Upstairs, the house was quiet when the bombing started. The first ones to make much fuss about it were the animals. The German shepherd stirred and began to pace around. So did the family parrot, a nervous bird named Kesha, who lived at a window near the kitchen downstairs. Around 4.30 am on the morning of February 24, 2022, the disquiet of the pets reached up to the president’s bedroom, where the First Lady, Olena Zelenska, was still asleep. It took a few moments for her to register the low booms coming through the windows. They sounded like fireworks at first. Then her eyes flipped open and, reaching over in the dark, she found that her husband’s side of the bed was empty. The president stood in the adjoining room, preparing to go to work, already dressed in a dark grey suit. When she found him there, the look of confusion on her face made Zelensky utter one word to her in Russian, the language they most often spoke at home. “Nachalos,” he said. It’s started.

She understood what he meant. The news in Ukraine had been warning for months of an impending war. Talk shows had been debating which officials and lawmakers were most likely to flee. One programme offered advice on what to pack in an emergency suitcase before setting out as a refugee. Some of the most severe predictions came from Ukraine’s Western allies, especially the US intelligence services, which had concluded that Russia planned to invade from three directions, and was likely to overrun the capital in a matter of days. The Russian aim, they said, was to seize most of the country and remove Zelensky’s government from power.

To many Ukrainians, these predictions had sounded absurd. The attack, if it came, was not expected to go beyond the border regions in the east. For about eight years, Ukraine and Russia had been fighting a protracted war over two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Few in Kyiv believed the latest escalation would spill too far beyond those regions. Even fewer believed it would ever reach their homes.

Until the final hours, Zelensky did not believe it, either. He did not warn his wife to prepare. Only on the eve of the invasion, the First Lady made a note to pack a suitcase or at least collect the family’s passports and other documents. But she never got around to it. The day had passed too quickly, as it often did, in a rush of routines and errands. She did chores and homework with the kids. They had dinner and watched TV.

The president came home well after midnight, and he said nothing to make his wife believe they were in danger. He felt pretty sure their home would be safe, and it had never been his style to worry her. More often he veiled his concerns behind jokes and smiles, then made excuses when she learned what he was hiding. That night they went to bed without making any wartime plans, and they slept for just a few hours before the bombing started. Now, from the look in his eyes, the First Lady understood that things were far worse than she had imagined.

“Emotionally,” she later said, “he was like the string on a guitar,” his nerves stretched to the point of snapping. But she does not remember any confusion or fear on his face. “He was completely together, focused.” So focused, it seems, that he missed his chance to wake his children and say goodbye to them. He only asked his wife to tell them what had happened, and he promised to call her later with instructions for what to do next.

“We were still processing,” she said. “We never thought something like this could happen, because all the talk about war had just been talk.” The sound of the explosions outside had jolted them into a new reality, and they both needed more than a brief moment at the top of the stairs to adjust to it. “He had nothing else to say,” she later told me of this exchange, one of the last they would have in private for months. “And I didn’t know what to ask.”

Excerpted with permission from The Showman: The Inside Story of the Invasion That Shook the World and Made a Leader of Volodymyr Zelensky, Simon Shuster, HarperCollins.