The author’s own photo as he crosses the Zaporizhia electrical plant dam. The rocks in the water below became visible after the Russians destroyed the Kakhovka Dam

Serhii Plokhy’s diary: The trains are still running in Ukraine—unlike the west’s planes

The historian returned to his war-torn home country in August to find scenes of destruction but also of hope and inspiration
November 1, 2023

I long planned to go to Ukraine, to see my relatives, deliver an address at the leading university, and launch a Ukrainian translation of my book on the Russo-Ukrainian war. I had little choice over the timing of the visit—it had to take place around the start of the new Ukrainian academic year, but before Labor Day and the start of the first week of classes at Harvard, where I teach.

I had more control over the itinerary. Ukrainian airspace is closed because of the war, making it impossible to fly to Kyiv or any other city. The most popular route to Ukraine now goes through Poland. I arranged to fly from Boston to Munich and then to Krakow, continuing by train to Przemyśl on the Polish-Ukrainian border. From there, a train was supposed to take me to Zaporizhia, my hometown and the heart of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south of the country. Then I would go on to Dnipro, where I had studied and begun my academic career, and where some of my relatives lived. My journey would end in Kyiv, where the translation of my book was to be launched, and professors and students were ready to welcome me to give a talk as a newly minted honorary professor at Ukraine’s oldest university, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, founded in 1632.

My original plan was to arrive in Ukraine in time to celebrate the 32nd anniversary of Ukrainian independence on 24th August. But a colleague told me that “You would spend the whole day in a bomb shelter. The Russians will be sending ‘birthday gifts’ in the form of missiles and kamikaze drone attacks.” I knew what she meant. In 2022, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, the Russians attacked the cities of Zaporizhia, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and their environs. In the town of Chaplyne, east of Zaporizhia, they hit the railway station, setting train wagons on fire, killing 25 people and wounding more than 30. Among the dead were children aged 6 and 11. I revised my itinerary to leave the United States on 24th August, planning to arrive in Ukraine on the night of 25th August, one day after the anniversary.

My sister in Zaporizhia told me over the phone, before I boarded the plane, that there had been no attacks on our hometown that day. But in the early hours of 24th August the Russians had fired rockets at the city of Dnipro, 85km to the north, and the next point on my itinerary. They hit several targets, including the bus station. Fortunately, the station was deserted in the early morning, but three people were wounded in the city and 11 buildings damaged. I saw the damaged parts of the bus station and the pile of debris in front of it when I arrived on the morning of 28th August, four days after the attack. I had used the station countless times when traveling between the two cities. Unable to imagine a missile attack on that familiar station, I stared at it in disbelief. Another attack could come any time, with little—if any—warning.

A relative who picked me up at the bus station said that, in that part of Ukraine, sirens generally sound after the attack, not before it. I heard a similar warning from my sister during my stay with her, as one siren followed another. We are being attacked from the Tokmak region, she told me, so missiles would arrive in less than a minute—not enough time to sound a warning. In Zaporizhia, all stores and banks would close when the initial alerts of missile attacks began to sound, but, by this point in the war some remained open, including a wine store where I got some excellent Portuguese wine for a festive table.

“You can’t put your life on hold indefinitely,” I heard more than once during my stay. And, certainly, one could not run to the shelter every night, as I learned on my own. My sister gave up on that idea long ago and sleeps in her bedroom. Her daughter does likewise when she comes to visit from a somewhat safer city in central Ukraine, but she tries to stay away from the windows—they go first in an explosion, and flying glass causes a lot of damage. It can kill. My relatives in Dnipro sleep in their hallway, taking advantage of the so-called rule of two walls—hallways have no windows, and their ceilings collapse last in case of a direct hit.

Last autumn, a Russian missile hit a market across the street from the building where my relatives live. When my cousin left the safety of the hallway and rushed to the bedroom, where she had left her mobile phone charging, the bedroom ceiling started to collapse. She managed to get out unhurt, phone in hand. Since then, she’s been much stricter about staying in the hallway. The damaged ceiling is still there—I saw it. There is no point in repairing it, explained my cousin, as there could be another hit at any moment. She and her husband live not far from the headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service—a target of import for the Russian missile men. They have managed to hit buildings on both sides of the headquarters, but not the command centre itself.

Another attack could come any time, with little—if any—warning

At an early dinner with my relatives in a restaurant on the Dnipro River embankment, we discuss the war—their experiences during the course of it and the international politics that determine it. One question that everyone asks me, a visitor from the US, is why the Americans and their western allies are dragging their feet, supplying the Ukrainian armed forces with the absolute minimum required to hold the line but not to counterattack successfully and move the front line away from cities like Zaporizhia, Dnipro and President Zelensky’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih. Numerous theories about the influence of Russian money and corrupt American and western politicians were proposed and discussed at the table. “We are paying for those delays with our people’s blood,” says the wife of one of my cousins.

I have no good answers to such questions. No Nato army has ever launched a major offensive without overwhelming air superiority or, rather, complete control of the airspace involved. Why western commentators expected the Ukrainians to succeed without supplying the requisite jet fighters, and played ridiculous games of finger-pointing with regard to tanks, is impossible to explain to the people of Ukraine. The same applies to expressions of disappointment over the slow progress of the offensive voiced by some unnamed western officials and far-from-anonymous pundits. At the train station, I could not help noticing a number of young amputees. The number of Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their limbs to Russian mines skyrocketed during the counteroffensive, crossing the 50,000 mark.

There in Dnipro, sitting at that table, I represented the entire west, showing the flag, defending some indefensible actions, taking credit for the generosity of others, and trying to reassure people I have known for most of my life that we in the west will not abandon Ukraine in the war that is saving us all from future aggressions. I explain that the delays are due not to corruption but to American and European concern about crossing imagined red lines in the mind of Vladimir Putin, thereby avoiding escalation and possible use of nuclear weapons. If that is the case, says one of my relatives, why would the west not just surrender to Putin right away? Why drag it out?

I say something in response, but I know that he is right: the best way to encourage a bully is to succumb to his threats. The conversation moves on to family topics, including the story of a family member who found refuge in Britain along with her 10-year-old daughter. There I feel on firmer ground. The west is doing a lot to support Ukraine. It is just that everyone here needs this nightmare to end and see the Russians kicked out of Ukraine. Whether my words produce the desired calming effect on my interlocutors or not, their words and actions certainly have that effect on me. My friends and relatives—seemingly in concert with everyone else in Ukraine—have learned to live and fight back under impossible wartime conditions. They keep calm and carry on.

I arrived in Kyiv in time for the most severe attack on the city in more than half a year. As I moved into my dorm room at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, a custodian told me that it helps to keep the windows open. Otherwise, a blast wave can break the glass. I did as advised. On 30th August, I woke up moments after 5am to the sound of a huge explosion. It felt like thunder, but there were no thunderclaps. I thought to myself: I am in Kyiv; it must be a blast. So it was. When I checked the news on my iPhone, an air raid alert was on. I had slept through it and, as it turned out, through a couple of other blasts as well. The one that woke me up was the strongest and closest. Kyiv was under attack by drones and missiles launched from Tu-95 strategic bombers.

In the next hour, news about the attack began to appear on social media. “I am OK. They are extinguishing a fire next to my building,” wrote a friend on Facebook. Mayor Vitalii Klychko was commenting on developments, and all the emergency services were helping people. It was then that I realized how lucky I was. First, American-supplied Patriots had probably shot down all the missiles. Second, the explosions caused by debris from the destroyed missiles had fallen relatively far from the area where I was staying. Several buildings had been damaged, two people killed and three injured in the city itself. In a village not far from Kyiv, some houses had been damaged but, thank God, there had been no casualties.

That day in Kyiv there were no signs of panic, just hatred towards the aggressors and calm determination to keep going. Life was proceeding as usual, and people were attending to their business. Later in the day, I met with an official from the general prosecutor’s office who was investigating ecological crimes committed by the Russian aggressors, ranging from the occupation of Chernobyl to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. As our conversation moved away from Chernobyl—the main subject of my interest and the reason for the meeting—the prosecutor reached for his iPhone and showed me a video of buildings in the village near Kyiv damaged earlier that morning. His home turned out to be located on a street parallel to the one destroyed by the attack, and he might easily have been among the victims. But he was not, and there he was in his office, doing his job.

Nor were there any signs of panic two days later, on 1st September, when President Serhii Kvit of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy welcomed me as I arrived to deliver my address. There were 750 new students in the auditorium, and Professor Kvit told them that in the case of an air raid alert everyone was to proceed to the shelter. They all knew how to behave. The freshmen had graduated from Ukrainian schools where interrupting classes to take shelter had become a norm. Thankfully, there was no alert that morning. My lecture went as planned, and the meeting continued for more than two hours, as there was no end to the lineup of students who wanted to comment and ask questions—some of the most intellectually informed and mature questions that I had dealt with since the start of the war. The young people of Ukraine are looking to the years ahead with concern but also with determination. They asked how I imagined the Ukrainians of the future. I told them that I did not have to resort to imagination: those Ukrainians were in front of me.

Book sales in Ukraine are increasing, I learned from the publisher with whom we had launched the Ukrainian translation of my Russo-Ukrainian War the previous day. A year earlier, he had wondered whether the invasion would put an end to his business. He and his family had left Kharkiv in March to avoid a possible occupation, but they were back in May, enduring the bombardment of the city and resuming their publishing activities. Luckily, their huge book warehouse near Kharkiv was not hit. Now he was gazing on the future with optimism just as, I knew, were the students I had met and others buying books in wartorn Ukraine.

On the evening of 1st September, I boarded the train to Przemyśl, taking with me some of the contagious Ukrainian determination and optimism. That train, like every other one I took on the trip, left on time and reached its destination on time—even though sirens were audible as I passed through some stations. The same applied to the Polish trains. Meanwhile, my Lufthansa flight from Krakow to Munich was late, making it problematic to catch the connecting flight from Munich to Boston. I made it only because the Boston flight was even more delayed than the one to Munich.

The difference between the Ukrainian trains, which left and arrived on time, often under missile attacks, and the chronically delayed western airliners could not have been more striking. My most nerve-wracking experiences—whether I would reach the next destination or not—all happened outside Ukraine. While I survived the delays in airline schedules, I knew that many Ukrainians, especially those in the armed forces, had not survived the delays in the supply of western armaments, many of them long promised but never delivered. The number of portraits of professors and students who have died in this war—portraits marked with black ribbons—is constantly growing on the memory walls in my alma mater, Dnipro University, which I visited on my trip, and the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, where I delivered my talk.

I left Ukraine with one question foremost in my mind: why the delays? I could find no answer when people asked me the same in Ukraine, or when I thought about it while rushing through Munich airport to catch my connecting flight. I caught the flight, but I did not arrive at an answer.