It’s fair to say Olena Zelenska’s Vogue cover has created some controversy. The moody images included in “Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady” — a digitally released collection — provoked a mixed reaction online after their release.
In one of the pictures, Zelenska holds the collar of her navy blue trench coat against a background of war-torn machinery bearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The cargo plane pictured — the world’s largest — was damaged in its hangar during Russian shelling in February. Three Ukrainian soldiers are also captured in the frame.
Another shot shows Zelenska sitting on the steps of stairs at the Marrinskyi Palace, with dozens of sandbags behind her. The juxtaposition of her glamorous pose and the imagery of war is jarring.
Zelenska has been outspoken about never wanting to become a traditional “first lady”. Like her former comedian husband, she pursued a career in the arts. She met now-President Volodymyr Zelensky in high school and went on to become a screenwriter before her husband won the presidency in 2019. “I respected his choice and I understood that this was an important step for him to make. At the same time I felt that my life and the life of my family would change quite radically. The change would be long-lasting and quite complex,” Zelenska told Vogue.
Her children have not seen their father in months. Her son, once interested in a career in entertainment like his parents, now wants to be a soldier, she told NBC on Wednesday. And Zelenska’s every move is in the spotlight.
After the digital photoshoot was published by Vogue, Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert tweeted an image of Ukraine’s presidential couple with a scathing message: “While we send Ukraine $60 billion in aid Zelensky is doing photoshoots for Vogue Magazine. These people think we are nothing but a bunch of suckers.”
The sentiment was echoed by conservative activist Scott Presler, who questioned why Zelenska had time for a photoshoot when her country is still at war.
Since he asked, let’s be truthful about the answer. When the war began, the west — and, most vocally, the US — promised Ukrainians unwavering support. But in the past few weeks, the country has fallen off the news and social media agenda. Celebrities are less vocal. Powerful companies are no longer pledging the money and support they once did. After pleading with Biden to to do more for Ukraine in March, several US Senators voted against a $40 billion humanitarian package for the besieged country. The bill eventually passed, but the lack of unanimous decision was seen as a symptom of waning support.
Lawmakers who once hailed Ukrainian leaders and citizens as heroes now decry Biden’s “excessive” spending in the war-torn country, citing America’s own (comparably small) woes at the gas pump. Biden was forced to defend his support for the country most recently in an interview with the Associated Press.
Zelensky — a former TV star who capitalized on his own celebrity to enter politics and run successfully for president — knows the power of a well-timed media hit. So does his wife. In fact, keeping their country in the international media spotlight is vital to their war efforts. Only Russia benefits when Ukraine slips from our minds.
In reacting to Olena Zelenska’s images in Vogue, we should, too, consider why we expect people in war zones to look and behave a certain way. Life on the ground in Ukraine is hard, undoubtedly, but there is nuance in the suffering. People who live in conflict can still enjoy fashion, tell jokes, pose for photographs and talk about superficial subjects. It is possible to lead as a wartime president and first lady and to also spend an inordinate amount of time working on diplomacy and policy, and worrying about one’s personal safety.
One moment of glamor captured on camera doesn’t invalidate a months-long war — and saying so only benefits Putin.