein Zelenskyy performs an everyman hero who unintentionally turns into president — and which helped propel him to the real-life position in 2019.

Zelenskyy introduced his candidacy for Ukraine’s high political workplace on New 12 months’s Eve, because the clock struck midnight on December 31 2018, in a extremely coveted tv spot historically reserved for the present president. To name it a coup could be an understatement. What’s extra, he hadn’t advised Zelenska he was planning it.

“What was your first response to your husband’s announcement?” I ask.

“I used to be offended. He might have advised me. Once I heard it, I believe my facial features was the identical because it was within the breakfast remark meme,” she says wryly, referring to a screenshot taken from a joint interview the couple gave to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, which went viral on Ukrainian social media. In response to a query from Amanpour, Zelenskyy lamented that, for the reason that invasion started, no person makes him breakfast any extra. As he grinned, Zelenska flashed him a glare that led to numerous on-line jokes. 

Once I ask about her husband’s remark, Zelenska rolls her eyes. “To start with, he lives within the presidential workplace. So his breakfast is dropped at him by the identical individuals who carry him lunch and dinner,” she says. “However I believe he simply needed to emphasize that he misses this regular aspect of household life, since we used to have breakfast collectively each morning. And truly, he appreciated to prepare dinner breakfast himself.”

“Is he prepare dinner?” I inquire.

“Yeah! He makes excellent fried eggs. And sometimes he made them for me,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that he could be completely profitable making borshch.”

Zelenska tells me she longs for these “regular” days. “We lack normality in every part now,” she says, explaining that their time collectively is at all times fleeting. “Anytime we discuss, we take into consideration how little time we’ve got and when we have to half.”

Zelenska’s life as she knew it modified shortly after 4am on February 24. She awoke to the muffled roar of explosions on the sting of Kyiv and seen her husband was already up and wearing a go well with and tie. When she requested what was occurring, he answered merely: “It’s began.”

I inquire how the president and first woman might appear so unprepared for an invasion that everybody had been saying for weeks was inevitable. “I wouldn’t say that what occurred was sudden, however I might say that we nonetheless felt the shock that it actually occurred,” she says, including that they’d not made any plans for what to do on this case. “We didn’t focus on any of the main points, what I ought to do with the kids, what he ought to do.”

Zelenska shortly packed a bag after which woke the kids, Oleksandra, then 17, and Kyrylo, 9, telling them to do the identical. After hours in a bunker, the three of them reunited with Zelenskyy earlier than being taken to an undisclosed location, the place the household would stay for nearly three months earlier than resurfacing.

When Russian forces have been pushed again from Kyiv, Zelenska returned to her duties and public life. Her first look was a gathering with the US first woman Jill Biden to tour a faculty in western Ukraine. Her days now start in Kyiv at 7am, getting Kyrylo off to high school, “if there are not any air raid sirens”, she says. Then she heads to the gymnasium for a fast exercise earlier than becoming her skilled garments and going to the workplace. Her workday is a deluge of conferences and interviews. “Typically I’m fortunate to get lunch with my husband.”

Earlier than the invasion, Zelenska targeted on advocating for kids with particular wants, reforming faculty meal programmes and campaigning towards home violence. Whereas enthusiastic about these causes, she tells me, she was uncomfortable with the general public facet of her job. 

“I needed to research,” she says. “I needed to seek the advice of with coaches on my talking abilities, as a result of I really feel that there’s a lack of drive in my voice. As an illustration, that I don’t communicate loud sufficient, or communicate with a scarcity of power. As a result of when you’re making a public speech, you must specific power.”

She remembers certainly one of her early public speeches, given to a bunch of scholars at a convention. She was “nervous” and “my voice in some way vanished”, she says. Watching it again later, she didn’t recognise the sound of her personal voice. “It undoubtedly was not mine.”

Sitting right here with me now, after dozens of public appearances and interviews, Zelenska speaks confidently, hardly ever breaking eye contact, however nonetheless softly and thoroughly, acutely aware of the load of her phrases. She has remodeled herself into a primary woman, however from what I’ve been advised by her buddies and folks contained in the presidential workplace, together with her husband, that is nonetheless Olena — skilled, considerate, calm, modest.

Along with her husband largely confined to his presidential suite, she has flown internationally on his and the Ukrainian individuals’s behalf to drum up help. She visited the UK for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, who she mentioned had “shared the values Ukraine stands for at present”.

In Washington, she turned the primary partner of a international chief to deal with a joint session of Congress. Her speech was private, emotional and affecting. She shared horrific tales of Russian struggle crimes towards Ukrainian civilians, together with kids, and confirmed lawmakers gut-wrenching pictures of the aftermath of Russian missile assaults. And he or she pleaded for weapons. 

Asking for missiles felt unusual, she admits. “I do perceive that it goes past the usual and formal understanding and notion of the operate of the primary woman,” she tells me. “However we all know on this state of affairs we have to use each alternative to be heard.”

At dwelling, Zelenska is main efforts to deal with the impression that Russia’s struggle is having on Ukrainians’ psychological well being, a difficulty the World Well being Group has described as being “on a scale unprecedented in Europe for the reason that finish of World Struggle II”.

By means of her eponymous basis, and in partnership with Ukrainian NGOs and the WHO, Zelenska is educating first responders, navy medics, pharmacists, lecturers and social employees to moonlight as counsellors, working to interrupt a stigma that has existed in Ukrainian society for generations. 

“I wish to create a system that may assist individuals with their psychological well being, initially to make psychological healthcare accessible, and secondly, understandable,” she says.

She can also be working to restore and rebuild a number of the roughly 300 faculties that have been destroyed and about 2,500 that have been broken by Russian missiles and artillery, whereas additionally scrambling to safe particular tools for medical services, resembling incubators for untimely infants. “We desperately want these,” she provides.

We’ve spent extra than an hour speaking earlier than we realise that we haven’t even lower into our meals. “Lets eat?” Zelenska smiles. “I’m hungry.” Her assistant provides to see about having her cutlet reheated. However the first woman shrugs it off. “It nonetheless tastes nice.”

She’s comfy now, and switches from Ukrainian again to English. We discuss extra about meals and our mutual dislike of holodets, a jiggly meat jello historically served at Christmas and New 12 months. 

I thank her for her time and she or he thanks me for mine. Her troops converge, wrapping her again up in her scarf and standing guard beside her. Earlier than she leaves, she asks that I be certain individuals learn this interview, including that she’s involved that many are affected by “Ukraine fatigue”.

“We wouldn’t like for individuals to get used to what’s taking place in Ukraine,” she says. “Sadly, we are able to’t flip off the information and have this drawback disappear. Struggle is our life now.”

Christopher Miller is the FT’s Ukraine correspondent

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