Ukraine’s national railway company, Ukrzaliznitsya, the country’s biggest employer, is headed by a 37-year-old man who could easily be mistaken for a young backpacker. Oleksandr Kamishin’s role is essential in Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. Some 130 of Ukrzaliznitsya’s 231,000 workers died in the conflict and three were taken prisoner by Russia. EL PAÍS accompanied Kamishin for two days, traveling to the city of Lviv with the 37-year-old in a two-car convoy.
Since the invasion of the Russian army on February 24, the trains have not stopped running, despite the attacks against the railway infrastructure. The most serious so far has been the bombing of the Kramatorsk railway station in the east of the country, which occurred on April 8. Among citizens waiting for a train, at least 57 people died.
The railways are the link between Ukraine and the international community, providing access to Kyiv for political leaders, diplomats and businessmen. The trains are also essential for transporting refugees in and out of the country, as well as humanitarian aid, troops, weapons and other goods.
“The history of this war is the history of the trains,” Kamishin told EL PAÍS. Its main problem at the moment, along with the safety of personnel and passengers, is the threat of Russian bombs. Since the start of the war, the director has spent most of his time on trains and in stations across Ukraine.
Watched by two bodyguards, Kamishin’s daily schedule is secret and he is separated from his family. He carries a gun and his grandson’s stuffed owl everywhere with him.
Since the Russian attack, says the boss of the railways, “we [Ukrainians] have shown that we are more European than anyone else,” he says; a reference to his government’s demand for full integration into the European Union.
Along the way, the train also stops at two of the six electrical substations attacked by Russian missiles on May 3 so that Kamishin can inspect these critical sites for Ukraine’s resistance infrastructure. He offers encouragement to employees and reviews repairs amid burned transformers and new railroad ties. Later it will be time to replace broken windows and repair other less urgent damage.
Not all Ukrzaliznitsya workers killed since the invasion began lost their lives while working; some were at home. Of those taken prisoner by Russia, only one has been released. “We need them,” he said of the missing workers.
Kamishin, in sneakers, cargo pants and a short-sleeved shirt, says, “I don’t know if I’ll wear a tie again. On his left wrist, he wears bracelets in the yellow and blue national colors and sports a ponytail tied with a rubber band on his head which is shaved on both sides. He takes video calls while navigating the docks, making crucial decisions for Ukraine through the screen of his smartphone. He barely allows himself the distraction of watching an edited video of U2 singer Bono performing at a Kyiv metro station.
During this war, more than four million people were evacuated via Ukraine’s railway network, which includes 107 stations and 22,000 kilometers of track. Twenty percent of the network is controlled by the Russians.
Of the evacuees from Ukraine, 600,000 have been transferred abroad. To streamline the operation, rail services were provided free of charge. Three months later, many of those who fled have returned. Right now there are more people coming back than people leaving.
Indeed, ordinary Ukrainians are at the center of Kamishin’s concerns, as evidenced by the railway station in Lviv, the largest city in the west of the country. Here, Kamishin watches the arrival of residents fleeing fighting in the east as they line up to get their $80 in state aid, $100 if they have disabilities or dependent minors.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky himself noted Kamishin’s efforts, saying that the railways are the key to getting millions of tons of grain out of Ukraine now that the most ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov were blocked by the conflict.
Admittedly, until the Russian invasion, Ukraine exported six million tons of cereals every month. In March this year, only 200,000 tons left the country.
Okelsandr Pertsovskii, who manages the flow of passengers for the railway company, says that only two ports – those of Izmail and Reni, on the waters of the Danube before it empties into the Black Sea – are still operational, and they are not enough. Half of the corn and a third of the wheat imported by the European Union come from Ukraine, worth around 13 billion euros for the country.
EU and Polish flags mark the looming border with Ukraine as the train comes to an abrupt halt and two armed soldiers watch from an iron gangway above the road. Oleksandr Kamishin walks along the tracks, talking with staff and expert spotters. He confirms that 82,000 tonnes of cereals are currently waiting in border warehouses. Getting the grain to the border with Poland hasn’t been a problem, he says, but getting it to Europe is. He calls for more cooperation from the other side.
When a Russian attack on the rail network begins, explains Oleksandr Pertsovskii, business leaders receive images on their phones and make decisions to repair the damage as quickly as possible and with the greatest possible care for employees.
Occupied by the Nazis during World War II, Lviv is no stranger to the importance of rail networks, as Pertsovskii points out. “My grandfather, whom I never met, was in Lviv to defend the border against the German Nazis,” he says. “Our family was evacuated by freight train to Turkmenistan. My grandmother used to tell us stories about the train when I was a child, how German planes bombed them while they were in the carriages.
Eight decades later, Oleksandr Kamishin took over as head of railways in August 2021, after working in the private sector as well as in the Ministry of Infrastructure.
After lunch, Kamishin opens the photo gallery on his phone and recounts his life over the past few months. “It was 11 p.m. on February 23,” he said, showing a photo of his wife and children at home. “We didn’t know the war was going to start.
He scrolls to a photo of his son making bracelets in national colors which they later sell to help the Ukrainian army. While touching one of those same bracelets he wears, Kamishin says, “My family is safe.” With this knowledge, he adds, “I can bear to live like this…until death if necessary.”
As the train stops once more, Kamishin says goodbye and gets off with his team and bodyguards. Hand on the bulging gun in the zipped pocket of his right leg, the head of the Ukrainian railways declares: “We are Europeans in Europe fighting against these barbarians and we will never stop.
We fight until the end, he said. “There is only one option, victory.”