Ukraine, two trains to Kiev as the world goes from euphoria to fear

The first time I was in the Ukrainian capital, the USSR was melting and the people on the streets of Kiev looked surprised, like canaries hesitating in front of the open gate of the aviary.

I like Russian stations. They are full – even today – of kiosks selling antique products; of seats; of policemen in large movie hats. You go to the platform at the last moment, a few minutes before departure. When it’s cold, for thermal reasons. When the temperature is mild, because everyone is used to it.

Kievski vokzal (Киевский вокзал), the Kiev station, one of the nine railway stations in Moscow. It is located west of the center, on the bank of the Moskva River. I went there twice, after twenty years. I’ve always come to Kiev from the east, by train.

The first time just after the amateur coup that Mikhail Gorbachev tried to overthrow, in August 1991. The disintegration of the Soviet Union began immediately. I was a correspondent in Moscow that year, and I ran to see the two places where everything happened quickly:
the Baltic countries and, indeed, Ukraine. George H. Bush came on a visit to Kiev: the US, at that time, wasted no time.

I remember a quiet, almost comfortable journey. I had already experienced Russian trains – a honeymoon from Moscow to Beijingfive years earlier – but I was surprised by the solidity and the rituality: the seats, the velvets, the curtains, the th carried by the conductors, the wide gauge, the regular gait.

The city I found was so euphoric that it appeared peaceful. The USSR was melting and the people on the streets of Kiev seem surprised, like canaries hesitating in front of the open gate of the aviary. On August 2, 1991, Bush spoke, we wrote. I found one of his opening sentences: Centuries ago, your forbears named this country Ukraine, or frontier, because your steppes link Europe and Asia. But Ukrainians have become frontiersmen of another sort. Today you explore the frontiers and contours of liberty. Centuries ago, your ancestors called this country Ukraine, or frontier, because your steppes connect Europe to Asia. But the Ukrainians have become frontier men of another kind. Today you are exploring the frontiers of freedom.

Exploration, as we know, turned out more tiring than expected. But some things happened quickly. Twenty-two days later, on August 24, the parliament declared Ukraine an independent and democratic state. On December 1st, referendum and first presidential election. On Christmas Day 1991 the Soviet flag on the Kremlin was lowered.

Twenty years later, in 2011, I found myself at Kievski vokzalthe Kiev station. First stop on a journey between Moscow and Lisbon. I remember the person in charge of the carriage: statuesque, she seemed able to stop a locomotive with a glance. We arrived at the border at four in the morning. Where there are tanks today, stood four impassive Ukrainian guards – all females, all blondes, all silent. They check the passports of a sleepy people in their underwear. The impression was that nothing could surprise them.

I couldn’t sleep, I remember. The train ran through an ancient land, few lights and distant farms. Looking at a map, getting on a train, crossing a continent: not childish? But adults have to do childish things from time to time; and railway fantasies, let’s face it, are not among the most dangerous. Trains are political places. Places of exchange, observation, study. We must not run towards the world: the world runs towards us.

Trains are meeting and farewell machines. They are cradles and kennels, places of meditation and fantasy gyms. Where do they go, the silent women who close their light coat against the gazes and the wind of the stations? What do the chattering kids leaning against the bathroom door have in mind? What happens, on this ordinary eastern night, that we do not know and will never know?

Lend me your great roar, your gait so sweet,
your nocturnal glide through illuminated Europe

So he wrote the French Valery Larbaudan eccentric type, son of the owner of the Vichy mineral water, who was traveling in luxury at the end of the Bella Epoque. A century later, in 2011, it was very different: Ukrainian trains weren’t luxurious and the times were not so beautiful. Today, eleven years later, it is scary.

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