As the war in Europe escalates, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Friday that he would annex about 20% of Ukraine.

The region, in the east and south, is only partially controlled by Russia due to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. In a belligerent speech, Putin referred to nuclear weapons and accused the West of Satanism. He promised that this territory would be Russian “forever”. President Biden replied that the US will never recognize the annexation and will support the Ukrainian army as long as necessary.

Seven months of war have become catastrophic for Ukrainian families, many of whom turn to Alena Zelenskaya for hope. The first lady of Ukraine was educated as an architect, earned a living as a comedy scriptwriter, but a tragedy happened last February. Overnight, she became the ambassador, the mourner and the healer of a nation fighting for its life.

We met in the capital, Kyiv, in a place where we agreed not to announce the day of our interview. Ukraine forced the Russians to retreat and exposed the horrors of the invasion.

First Lady of Ukraine Alena Zelenska

Scott Pelley: What did the families of Ukraine lose?

Alena Zelenska (translation): Half [our] families are separated [Because] someone is at the front, someone went abroad to save children, someone is under [Russian] occupation People are afraid to leave their own [homes] because of shelling. They are afraid to even try to evacuate. We have thousands of dead. Hundreds of children died.

Scott Pelley: We were just in Chernihiv, we saw that the football stadium was bombed. Library, hospital, school No. 18, school No. 21. What are the Russians trying to achieve?

Alena Zielenska (translation): People are trying to be scared, so that they rush to run, so that the cities and villages are empty, so that these territories can be occupied.

Scott Pelley: Is it war or terrorism?

Alena Zelenska (translation): Of course, terrorism. War is waged by modern means, but from a moral and ethical point of view, [it’s] the Middle Ages.

Alena Zelenskaya is 44 years old, she has been married to her husband, President Uladzimir Zelensky, for 19 years. Their names differ in that in Slavic languages ​​surnames often change according to the family.

President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky and First Lady Elena Zelensky

When we spoke to her husband in early April, he told us that his wife and two children were in hiding. But a few weeks later, he deployed his wife as a weapon. In May, she showed First Lady Jill Biden the war on the homeless in western Ukraine. In July, she came to Washington and became the first, the first lady, to speak in the US Congress.

“I’m asking for a weapon,” she said at the time, “weapons that would not be used for war in a foreign land, but for the defense of one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.”

When we met, we noticed what appeared to be fatigue, which she chose to ignore. It was the price of the path she chose—to meet her people, to know their pain, and to bear the weight of empathy.

Scott Pelley: Yesterday we met a man in Butch. He and his family were escaping from the Russian invasion. The Russians opened fire on his car. His leg was destroyed, his car caught fire, and he watched as his wife and children burned to death. It is difficult for me to express the magnitude of what is happening and I wonder how you express the suffering of your people.

Alena Zelenska (translation): I feel like a part of these people. I feel like it’s my pain. [The] the stories are horrifying and we are trying to somehow help the survivors. You just told me that man in Buchi lost his leg. Well, the girl Sasha lost her arm. Now she is in the United States. [I started a program with] Ukrainian House in Washington and [with] many American philanthropists and American doctors and hospitals. We found an opportunity to put an artificial prosthesis on the girl. But every time she looks at her hands, she sees what she has lost. Sasha will always see what she lost in this war.

Destruction in Ukraine

The world watched as Ukraine lost entire cities. Almost 500 hospitals and clinics were affected. Schools are destroyed, Ms. Zelenska told us.

Alena Zelenska (translation): About 150 schools simply do not exist. About 900 schools were affected.

We saw what she means in Chernihiv, about three hours north of Kyiv. Public School 21 was used as a shelter during the Russian bombing. We asked some of those who were there to join us.

Scott Pelley: Why would the Russians bomb the school?

The principal of the school, Ina Levchenko, told us: “I thought it was a safe place for all of us. We even wrote the word “Children” on the windows.

Director Levchenko lost sight in one eye.

Natalya Gorbach snuggled up with her two boys.

Natalya Gorbach (translation): My face and ear are wounded, my head and right hand are cut by shrapnel. A man came over, helped me up, and led me to the car that took us to the hospital. As he helped me up, I asked him about…

She could not say the word “children”.

Correspondent Scott Pelley talks to survivors of Chernihiv

Injured children, seven adults died. Another bomb hit the house of Valentina Vasilchenko.

Valentina Vasilchenko (translation): My grandson’s heart was still beating. He was given medical attention, but a lot of time was wasted and he died in an ambulance near his home. My granddaughter, her fiancé, my daughter’s husband and my mother were found dead under the rubble.

Scott Pelley: 850 students studied at Chernihiv National School 21. How do you educate the children of Ukraine today?

Alena Zelenska (translation): About 3.5 thousand schools will work only online, because schools cannot accept students and because their parents are afraid to send their children to school. [Ukraine’s] children went to school this year… and the first thing they learned [is] where is the bomb shelter, how to get there and what to do in case of a missile strike. We will fight. We will not give up our children. I don’t know how we can forgive this. I don’t think we will.

After the Russians severed communication with the occupied territories, the Ukrainians dropped messages in the Dnieper – upstream and against the possibility of reaching those behind the new Iron Curtain.

Alena Zelenska (translation): We really hope that someone there received our love letters and that they will hear us. I sincerely hope [our people] will endure. We will never give [up our people]. And by the way [there is this idea of giving up territory in some kind of negotiation.] Ours people there is We will never betray them.

Scott Pelley: In your government’s view, this is non-negotiable.

Alena Zelenska (translation): I really don’t want to express political opinions. This is not my role. But imagine a situation where bandits attacked you. You are threatened, your children are killed. And someone [suggests] maybe it would be better to negotiate? [That] now impossible. This is just my opinion as a citizen of Ukraine.


Alena Zelenska met her future husband in college and became a scriptwriter for Zelensky’s comedy shows. In the sitcom “Servant of the People” he played a teacher who is elected president of Ukraine. He turned parody into power in 2019 when he actually ran and won 73% of the vote. The Zelenskys have an 18-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son.

Scott Pelley: Are you stronger than you thought?

Alena Zelenska (translation): Everyone became stronger. I am not unique. You survive and automatically become stronger as you go through trials. So yes, we are getting stronger, but is it helping us? I hope so.

Scott Pelley: Madam First Lady, may I show you some photos from the United States? This is a photo I took on Fifth Avenue in New York. This is San Francisco. This is a house in the state of Florida. This is a bumper sticker of where I buy groceries. I took this picture on the east side of Manhattan. This is a baseball game in Denver, Colorado. And it’s from Florida, too. What do you say to the American people?

Alena Zelenska (translation): I can say that I really feel supported. When I was in Washington, I was handed a short letter written by a guy named Hector. He is a teenager, he is 14 years old. He wrote me a short letter with words of support. By the way, if it is possible for Hector to see this program, I would like to tell him.

Alena Zelenska (in English): Dear Hector, I remember I took your letter with me to Ukraine. And it was magical and extremely touching.

Alena Zelenska (translation): So it seems to me that normal people understand what evil is and that an attacker is evil. That it is normal to protect one’s country, one’s children, one’s homes. I’m sure Americans are like that themselves.

Scott Pelley: What does the future hold?

Alena Zelenska (translation): We dream about it. During these months, we saw that man is the center of everything. This is how we differ from the aggressor. They do not consider their own [dead]. We count every person who has died and we want everyone who is still alive to feel confident and empowered [to grow]. This is what we dream about. This is how we want to see our country in the future.

Produced by Christine Steve and Nicole Young. Broadcast Associates Michelle Karim and Matthew Riley. Edited by Jorge H. Garcia.