The following is a transcript of an interview with Olena Zelenska, the first lady of Ukraine, that aired Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, on “Face the Nation.”
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s a warrant out for Vladimir Putin’s arrest because of this program.
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: Well, this was a very powerful political statement. And we very much hope that one day this statement will be fully implemented.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I do want to ask you- you were a comedy writer before the war.
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: Former, former.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: 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?
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: 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.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Whatever decision. Madam First Lady- thank you, Madam Zelenska, for your time.
FIRST LADY ZELENSKA: Thank you. Thank you for your time.