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A train through Ukraine: a journey into the stories of two years of war


The opening bars of the Cossack March rang out from the platform speakers at Zaporizhzhia-1 train station, jaunty trumpets transitioning into a rousing military march, heralding the departure of train number four, the 17.53 to Uzhhorod.

Carriage attendants slammed shut the heavy metal doors, a few people on the platform waved forlorn goodbyes in the evening gloom, and the train clattered off on its journey across the entire breadth of Ukraine, a 900-mile ride from close to the frontline all the way to the border with the European Union.

A soldier waiting at Zaporizhzhia railway station to board the train to Uzhhorod. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

In the two years since Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the railways have been Ukraine’s lifeline, connecting cities and carrying millions of people to safety. Train number four has 10 carriages, nine with second-class, four-bed sleeper compartments, and one luxury carriage of two-bed compartments, for the 20-hour journey from the smokestacks of Zaporizhzhia to the cobbled alleys of Uzhhorod.

In the decades since independence in 1991, Ukraine has often been viewed through its divisions, particularly the tensions between the largely Russian-speaking east and the mostly Ukrainian-speaking west. That was always an oversimplification, masking many different and more subtle dividing lines, unsurprising in a country of more than 40 million people, with a turbulent history.

When Putin launched full-scale war two years ago, the east-west divide dissolved further. The Kremlin’s idea that many Ukrainians would welcome Russia turned out to be false, and a new and broad national identity was forged in opposition to Russia’s marauding armies. Even in places such as Zaporizhzhia, a grimy industrial city on the Dnipro River, of broad avenues and bombastic Stalin-era buildings, people put up fierce resistance to the Russians.

Sobornyi Avenue, the principal thoroughfare in the centre of Zaporizhzhia. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

But if the big story of the first year of Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s war was one of resilience, inspiration, and unity in the face of an existential threat, as the war enters its third year, new fault lines are starting to appear in Ukrainian society, ones that could be hard to repair when the war is over: between those who fought and those who did not, those who left and those who stayed, those who have lived under Russian occupation and those who have not.

The war has reached a particularly difficult moment, with a challenging situation on the frontline, cracks showing in the international support for Ukraine and the cumulative burden of two years of disrupted lives. In addition to the hatred for Russia, there is now another thing that unites most Ukrainians. It is most noticeable at the front, but also visible in the corridors of power, the homes of ordinary people and even here, in the compartments of long-distance trains: exhaustion.

Volodymyr, from Ukraine’s 65th Brigade, travels to meet his family in western Ukraine. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

The soldiers’ stories

In the ninth carriage, Volodymyr, a soldier from Ukraine’s 65th Brigade, was returning for two weeks of leave to his village in the Carpathian mountains. A few hours earlier he had been at the “zero line”, as the very front is called; the next morning, he would be back in the peaceful quiet of his home with his wife, mother and seven-year-old daughter, for the first time in more than six months.

Volodymyr signed up in April 2022, and has been at the front ever since, transporting fuel from supply bases to forward positions. The train bed is the most comfortable resting place he has had for months; the whole summer, he slept in the cabin of a fuel truck.

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Volodymyr was one of four close friends from his village to sign up early in the war; two of the others have died. The Carpathian mountains are traditionally a holiday area, and he knows that, while home, he will see people in cafes and restaurants enjoying a life he is only able to dip into for two weeks before returning to the front.

“They say there’s nobody to replace me but why aren’t these people at the front?” he asked, his words forming slowly, his eyes glazed with exhaustion.

Viktor travels to his native Uzhhorod to surprise his family during a break from the frontline. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Two hours into the journey, a soldier with a very different demeanour boarded the train in the city of Dnipro. Viktor was working in a factory in Hungary when the war began. He rushed home to sign up. He had never held a weapon before, but was running on adrenaline, felt passionately the need to defend Ukraine, and thought nothing of the risks.

“I don’t like the word ‘soldier’. I am a warrior. I have earned this name, and I am pleased that my family can be proud of me,” said the 43-year-old, his eyes shining, his words accompanied by frantic hand movements.

Nearly two years of war had changed his personality completely, Viktor said. Before, he was impulsive, and powered through life without thinking too much. Now, he was more pensive, often turning over philosophical questions about the meaning of life in his head. “A guy sleeps next to you for a whole month, and then suddenly he’s dead. What do you do with that?”

Map of railway line in Ukraine

Viktor was taking the train all the way to Uzhhorod, his home city, smoking slim cigarettes in the breezy, clanking vestibule between the carriages to pass the time, and running through the scene of his return home in his mind as the train got closer.

His wife did not know he was en route. Last year, he also arrived unannounced, knocking at the door with a giant bouquet of flowers. She came rushing out in her dressing gown, shocked but screaming in delight. “I like these moments. It’s something to keep in my head, to remember when I go back,” he said.

Viktor’s plans for his time at home were simple: to spend time with his wife, to sleep, then to wake and laze in the bed, luxuriating in the sheets. “I don’t want to go back to the front, but of course I will. If we stop now, then what the hell have the last two years been for?”

The tour guide’s tale

A view of the Dnipro River in Zaporizhzhia. The shore was largely covered by water before the Kakhovka dam was destroyed in 2023. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

In Zaporizhzhia, some semblance of normal life exists – restaurants, cafes and even theatres are working – but the frontline is just 20 miles away, and the city is hit regularly by Russian drones and missiles. The trains from Zaporizhzhia used to continue south, to the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol. Now, they are both occupied by Russia; Zaporizhzhia is the end of the line.

Valentyna Vynychenko, a guide who has run tours of the city since 1977, is a whirlwind of historical anecdotes and cheerful banter. Although she was born to Russian parents, she has recently switched to speaking only Ukrainian, is a fierce patriot and is convinced Ukraine will win. She spends a few hours every day making camouflage nets for the army. But she conceded that, recently, even she had found her positive energy slipping. She hasn’t left Zaporizhzhia since the war started, but now she wonders what it would be like to get on one of the trains west.

Valentyna Vynychenko stands by the Dnipro River in Zaporizhzhia. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

“The last few weeks, I started dreaming of spending two weeks in a small cottage somewhere, with a river and a forest, not to talk to anyone and to get away from all the noise, the explosions and the sirens,” she said, though quickly admitted that it was more of an escapist reverie than a real plan. “Nobody is waiting for me there, and anyway, where would I get the money?”

A love affair extinguished

Before February 2022, Zaporizhzhia had an international airport, with regular flights to European cities and a daily Turkish Airlines plane to Istanbul. Now, the only way out is an epic train or bus journey followed by a long queue at the border. Even getting to the capital, Kyiv, takes eight hours on one of the two daily trains.

A few weeks ago, 30-year-old Yaryna Herashchenko bought a last-minute ticket for the Zaporizhzhia-Kyiv train, a journey she had hoped she would never have to make. Her 14-month romance with Rostyslav had been a bright light for her during the darkness of wartime. Now, she had to bury him.

Yaryna Herashchenko, left, has been coordinating a therapy group for widows of soldiers with her mother, Viktoria, a psychologist who leads the sessions. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

She and Rostyslav met on a drone-training course in October 2022. He was recuperating from a frontline injury in a Zaporizhzhia hospital; she thought she might be able to use the drone skills to help out at the front. He asked her out and they began seeing each other.

Rostyslav decided he wanted to marry her the first time he saw her, he told her later. He spotted a depth to her, he said. She had a cheerful and chatty mask when she was talking to people, but he could see there was more simmering beneath, a complexity visible in her deep brown eyes. Things move quickly in wartime and, within a month, he had moved in.

Yaryna Herashchenko holds a photo of her partner, Rostyslav, who died fighting in December 2023. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Rostyslav was quiet and introverted, but with her he could hardly stop talking. They chatted for hours on end. She introduced him to her parents. “I had loved people before, but I realised that this was the first time I was in love,” she recalled.

Before long, Rostyslav’s health had improved, and he was sent back to a special forces unit defending Avdiivka, right at the front. Herashchenko’s ritual on waking was to see when he was “last online” on messenger apps. If it was in the past few hours, she breathed a sigh of relief.

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Rostyslav managed occasional visits to Zaporizhzhia, brief shots of happiness and companionship for them both. But when he came in August, the chatty man Herashchenko had known was gone; he seemed totally changed. She asked what she could do for him. He said quietly: “Nothing. I just want to hug you and lie in silence.” So they hugged and lay in silence. Then he went back to the front.

As the autumn went on, there was an increasing bleakness to Rostyslav’s messages. “I’m going to die like a dog, here in this treeline,” he wrote on one occasion. Previously, he had never complained. She knew that, if he was telling her it was bad, it was really bad.

On 28 December, she woke late and saw Rostyslav had last been online at 3.30am, a good sign. But he didn’t appear for the rest of the day. He was silent the next day, too. She started to get angry, thinking of how much grief she would give him when he finally appeared. Deep down, she already knew.

It was only on 2 January, after the most miserable New Year’s Eve imaginable, that she received a phone call with the news. Rostyslav had been killed inside Avdiivka’s sprawling coke plant five days earlier, hit when trying to retrieve a wounded comrade.

At the funeral in Kyiv, Rostyslav was laid out peacefully in his uniform. She combed his beard and ruffled his hair. His lips, she thought, still seemed warm. Herashchenko summoned every reserve to stop her tears. “We were always both so strong with each other. It was our last meeting and I didn’t want him to see me cry,” she said.

Yaryna Herashchenko, second left, talks to women who participate in therapy sessions for widows of soldiers who have died since the beginning of the full-scale war. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Previously, with her psychologist mother, Viktoria, Herashchenko had helped run a support group for bereaved wives and girlfriends of soldiers in Zaporizhzhia. Now, she was one herself. Her story is just one of thousands of love affairs extinguished, families destroyed, by the two years of Vladimir Putin’s brutal war.

Herashchenko’s work with the support group has helped her deal with the grief, but she finds herself increasingly irritated by many people among Zaporizhzhia’s “inert” population. “The anger got stronger after his death. The frontline is 30km away. I also like to eat cheesecake in a cafe, but not all the time. Why do I have to be in this situation and other people can just pretend they are living a normal life?”

The train manager’s birthday

Train number four continued west through the night, making an arc just south of Kyiv. In charge was the train manager Inna Matushchak; it was her 53rd birthday, and she shared some cake with some of the carriage attendants, before turning in for a few hours’ sleep in her small command room in the fourth carriage.

The train manager, Inna Matushchak, in a first-class carriage. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

Matushchak has worked on the trains for 34 years, since a year before Ukraine’s independence, and has seen the changes in the country over that time. She used to be in charge of the Kyiv-Adler train, journeying from the capital to Russia’s Black Sea coast, until rail links were cut after Moscow’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Now, like many Ukrainians, she no longer has contact with her relatives in Russia. “It’s like talking to a brick wall,” she said of her cousin there.

Some train managers are stern figures who have little time for chit-chat, but Matushchak loves to interact with her passengers. Sometimes the soldiers she meets don’t want to talk, but other times they pour out their emotions, in lieu of therapy. She has heard many sad stories over the past months, but she remembers some happy ones, too.

She thinks often about one particular soldier she met. Still covered in frontline mud, he was on his way to receive a medal in Kyiv. He’d taken so many risks, he told her, because he had no parents, no siblings and no partner, so had nothing to live for. A month later, she saw him again. He had received his medal, and fallen in love. Now, there was a spring in his step.

Matushchak said her job gave her a unique insight into the life and mindset of a country at war. “In Kyiv, or in western Ukraine, some people have forgotten there’s a war by now,” she said. “On the train, you meet so many people, hear so many stories. You see things other people don’t see.”

The train from Zaporizhzhia to Uzhhorod on a platform at Lviv station, where a lot of passengers disembarked. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

The actor who survived

In the morning, the train stopped in Lviv, then continued through the Carpathian mountains, running alongside the fast-flowing, frothing Vecha River and passing forested hillsides dotted with rustic cottages, wisps of smoke emerging from their chimneys. It pulled into Uzhhorod bang on time, at 14.27, 20 hours and 34 minutes after leaving Zaporizhzhia. The westernmost of Ukraine’s regional capitals, Uzhhorod is a shabby but pretty town of cobbled streets and historical buildings, many dating back to the periods of Austro-Hungarian and Czechoslovak rule.

No missiles have made it this far west over the past two years, and this is the only Ukrainian region not to have a curfew. The schools are open, the economy is booming, and the population has doubled since the war started as people seek refuge in its relative safety.

The war’s presence is still felt acutely, though, even if death does not rain from the sky. At a central cemetery, the graves of soldiers killed over the past two years has long since spread beyond the neatly concreted pathway originally allocated to them. The most recent burial was that of Ivan Karapa, a 35-year-old sniper, killed on 9 February.

The alley of graves of soldiers who have died since February 2022, outside the Kalvaria cemetery in Uzhhorod. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

There are many more women than men on the streets; some people whisper that their male relatives are hiding at home, scared of venturing out to the shops and ending up on the frontline. As Ukraine seeks to replenish its depleted army, draft officers roam the streets and stop cars, looking for men to conscript. The border with Slovakia is walking distance from the city, but men are still barred from leaving Ukraine without special permission, and cameras have recently been installed along the border to help detect illegal crossing attempts.

Many of Uzhhorod’s new residents have arrived with traumatic experiences from further east. Dmytro Murantsev, 24, was in his third year at the Mariupol arts college, training to be an actor, when the war began.

In early March 2022, as the shelling of Mariupol intensified, he heard evacuation buses would be leaving from the drama theatre next to his college. He grabbed his girlfriend and her mother, and they rushed to the venue. But there were no buses, and the trio ended up forced to stay in the crowded theatre, which became one of the biggest shelters for civilians in Mariupol. They found a section of corridor to sleep in, and padded the cold floors with old documents from the theatre’s Soviet-era archive.

Dmytro Murantsev now lives in Uzhhorod. Photograph: Kasia Stręk/The Guardian

A Russian airstrike hit the theatre on 16 March, one of the worst crimes of the war, which killed an estimated 600 people. Murantsev and the two women were in a section of the basement that was unaffected, and they were able to clamber to safety. They emerged to a scene of chaos, hundreds of shocked people staggering around, white from the dust and ash. The ground, too, was as white as a tropical beach. Murantsev was still wearing a Spider-Man pyjama suit, the warmest thing he had with him, as they stumbled down the road looking for an evacuation bus.

After an epic, nerve-racking journey through various Russian-controlled checkpoints, he arrived in Zaporizhzhia, and from there took the train to Lviv. He arrived in Uzhhorod in June, and since then has began working with a small group of actors from the Mariupol theatre who have resurrected it in exile.

Acting provides a release, but both Murantsev’s waking hours and his dreams are still filled with the horrors of Mariupol. “I can’t stop thinking about it. The people who went to the toilet, the kids who went to play on the stage, the people who went outside to cook food. There were 10 things I could have been doing, and I picked the one that meant I survived. Not because I was better, or cleverer or braver than anyone else, but just stupid luck. I just won the lottery,” he said.

His girlfriend moved to Germany, and for a while they spoke every day. Things between them had been good before the war, but now they realised they were triggering each other; talking brought back terrible memories that were better left untouched. Before long, they split up.

Murantsev has the impression that the Russian invasion cleaved his life clean in two: before and after. He mourns his old life in the city on the other side of the country, now occupied by Russia. But, amid the sadness, he also sees in Uzhhorod’s relative tranquility the hope of a possible future for Ukraine.

“It’s a normal city. People are speaking Ukrainian. Street musicians are playing. There is no curfew, and Ukrainian flags are flying everywhere. That’s exactly the future that we’re fighting for.”



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