Growing up in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, Tatyana Harkoff was always aware of the tensions between the two nations. She grew up to be a proud citizen of an independent Ukraine, who unfortunately saw conflict erupt numerous times over Russia’s influence in Ukrainian politics. Having borne witness to the Orange Revolution in 2004, in which protestors claiming fraud successfully demanded another election between the two presidential candidates, Yushchenko and Yanukovych, Harkoff choose to emigrate in 2013. She was able to continue a successful career as a make-up artist here in her new home, New York City. She currently resides with her husband on the Upper West Side.
By Tatyana Harkoff, as told to Marie Holmes
I came to New York because of the political situation and because I wanted to have more diversity. New York is a special place. You have a whole world in one city. Especially in my job as a make-up artist, every day I meet new people. I meet an enormous amount of people from all over the world, and I learn a lot.
I was born and raised in Kyiv when it was part of the Soviet Union. In most of our schools, the first language was Russian and we only had Ukrainian one hour a week. So I speak Russian, and I speak Ukrainian when I’m amongst Ukrainian people.
My first election when I was 18, I voted for an independent Ukraine.
We had a very dark time in our history under President Yanukovych. He was pro-Russian, and I didn’t like what was going on in Ukraine under his presidency. I didn’t believe we were going to have a revolution then. When I left in September of 2013, I didn’t feel like something was about to start. So I left, and then, in November, the Maidan protests began. It was a student-led revolution. I’m very proud of the people who were there—my family, my friends, they were all at these protests. They’re really heroes to me. My sister and all my friends were supporting the revolutionaries with food and money. Whenever something happens in Ukraine, people become united. It’s very touching.
I was one of five top makeup artists in Ukraine, so I worked with all of the celebrities and magazines. I had a brilliant career. When I got to my 40s, I made the choice to leave. I arrived in New York without friends. My English was very poor, which was hard because part of the job is to be charming. But I made friends. I met my husband, who is French. I live now in a neighborhood that I had been dreaming about.
The Upper West Side is a very beautiful area. There is diversity and I love it. We considered moving to Brooklyn, but one day I was walking down Central Park West and I realized I can’t leave this neighborhood. There’s something here, it’s very precious and unique.
I want people to understand that what’s happening in Ukraine. In Mariupol there is not one building that has survived. People have gone a month without food. They’re starving. They’re in basements of buildings. In Bucha, the town is covered with dead bodies. Russian soldiers kill people just because they are Ukranians. They rape women and young girls, they torture them. They kill kids. It’s genocide.
My mother, who is in Kyiv, is 80. She was born during the Second World War. She didn’t believe that this would happen. She said, ‘War will not start. They just want to scare us.’ Even when the war had started, she said, ‘One or two days, and they will leave.’
If I was in Kyiv right now, I would go to volunteer groups. I’m really a patriot. I do try to help with money, at least. It’s something that my people need right now. I am proud of my friends, because they really do things. They go to territorial defense groups. They’re not just sitting there, they all are heroes.
When I listen to our president, Zelensky, and he says that we will win, we will build a nice country — all the plans — I feel there. I want to do it. I want to be part of this big project to rebuild the country. It’s a very beautiful country, and Ukrainians deserve to live in a decent country.
Most of the time, I see the support. For example, when we’re going to a rally, people stop and ask questions. I feel it from our neighbors all the time. There is a Georgian restaurant in the neighborhood, Chama Mama. One day I came in and they saw from the flag pin on my coat that I’m Ukrainian, and they immediately said, ‘We’re supporting Ukraine. We are with you, we’re praying for Ukraine.’ Now they have Ukrainian flags hanging in their windows. This support, it helps.