How Much Zelenskyy's Kids Really Know About The War In Ukraine

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the message was clear as far as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was concerned. "According to the information we have, the enemy has marked me as target No. 1, my family as target No. 2," Zelenskyy told Ukrainians in an early morning address [via ABC News], adding, "They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state."

When rumors rapidly began to swirl that Zelenskyy and his family fled the country for safer territory, the 44-year-old actor-turned-politician was soon seen on the streets of Kyiv in battle gear. To show the world that he had no intention of backing down from Russian aggression, Zelenskyy posted photos and video of him and his top advisers in front of Bankova, the Ukrainian equivalent to the White House. "We are all here. Defending our independence. Our country. And so it will continue," he said in one of the videos, per Vanity Fair.

Even when the U.S. government offered to evacuate Zalenskyy, he responded by saying, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," the AP reported. That display of Zelenskyy's resolve earned him the admiration of the international community while communicating to Russia that the first target was not standing down. The second target — Zalenskyy's family — was more complicated.

The Zelenskyys met at an early age

Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Olena Kiyashko while they attended the same high school in Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in central Ukraine. After high school, the two studied at the same college and began dating. Volodymyr and Olena dated for eight years before getting married in September 2003, according to The Hill. After their wedding, they moved from Kyrvyi Rih to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to start their family (via Town & Country). In July of the following year, Oleksandra (nicknamed Sasha) was born; Kyrylo was born in January 2013. "I always knew that [Volodymyr] was and would be a reliable support for me. Then he became a wonderful father and support for our family. And now he has shown the same traits [for the country]," Olena told CNN in 2022.

Before the Zelenskyys became preoccupied with how to protect their children from the realities of war, their primary concern was making sure they stayed clear of the spotlight on their famous father. In 2019, Zelenska told Vogue Ukraine that she wanted her children to have choices when it comes to how much publicity they receive. "Let them choose how they want to live. The eldest daughter, Sasha, however, has already acted in films — but I hope she will not go further in this area," Zalenska said. "The youngest, Cyril, still has a chance to have a normal childhood — to play with other children, go for sports, attend music school without attracting unnecessary attention."

The Zelenskyys' children know 'for sure' what is happening

Explaining to children the dynamics of war and deciding whether or not to show images of the atrocities from battle is a nightmare scenario for any parent. How much detail to share, what to omit, what topics are age appropriate, where to place blame — these are all serious considerations in parenting. It's a whole other layer of complexity when you're the president, and you have to explain to your children how your decisions will have an effect on their future. But as far as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is concerned, the whole thing is an open book for his children. "My children know for sure what is happening, and I don't know whether it's good or bad," Zelenskyy told CNN host Fareed Zakaria.

"I have not explained anything to my children. They have said to me, 'Dad, war is raging in Ukraine,'" Zekenskyy told Zakaria. "At our home, we have the same freedom of speech as we have in our country. They know what we are fighting for. They understand all of that." The Ukrainian president said his children must see what is happening so they can be aware of the sacrifices citizens around the country are making. "My children should not be prohibited from seeing any kinds of videos of what Russia has made," he said. "My son has to be aware of it because while my son is alive, that means that some Ukrainian army member is giving up his life."

Olena Zelenska's balancing act with her children

Olena Zelenska said she couldn't have hidden the effects of war from her children even if she tried to. "They see everything, as does every child in Ukraine. Surely, this is not something that children should see — but children are very honest and sincere. You can't hide anything from them," she told Vogue in an interview. Zelenska said the only way to handle such a heavy topic is with the truth. "I have tried to answer their questions. We talk a lot, because to say what hurts, to not remain silent within yourself — this is a proven psychological strategy. It works."

However, she did acknowledge that at the beginning of the invasion, there was a balance between telling them the truth and trying to keep her own emotions in check. "I tried to be confident, smiling, energetic, explaining to them that, yes, it is necessary to go down to the basement, and this is why you cannot turn on the light," she told Vogue. And when the children reasonably asked when they could see their father, she tried optimism ("Soon."), even though she had no idea when they would be reunited. Because President Zelenskyy's office had become a de facto military facility, Olena and the children were forbidden to stay with him as a matter of security for the entire family. They've since been in an undisclosed location within Ukraine and mostly communicate with Zelenskyy by phone, according to The Washington Post.

The Zelenskyys focus on the children of Ukraine

The Zelenskyys have both said they think about their own children each night as they go through the reports of injuries and deaths. President Zelenskyy told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that although he is holding up in battle, he struggles with the data and personal stories of war atrocities. "As of now, my weakest point is losing people, losing children in these huge numbers and this huge amount of casualties," he said. "I go to sleep with this information about children who were killed. We continue to pray." According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, as of June 1, 2002, more than 4,000 Ukrainians have been killed. Nearly 300 of them were children.

For her part, Olena uses her platform to draw attention to the stories of children who have been killed during the invasion. On her Instagram account, with nearly 3 million followers, she regularly shares photos of the innocent children who have been killed, as well as stories about them and their families. "Tell it to Russian mothers," wrote on one post, per Romper. "Let them know what exactly their sons are doing here, in Ukraine. Show these photos to Russian women — your husbands, brothers, compatriots are killing Ukrainian children! Let them know that they are personally responsible for the death of every Ukrainian child because they gave their tacit consent to these crimes."

The optimism of the Zelenskyy children rubs off

For all the death and destruction that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his family have found reason for optimism in their current situation. "[My children] are proud of Ukraine, very proud," Zelenskyy said, according to People. However, he also notes that his children — perhaps naively — see the war less as a tactical matter and more of a moral battle. "They entertain a sincere hope in our victory. Children believe in victory, but they cannot believe in it in terms of a score in some sort of a game like in football — like we have killed 10 people from Russia, and they have killed five people from Ukraine. They simply believe that the good shall prevail."

For his part, President Zelenskyy is surrounded by military brass advising him on each and every move the army makes. But he may also have a bit of that childlike optimism. "No one is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians," he told the European Union (via Axios) in the early days of the invasion. He also added: "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."