The Soviet-era carriages decorated in the blue and yellow hues of the Ukrainian flag have seen better days. But as the passengers prepare to embark, the smartly uniformed staff takes great pride in the train. Windows and handles are given a last polish, coal-fired heaters are stoked for the cold night ahead, and fresh bed sheets are fitted into newly-refurbished compartments.
At precisely 4:32 p.m. local time, Train 84 “Azov” pulls out of the Kyiv station into the southern suburbs of the capital bound for Mariupol – a journey of more than 1,000 kilometers to the frontline of Ukraine’s war with Russia. On board for the night is a cross-section of Ukrainian society.
Amid preparations for Ukraine’s presidential elections at the end of this month, VOA joined this epic journey to the east to talk to passengers heading for the key strategic port.
Thirty-one-year-old Sergey Ivanic has undergone eye surgery in Kyiv and is returning home to Mariupol with his wife Lena, who enjoys the slow pace of the night train. “You can lie in bed and sleep and relax and you arrive in the morning full of energy,” she says.
Sergey Ivanic laments that many young Ukrainians are leaving in search of a better life.
“The main issue is to stop the torrent of young people leaving to go abroad, to create stable jobs.”
After five years of war, Lena wants an end to the divisions in Ukrainian society.
“Ukraine is divided between east and west and we are always being made to fight each other. But in reality, normal people live on both sides. So I want the new president to unite us as a nation.”
Outside, dusk falls over the fields of Ukraine’s vast steppeland. Epic journeys are second nature for Gennadiy Syuzev, a merchant seaman on his way to Mariupol’s huge commercial port.
“In my mind, it doesn’t matter who is going to be the next president. Nothing significant will change,” says Syuzev.
A series of sharp jolts brings us to a halt, one of 19 scheduled stops on the route. It takes 18 hours for the train to travel from Kyiv to Mariupol. Its days could be numbered.
The current government has promised to reopen Mariupol’s dilapidated airport, which would put the city just an hour’s domestic flight from the capital – an election pledge that’s attracting voters.
For others, night trains are part of Ukraine’s way of life.
The cheapest tickets buy you a narrow bed in an open carriage, effectively a dormitory on wheels. Chatting away to their neighboring passengers, Oksana Repetskaya and her daughter are returning from a dance competition in Kyiv.
“We got used to living with the conflict,” she says. “My eldest son is doing military service; he’s with the army in Dnipropetrovsk.”
“We still have the same faces in power and so I have strong doubts that anything will change. But I also really hope that new faces will emerge,” she adds.
Close to midnight, the conversations fade and the lights are dimmed.
By daybreak, the train is running parallel to the frontlines of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, which lie just seven kilometres to the east.
Disembarking at Mariupol, the signs of the nearby conflict are clear. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the platforms with sniffer dogs. A few nearby buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes and shell damage sustained during the height of the war in 2014, when it appeared that the separatists might take the city.
That risk appears to have diminished for now. But the threat of renewed fighting looms constantly.
For Ukrainians returning home to Mariupol, the election offers hope of change. But few believe their next president will have a quick fix to end the war.