Maverick Life

LIFE DURING WARTIME

For the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire Ukraine, there’s no glossing over the brutal reality of war

For the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire Ukraine, there’s no glossing over the brutal reality of war
Iryna Tatarenko speaking via Google Meet, Western Ukraine, 14 March 2022.

Iryna Tatarenko is the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire Ukraine. Before Russia’s invasion of her country on 24 February, she was working with her team in Kyiv, creating and crafting content for the pages of the women’s magazine. Now, everything has changed. Her country is at war.

The interview with Iryna Tatarenko was translated by Dzvinka Kachur.

“For a long time, I did not believe that there will be a war. I kept my parents calm. I would tell them that it’s not possible that a war would start in the 21st century.”

A few weeks ago, Iryna Tatarenko was living in Kyiv, the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, the international women’s magazine, which launched its Ukrainian edition in 2008 and which she joined in 2020.

On the day of Russia’s invasion, Tatarenko was in Kyiv, but she didn’t hear when the first bombings and explosions shook her city. The next morning, she says, people started phoning her, their voices rattled by the recent news.

“I woke up, I received so many messages from my mom, from my dad, from my sister, from so many of my friends around the world, from Czech Republic, from other places, really from around the world. And I was very happy to receive all those messages and to see that everybody’s doing fine, but only then when I started reading them, I realised why everybody is trying to contact me.”

Still, an invasion seemed like a blurry, surreal event.

“When my dad phoned, he told me that the war had started and he told me, ‘Go to the pharmacy and go get some cash. Do you have any cash?’ ”

Tatarenko didn’t have any cash because, she explains, she’s used to paying for everything by card. She went outside to the pharmacy and tried to withdraw cash, but she arrived too late, as people had been queuing since early in the morning, also hoping to draw money – because in times of war, cash is king.

Later, when she arrived back home, she switched on her favourite radio station and listened to the host as he explained: “Just be prepared that you might experience some [problems] with sound because of the war.” That’s when it hit her.

“I [realised] that everything is real and I started to look for the closest bomb shelter.”

Tatarenko went from shelter to shelter until she found refuge at a friend’s place, where, she says, she felt “safer”. But a few hours later, at around 4pm, the Ukrainian air defence system caught one of the Russian missiles and the “remaining missiles fell on the top of the neighbouring building”.

“That’s [when] I realised that the war is too close. And after going to the bomb shelter five times in one day and hearing explosions, even if they were on the outskirts of Kyiv… it felt like the war is way too close.”

Iryna Tatarenko, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire Ukraine, in the days before the war (supplied)

For the first two days after the start of the invasion, Tatarenko didn’t communicate with her team at Marie Claire; only on the third day did they start to talk using Telegram – the Russian communication app that was launched in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov. They still use Telegram today, starting their morning meetings with a simple question to find out how they’re all doing.

The team is working online from different places, and the magazine’s coverage has entirely shifted, now focusing on a series of stories that, they hope, will help their readers make some sense of what is happening.

There’s an article about something called ‘the phantom siren syndrome’, “because if you hear five, six times a day, a siren, then you start hearing it in your head”, Tatarenko says.

A story called “Life goes on, no matter what” is about “three women [who] have had to navigate giving birth as their hometowns of Kyiv, Irpin, and Bucha, respectively, are invaded by Russian troops”.

There are stories about how to donate blood, deal with anxiety or understand fake news and disinformation. But there is no more fashion, no more beauty tips, no more sex or cultural and societal commentary – there is only War.

Tatarenko explains that some of her team members speak both Russian and Ukrainian (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s mother tongue is Russian and the Marie Claire website is published in both languages) and that there has never been an issue of discrimination, “either because of [someone’s] ethical background or because of language or because of race”.

Tatarenko wasn’t particularly close to the Russian sister edition’s editor-in-chief, Anna Burashova, but when the war started, she received a private message of support on her social media in which Burashova said “they understand what is happening and [were] just hoping that [I am] safe”.

Tatarenko didn’t vote for Zelensky, because, she explains, “I believe that professionals need to do their jobs, so if you study to be a ‘showman’, you need to keep doing what you know how to do.”

But, like many Ukrainians, she has changed her mind because she finds confidence and strength in the way Zelensky communicates with the public, the way he talks to the people. The way he talks in simple terms is “his superpower” – he makes it “easy to relate to”.

Today, a few team members have enrolled in the resistance: the magazine’s beauty editor, Olga Nemceva – “she is one of my heroes”, says Tatarenko – “took her daughter and her parents to Moldova outside of Ukraine and came back to join a self-defence course and then the territorial defence forces.

Olga Nemceva. Image: Supplied

“Two days ago, she even caught two Russian scouts who were putting special signs on the roofs of the building so that when the bombing is happening they can hit the targets; those scouts are moving through the city and they would be placing special signs on the roofs. And she was in the team that managed to catch two of those scouts.”

Anna Vakulenko, Marie Claire’s fashion editor, whose elderly parents couldn’t walk down to the bomb shelter when shelling happened have now left Kharkiv for a safer place, and since then, she has been helping with humanitarian aid.

Her art director is looking after small children, “orphans who were evacuated from the Sumy region, where currently the military attacks are happening”; the magazine’s brand manager, Katerina Lagutina, is helping to make camouflage nets for military protection, while other team members are trying to debunk misinformation, helping to identify channels that spread fake news and block them.

Marie Claire art director, Iryna. Image: Supplied

At the time of our talk via Google Meet it’s late in the evening in both Ukraine and South Africa, and the room where Tatarenko is sitting is bathed in darkness; it’s a sombre mood that seems eerily apropos considering what we are discussing. She has left Kyiv and is living, for now, in western Ukraine. She’s not afraid, she says, to lose her job because, “Of course, I understand that at the time of war… working in a fashion magazine is not a priority.”

Iryna Tatarenko speaking via Google Meet, Western Ukraine, 14 March 2022.

The only fear that she does have is for her parents who still live just outside Kyiv. She pauses, her head tilting for a second, a silence lingering as if to hold a breath. She is worried about them, she says. “They’re quite old…” Her dad is a retired military pilot and both her parents are happy she’s left.

Tatarenko’s sister used to live in Odesa. “From her own window, she could see how the Russian ships are shooting and where they are trying to attack. So she and her daughter also ran away to the western part of Ukraine,” she explains, adding that she doesn’t fear for them because “I know they’re capable to look after themselves.”

But she fears for her parents.

It’s not so much the possibility of nuclear attacks she fears, although Tatarenko says that when she heard that, “Putin is saying that the Ukrainians have developed a biological weapon that will only affect a certain genotype of people with specific ethnical backgrounds… it’s really crazy… But Putin is crazy… He doesn’t think normally, so now we can expect really anything from him.”

What she does fear is the fact that the sky is still “open” for air attacks. On Telegram, she receives information about air attacks.

“During the day you receive those messages, every attack in the air, so air attack in Kyiv, air attack in Kharkiv, Sumy  and one day I’ve received an attack in the town where my parents were and then you can’t cry,” she says.

She had just read that about 2,000 civilians have now been killed in Mariupol. She wishes “Europe and the West [would] close the sky. I understand that there are multiple political factors that are affecting this decision, and maybe it’s not as simple as it might look, but I will continue to ask for it because of what is happening and how many lives can be saved by this decision.

“Also… Russian citizens, I hope that they can stop the war… Russians can stop the war.” DM/ML

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