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Tinned food with stale bread and forbidden moments: Journalist delves into Zelenskyy's bunker life at war's onset

Tinned food with stale bread and forbidden moments: Journalist delves into Zelenskyy's bunker life at war's onset The life of Zelenskyy in the bunker during the first days of the war (Collage RBC-Ukraine)
Author: Daria Shekina

The first months of the full-scale invasion were difficult and challenging for every Ukrainian, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was no exception. There's much we don't know about that period, but journalist and writer Simon Shuster, who spent almost a year with the President of Ukraine and wrote a book about him, has insights.

RBC-Ukraine recounts how life in the bunker during the first weeks of the war unfolded, referencing an excerpt from Simon Shuster's book published in The Telegraph.

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Around noon on February 24th, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's security received a warning of an airstrike, and Zelenskyy headed to the bunker - a Cold War-era facility resembling a giant subway tunnel repurposed as an office building.

"Zelenskyy remembers giving himself a pep talk. 'They’re watching,' he told himself. 'You’re a symbol. You need to act the way a head of state must act,'" the article reads.

The nights were the toughest for Zelenskyy. His bed was barely wide enough to turn in. The buzzing of his phone rarely ceased. "In those first days, I would wake everyone up," he said. "I didn’t have the right to sleep until I knew what strikes had landed where". Then, at 4:50 in the morning, Zelenskyy would ask for updated information.

At this early stage, no one gave in to despair. But eventually, they all broke down. The food was particularly dismal. Sweets were handed out during meetings, and the communal kitchen offered tinned meats with stale bread. One staffer told me they survived on chocolate for days.

Constant confinement in the bunker made Zelenskyy's face turn yellowish. He complained about the lack of sunlight and fresh air.

Some of his aides grew worried. His assistant recalled that he looked like a walking corpse. "'A living person cannot look like that,' she said. One morning the President mumbled good morning. 'I couldn’t even answer. I’ve never seen a human in that condition.'"

Stock of alcohol was kept and ping-pong was set up

Later, life in the bunker became more organized. The first video conference was pushed to 7 a.m., giving him enough time for a consistent breakfast of eggs. The staff was provided with hot meals; hot dogs, potato dumplings, goulaand sh.

Zelenskyy and his team kept a supply of alcohol even after the government banned its sale, and occasionally, he poured wine for aides who joined him for meals.

There were also dumbbells and bench presses that Zelenskyy developed a habit of using, often at night. Later, they set up a ping-pong table. Few could beat him at it.

Tinned food with stale bread and forbidden moments: Journalist delves into Zelenskyy's bunker life at war's onsetPhoto: Maksym Dondiuk

From time to time, he would invite employees to watch a movie, often a new Hollywood release. Zelenskyy could no longer stomach Soviet comedies. "They revolt me," he said. Instead of the joy and nostalgia they once evoked, he now felt emptiness.

Meanwhile, Zelenskyy's wife and two children continued to hide. Olena missed her husband but wanted to shield the children from the war, especially when she noticed their son Kyrylo's contemplative fascination. He was no longer interested in dancing or playing the piano; he wanted to engage in shooting and martial arts.

During phone calls, he began giving his father military advice, suggesting armament systems Ukraine should acquire. "He's studying it all... He talks to the bodyguards," Zelenskyy told me with evident pride. But Olena wanted the boy to return to his childhood.

Earlier, we wrote about the 30 best looks of Olena Zelenska in 2023.

We also shared what combat medics think about Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi.