UKRANIAN RAILWAYS TRAIN 749 – We boarded the train heading for Lviv in the northwest corner of Ukraine, near the Polish border and NATO front lines, expecting us to find it crowded with people fleeing from a feared Russian invasion.
But a day after Russian troops entered eastern Ukraine, and tens of thousands more stood ready to invade the country, there were no lines of people demanding tickets to the train station on Tuesday, no people with bags stuffed with precious valuables. suggesting that they planned to leave for good.
On the train, in conversations over a seven-hour, 530-mile journey, Emile Ducke, a photographer and translator traveling with me, and I spoke to passengers making the westward journey to in Lviv, often for complicated reasons, many of which struggle to understand that what they were seeing was actually happening.
Anna Maklakova, 22, does not rule out the idea that a war is possible. For much of her life, since she was 14, there has been a simmering conflict against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Harder for her to comprehend are the grim predictions of many Westerners that a new war could be unlike anything the world has seen since 1945, that a bombing of Kiev could kill tens of thousands of people and devastate what is by all accounts a modern western city of 2.8 million people.
“I mean, come on, this is the 21st century,” she said. “How could there be such a thing?”
Some people, however, said they began to worry more when they heard Russian President Vladimir V. Putin speak on Monday – a chilling speech in which he denied Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign nation.
Khrystyna Batiuk, 47, was visiting her daughter, Marta Bursuk, in Kyiv when she heard Mr Putin speaking and in an instant, she said, it was clear to her that the baby boy of a year of his daughter, Oleksandr, needed to leave town.
“This person,” she said, referring to Mr Putin, “is a mental patient who you don’t know what to expect.”
So there they were – mother, daughter and baby, on a train – one family among millions trying to figure out why their lives were turned upside down by one man in Moscow.
During conversations on the four-car train, people recounted how friends and relatives tried to find them places in western Ukraine, closer to NATO forces, where they could come and watch and wait.
Ms Batiuk said she had been inundated with phone calls from friends across the country asking if she could put them up at her family’s home in Ivano-Frankivsk, the last stop along the line in the west from Ukraine.
And it wasn’t just Ukrainians who were moving west.
Romain, 33, who declined to give his surname, is French but lives in Kiev, and did not evacuate when France told its citizens to evacuate last week.
But after a few days of consideration, he said, he decided to go to Lviv. He was not worried about the bombs but about his ability to work.
“I am 100% dependent on the internet, there could be many ways to be disrupted,” he said.
Ms. Maklakova, however, refused to believe that her life was about to be turned upside down. She was only leaving Kyiv for a short trip, she said.
She lives in Kyiv, loves Kyiv and plans to return to Kyiv on Friday.
We talked about the suffering endured by the nation in the 20th century.
It was almost 100 years ago when Stalin directed his murderous impulse against the Ukrainians, leaving four million dead in an orchestrated famine. Many towns and villages we passed along the 330-mile route from Kiev to Lviv were later ravaged during World War II.
This tragic story has been invoked repeatedly by Ukrainian officials in recent months as Russian troops massed on the border, raising the specter of another bloody conflict on their soil.
Understand how the Ukrainian crisis developed
But Ms. Maklakova remained convinced that the past would not be revisited.
The only time she raised the prospect of war unprompted after hours of conversation was when she showed me a tattoo, an abstract image that she said represented family, on her arms. His mother has the same.
“She wants me to come with her,” Ms. Maklakova said. “When times are bad, it’s natural.”
She was aware of what was going on around her, but she says she still did not understand why some of her friends were talking about leaving the capital.
“I don’t know why all this attention is on Kyiv,” she said. “If war comes, it comes for everyone.”
Ms. Maklakova, who studied international economic relations at university, works for a French pharmaceutical company and had no doubts that she would be back at her office in Kyiv in a few days. She quoted Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, as saying that he had lunch in Kyiv, had lunch in Kyiv and would have dinner in Kyiv.
Ms Maklakova said she felt the same.
The city captured her imagination as soon as she arrived in 2017, she said. There was an energy that bewitched him.
The buzz in the cafes, the beauty of the parks, the feeling that her destiny was hers – that’s what Kyiv means to her, she says. “I love the nightlife in Kyiv,” she said. “All my friends like to sing and dance.”
A few hours into the trip, she took a nap. As I stared out the window at the frozen ground, I thought of the warnings that Russia would invade before spring to facilitate the movement of heavy artillery across the country.
Earlier, Ms Maklakova said she hadn’t thought about the news. And if she did, she might believe half of what she heard.
The sun was setting, casting a golden glow over the passing white birch forests.
When the train pulled into Lviv station, a grand edifice built in 1904, at a time when Europe was divided among several empires, a smell of smoke and fuel filled the air.
There was a bustle that was missing when I left Kyiv. People seemed to expire as they got off the train. Lviv is the city of patriotic fervor, where the blue and gold flag adorns buildings and waves from street poles. It is a redoubt for Ukrainian forces and probably the last place to be attacked by Russia in the event of an invasion due to its proximity to NATO forces.
At the platform on Tuesday evening, a group of Ukrainian soldiers prepared to board an eastbound train. A man walked towards them, a stranger, his hand outstretched. He wished them good luck and victory.