Oct 3, 2022
Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska The 60 Minutes Interview Transcript
First Lady Zelenska says the Russians who invaded her country are engaged in terrorism. Read the transcript here.
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Scott Pelley: (00:01)
In a major escalation of the war in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Friday he is annexing about 20% of Ukraine. The region, in the east and in the south, is only partly controlled by Russia because of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. In a belligerent speech, Putin referred to nuclear weapons and accused the West of satanism. He vowed that the territory will be Russian forever. President Biden responded that the U.S. will never recognize the annexation and will support Ukraine’s military as long as it takes. Seven months of war have been catastrophic for Ukrainian families, many of whom turned for hope to Olena Zelenska. The first lady of Ukraine was trained as an architect, made a living as a comedy writer, but awoke last February to a tragedy. Overnight, she became an ambassador, a mourner, and the healer of a nation fighting for its life.
Speaker 2: (01:07)
The story will continue in a moment.
Scott Pelley: (01:13)
We met in the capital, Kyiv, at a location we agreed not to disclose. The day of our interview, Ukraine was forcing a Russian retreat-
Olena Zelenska: (01:23)
I’m ready, yes.
Scott Pelley: (01:24)
… And exposing the horrors of the invasion. What have the families of Ukraine lost? [foreign language 00:01:34]. “Half our families are separated,” she told us, “because someone is at the front, someone went abroad to save their children, someone is under Russian occupation. People are afraid to leave their homes because of shelling, they’re afraid to even try to evacuate. We have thousands of dead, hundreds of children are dead.” We were just in Chernihiv. We saw the soccer stadium had been bombed, the library, a hospital, Public School Number 18, Public School Number 21. What are the Russians trying to do? [foreign language 00:02:17].
Scott Pelley: (02:16)
“They try to frighten people to make them run, to have towns and villages empty, so they can occupy these territories.” Is it warfare or is it terrorism? [foreign language 00:02:30]. “Definitely terrorism. The war is being waged using modern means, but from the moral and ethical point of view, it’s the Middle Ages.” Olena Zelenska is 44 years old, married 19 years to her husband, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Their names differ because in Slavic languages, surnames are often modified by gender.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy: (02:55)
Scott Pelley: (02:56)
When we spoke to her husband in early April-
Volodymyr Zelenskyy: (02:58)
We found way how to work, we don’t have any other way.
Scott Pelley: (03:02)
… He told us his wife and two children were in hiding, but weeks later, he deployed his wife like a weapon. In May, she showed First Lady Jill Biden the war’s homeless in Western Ukraine. In July, she came to Washington and became the first first lady to address the US Congress. [foreign language 00:03:27]. “I’m asking for weapons,” she said then, “weapons that would not be used to wage war on somebody else’s land, but to protect one’s home and the right to wake up alive in that home.” When we met, we noticed what seemed like a weariness she was determined to ignore.
Scott Pelley: (03:48)
It was the price of the path she’d chosen to meet her people, know their pain, and bear the weight of empathy. We met a man in Bucha yesterday. He and his family were fleeing the Russian invasion. The Russians opened fire on his car, his leg was destroyed, the car caught fire, and he watched his wife and children burn to death. I find it hard to express the enormity of what’s happening, and I wonder how you express the suffering of your people.
Olena Zelenska: (04:30)
Yeah. [foreign language 00:04:32].
Scott Pelley: (04:33)
“I feel like a part of these people, I feel as if this is my pain. The stories are terrifying and we try to somehow help the survivors. You just told me this man in Bucha had lost his leg. Well, a girl, Sasha, lost her arm. Now, she’s in the United States. I started a program with the Ukraine House in Washington. And with many American philanthropists and American doctors and hospitals, we found an opportunity to give the girl an artificial prosthesis.”
Speaker 5: (05:11)
Speaker 6: (05:14)
Wow. [foreign language 00:05:17].
Scott Pelley: (05:17)
“But every time she looks at her hands, she will see what she has lost. Sasha will always see what she lost in this war.” The world has watched as Ukraine has lost entire cities. [foreign language 00:05:32]. Nearly 500 hospitals and clinics have been hit, schools are devastated. Mrs. Zelenska told us about a 150 schools simply do not exist, about 900 schools have been damaged. We saw what she means in Chernihiv, about three hours north of Kyiv. Public School 21 was used as a shelter when a Russian bomb struck. We asked some of those who were there to join us. Why would the Russians bomb a school? Ina Lyubchenko, the school principal, told us, [foreign language 00:06:13] “I thought it was a safe place for all of us. We even wrote the word children on the windows.”
Scott Pelley: (06:22)
This is Principal Lyubchenko who lost vision in one eye. Natalia Horbach was sheltering with her two boys. My face and my ear were injured. My head and my right arm were cut with some fragments. A man came over and helped me up and took me to a car that drove us to the hospital. When he helped me stand up, I asked him about the…” She couldn’t quite say the word children. Children were wounded, but seven adults were killed. Another bomb hit Valentina Vasylchenko’s home. [inaudible 00:07:11]. “My grandson’s heart was still beating. They were giving him medical assistance, but a lot of time was lost and he died in the ambulance near the house. My granddaughter, her fiance, my daughter’s husband and my mother were found dead in the rubble.”
Scott Pelley: (07:32)
Public School 21 in Chernihiv had 850 students. How are you educating the children of Ukraine today? [foreign language 00:07:41]. “Around 3,500 schools will operate online only because schools cannot receive 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 the bomb shelter is, how to get there, and what to do in case a missile strikes. We will fight. We will not give our children up. I don’t know how we can forgive this. I don’t think we will.” (singing) After the Russian severed communications with the occupied territories, Ukrainians dropped messages in the Dnieper River with the current and against the chance they would reach those behind the new Iron Curtain. [foreign language 00:08:43].
Scott Pelley: (08:44)
“We really hope that our love letters were received by someone there and that they hear us. I truly hope our people will endure. We will never give up our people. And by the way, there’s this idea of giving up territory and some kind of negotiation. Our people are there. We will never betray them.” That is not negotiable in the view of your government. [foreign language 00:09:16]. “I really don’t want to express political opinions. That’s not my role. But imagine a situation where you’ve been attacked by bandits. They’re threatening you, killing your children. And someone suggests maybe it would be better to negotiate. That is impossible now. This is just my opinion as a citizen of Ukraine.”
Scott Pelley: (09:48)
Olena Zelenska dated her future husband in college. She became a writer on Zelenskyy’s comedy shows. In a sitcom called 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 Zelenskyy’s have an 18 year old daughter and nine year old son. Are you stronger than you thought you were? [inaudible 00:10:22]. “Everyone has become stronger. I’m not unique. You survive, and going through trials, you automatically become stronger. So yes, we’re getting stronger, but will that help us? I hope so.” Madam First Lady, may I show you some photographs from the United States?
Olena Zelenska: (10:46)
Scott Pelley: (10:47)
This is a picture I took on 5th Avenue in New York.
Olena Zelenska: (10:50)
Scott Pelley: (10:53)
This is San Francisco. This is a home in the state of Florida.
Olena Zelenska: (11:04)
Scott Pelley: (11:05)
This is a bumper sticker where I buy my groceries. I took this picture on the East Side of Manhattan. This is a baseball game in Denver, Colorado.
Olena Zelenska: (11:23)
Scott Pelley: (11:24)
And this is from Florida as well. [foreign language 00:11:30]. What do you say to the American people? [foreign language 00:11:34]. “I can say I really feel the support. When I was in Washington, I was handed a short letter written by a guy named Hector. He’s a teenager, 14 years old. He wrote me a short letter with words of support. By the way, if possible, and Hector sees this program, I would like to tell him-
Olena Zelenska: (11:56)
Dear Hector. I remember it. I took your letter with me to Ukraine and it was charming and it was extremely touching. [foreign language 00:12:10].
Scott Pelley: (12:11)
“So, it seems to me that normal people understand what evil is and that the attacker is evil. That it is normal to defend your country, your children, your homes. I’m sure that Americans themselves are like that.”
Olena Zelenska: (12:29)
What does the future hold? [foreign language 00:12:33].
Scott Pelley: (12:34)
“We are dreaming about this. Over these months, we’ve seen the human being is the center of everything. This is what makes us different from the aggressor. They don’t count their dead. We count every person who died, and we want everyone still alive to feel confident and to have opportunities to grow. That’s what we dream about. That’s how we want to see our country in the future.”