Whether in New York City or on the outskirts of Kyiv, riding a rail line can be maddeningly tedious—lugging luggage, trying to comprehend garbled announcements, rushing to platforms. Trains might not run on time, and once the journey begins, they may move slowly, leaving passengers to wonder if they have made any progress. Engineers sit at the head of the train, tucked away, unseen; conductors move through the cars, collecting tickets, answering riders’ questions. Each day these engineers and conductors go to work, getting trains to their destinations, becoming part of the larger system. In Ukraine, however, these workers have taken on a new role—they are first responders in a country in an active war, transporting civilians out of some of its most dangerous areas.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine this past February, nearly one-third of Ukrainians have had to flee their homes; according to a recent report from the UN, more than six million people have been displaced within the country and over seven million have sought refuge in other European countries. Since then, Ukraine’s railway system has been in constant flux. According to Roman Vybranovskyy, press consultant for Ukrainian Railways, the 13th-largest railway in the world, the system employs 8,000 workers, all of whom have had to adapt to the rapidly changing environment brought on by the war.
Dispatchers for Ukrainian Railways work closely with the country’s military to assess where potential attacks by Russian soldiers might interfere with trains. Rerouting might occur at the last minute, causing a sudden change of direction for the engineers and train conductors, who then have to adjust their plans. I spoke with the head conductor for the train route from Kyiv to Warsaw, Poland, Volodymyr Skvotsov, on a Zoom call in October. He was at work at the time, on a train headed to Warsaw, and sat hunched over a table in a private compartment, using his smartphone as his communication device. Skvotsov wore his work uniform, a dark-blue jacket decorated with yellow embellishments—Ukraine’s national colors.
Skvotsov is originally from the small town of Kozyatyn, located in the Vinnytsia region of west-central Ukraine. He tells me that he is part of a “dynasty of railway people”—three generations in his family have worked in the railway system. The beginning of the war, he recalls, was the most challenging time for his team. Kyiv, where their route originates, was a focal point of the Russian invasion, and the city was filled with refugees. Skvotsov explains that at the start of the war, the ticketing operation was disrupted, and many of the refugees turning to railway workers for help were “Women, children, small pets … unable to buy tickets.” Most tickets were sold out in the capital city, but people crowded on board regardless. As described in the Kyiv Independent, in March: “There are no tickets out of Kyiv left, but it makes no difference—the tickets have become useless pieces of paper, as all trains are now evacuation trains, first come first served.”
According to Skvotsov, some areas of the train became so crowded with refugees that people had to stand for hours. The train from Kyiv to Warsaw has sleeping compartments for passengers making the journey, most with two sets of bunk beds meant to accommodate up to four people. But, he says, “Six, 8, or even 12 people would be traveling [on them] seated. They tried to evacuate themselves and their nearest, even their animals.”
Despite his country having become a battleground in just a few hours, Skvotsov hoped to create a welcoming and peaceful environment amid the war’s chaos. His team did so, Skvotsov states, with “iron nerves and smiling with 32 teeth to passengers. We try to provide them with all that a railway could provide—food, warm stay, tea.” He continues, “We are sometimes asked for the diapers for children or some feed for animals, with the warm word—to say we all work for the good of Ukraine, and everything is going to be fine, that we just need to endure this for some time.”
There are difficult moments while operating the trains that test such equanimity—as when passing through areas that have become notorious for Russia’s destruction, such as Bucha and Irpin, suburban towns outside Kyiv. Once the towns were liberated, in April, the bodies of more than 700 Ukrainians were discovered. Skvotsov describes the remnants of these two towns: “We see it with our own eyes. In times when it was all green, now the nature turns red and yellow. We see behind the trees destroyed houses.” But in spite of the trauma of traveling through these areas, Skvotsov says his team still operates with a passion and love for their work. “In the realities of our Motherland, Ukraine, we have chosen this job, not for nothing—we love people and to communicate with them. We are like the adrenaline or drug addicts. We get some satisfaction from communication. We don’t fear.”
But over the past nine months, more than 600 railway workers have been injured and 287 have died, according to Iron Family, a support system for railway workers; and approximately 132 have lost housing. On August 24, Ukraine Independence Day, celebrating Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1991, a train station in Chaplyne, in southeastern Ukraine, was hit by Russian missiles. The attack left at least 22 dead and more than 50 wounded.
In addition to the physical dangers of the job, Skvotsov and his team also work as psychologists for passengers, supporting their fellow Ukrainians in any way they can. When I ask Skvotsov if his crew emotionally supports one another, he says, “We have our emotional restoration through sweets. In free time we invite one another for a homemade bakery or cup of juice. That is how we support one another.” But when I ask if anyone has admitted to him that they are afraid of their work, Skvotsov replies, “I have no experience of knowing someone who would say ‘I am afraid to go on a trip’ or ‘I was too frightened on a trip as I heard that something happened somewhere with the other train,’” adding that he and his team are “fine.”
Ukrainians can find some solace in those operating the country’s railways, but those fleeing Russia from the inside do not have the same support. On September 21, Putin announced in a video that a draft would begin in Russia and would call up 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine. As a result of the announcement, reports of hundreds of thousands of men fleeing Russia began to surface. Many of the men who were fleeing the country voiced to journalists that they did not want to fight and die in an unjust war. In March, the Voice published an interview with a man living in Moscow who referred to himself as “Dmitri.” At the time, Dmitri, who had family in Ukraine, voiced his anger about Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, whose citizens he called “brothers.”
I reached out to Dmitri after Putin announced the draft, to see if he was still in Moscow. Over Telegram, he told me that the day before, he had crossed the border between Russia and Finland. He was constantly on the move, and many days later, when I next heard from him, he was in Beograd, the capital of Serbia, a country with close ties to Russia. In his messages, Dmitri condemned his homeland’s actions, much as he had in the interview, but this time there was a greater fear—that he might be drafted and have to fight for a cause he did not believe in. Dmitri described his journey out of Russia: He and a few friends bought airline tickets to Murmansk, a city in northwestern Russia, then drove to the Finnish border, just over 100 miles away. He said it took only about 40 minutes to pass through the Russia-Finland border, and at the Russian checkpoint, they crossed without guards “really checking anything. Finnish border control asked us where we go, how much money we have with us, they asked for proof we have money.” After being validated by the Finnish guards, the men took a train to Helsinki, Finland’s capital, and then a ferry to Estonia, then to Riga, the capital of Latvia.
From there, Dmitri and his friends began to plan where they would go next. One man “flew to Beograd, as his parents and elder brother with family live there.” Another stayed in Latvia to solve business issues, then flew back to Moscow, despite the chance of being drafted. “He said he wanted to be with his family. He has two little children and a wife. He said he would adapt to the situation if it gets worse with mobilization,” Dmitri recalled.
When we spoke in October, Dmitri had traveled to Kyrgyzstan, but then had suddenly returned to Russia. “I have partners and commitments for my business, I don’t have another way for doing money now, I must fix some things with my business,” he explained. “I hope I can try to do this in two or three weeks and escape from Russia again. Now it’s postponed, because militarization is not active, and I think I have two or three weeks, after that I escape from the country,” he added.
In early December, I was able to reach Dmitri for a few minutes. He told me he was still back in Russia, and hadn’t left since our last conversation. “Many people changed their opinion, but of course in this country we have people who support this war,” he told me. “But I think the big part of people don’t support this war, and many people don’t want to think about this, they live like ‘It’s not my war, I live in a small town in Russia, it’s not my problem, I don’t want to think about this.’ Many people who supported this war, on the Internet, for example, they don’t want to go to this war and they escape their country.”
Back on the train, Skvotsov tells me that his team continues to aim to help those it transports have the easiest possible journey under the circumstances. He reiterates that his team does not want any praise, but does their work because they love Ukraine and its people. When I ask about any particular instance that stands out in his mind, Skvotsov recalls an incident when an older woman fled Kharkiv alone. She needed an operation on her back and was going to Paris, but she had trouble passing through the Polish border because she did not have an international passport—it was her first time leaving Ukraine. Skvotsov got off his train with the woman and convinced the Polish guards to let her pass, telling them that she was a refugee, disabled, and scared. Eventually, the guards agreed to let her travel to Poland, and the entire train erupted in cheers. “She got on the train, came to Warsaw, and was met by a volunteer who took her on to a train to Berlin,” says Skvotsov. “She had to switch there to get to Paris. She was so motivated and inspired by that situation, and she promised us to write a thank you letter to our bosses.” For Skvotsov, it was all in a day’s work.
At the end of our Zoom conversation, I tell Skvotsov he is quite humble for someone who has made such a difference in people’s lives. He smiles, saying, “Well, we just do our work. When we have finished the shift, honestly, we have forgotten about that situation, as we often have some difficult situations.”
Regarding the woman on the train who was trying to get to Paris for medical help, Skvotsov says, “Each trip, something happens, and each situation is quite unique. When we came home we got a call from our supervisor, who said that she really gave feedback, and the situation reached our leadership, who have paid all of us a special bonus as a reward.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.
– • –
NOTE: The advertising disclaimer below does not apply to this article, nor any originating from the Village Voice editorial department, which does not accept paid links.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.
More:War in Ukraine