UKRANIAN RAILWAYS TRAIN 749 – We boarded the train bound for Lviv, in the north-west corner of Ukraine, near the Polish border and the NATO front, expecting it to be crammed with people fleeing a feared Russian invasion.
But a day after Russian troops moved into eastern Ukraine and tens of thousands more stood ready to sweep into the country, there were no queues at the train station on Tuesday, no people with bags bulging with valuables, suggesting they were planning for always to go.
On the train, in conversations during a seven-hour journey on a 330-mile journey, Emile Ducke, a photographer and translator traveling with me, and I spoke to passengers making the westward journey to Lviv, often for complicated reasons, for whom many had difficulty comprehending that what they saw was actually happening.
Anna Maklakova, 22, doesn’t dismiss the idea that war is possible. For most of her life, since she was 14, the conflict against Russian-backed separatists has simmered in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Harder for them to fathom are the dire predictions of many in the West that a new war could be unlike anything the world has seen since 1945, that a bombardment of Kiev could kill tens of thousands and devastate everything that is by any measure one modern western city with 2.8 million inhabitants.
“I mean, come on, it’s the 21st century,” she said. “How could there be such a thing?”
However, some people said they were more concerned when they heard Russian President Vladimir V Putin speak 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 Kiev when she heard Mr Putin speak and it was immediately clear to her that Oleksandr, her daughter’s one-year-old baby boy, had to leave town.
“This person,” she said, referring to Mr Putin, “is a mentally ill person for whom it is unclear what to expect.”
So here they were – mother, daughter and baby, on one train – a family among millions trying to understand why their lives were being turned upside down by a man in Moscow.
In conversations up and down the four-car train, people talked about how friends and relatives were trying to find places for them in western Ukraine, closer to NATO forces, where they could watch and wait.
Ms Batiuk said she was inundated with calls from friends from across the country asking if she could host her at her family’s home in Ivano-Frankivsk, the last stop along the line in western Ukraine.
And it wasn’t just Ukrainians who moved west.
The 33-year-old Romain, who declined to give his last name, is French but lives in Kiev and did not evacuate when France ordered its citizens to evacuate last week.
But after a few days of reflection, he said, he decided to go to Lviv. He wasn’t worried about bombs, but about his ability to work.
“I’m 100 percent dependent on the internet, there could be many ways that could be disrupted,” he said.
Ms. Maklakova, however, refused to believe that her life would be turned upside down. She is only leaving Kyiv for a short trip, she said.
She lives in Kiev, loves Kiev and wants to return to Kiev on Friday.
We spoke about the suffering the nation had endured in the 20th century.
Almost 100 years ago, Stalin turned his murderous impulse on the Ukrainians, leaving four million dead in an orchestrated famine. Many of the towns and villages we passed on the 330-mile route from Kiev to Lviv were then devastated during World War II.
This tragic story has been repeatedly invoked by Ukrainian officials in recent months as Russian troops massed on the border, raising the specter of another bloody conflict on their soil.
But Ms. Maklakova remained convinced that the past would not be revisited.
The only time she unsolicitedly raised the prospect of war in hours of conversation was when she showed me a tattoo on her arm, an abstract image that she thought represented a family. Your mother has the same.
“She wants me to come to her,” Ms. Maklakova said. “When times are bad, that’s natural.”
She was aware of what was happening around her, but said she still didn’t understand why some of her friends were talking about leaving the capital.
“I don’t know why all this attention is focused on Kiev,” she said. “When war comes, it comes for everyone.”
Ms. Maklakova, who studied international economics in college, works for a French pharmaceutical company and had no doubt that she would be back in her Kiev office in a few days. She quoted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as saying he had breakfast in Kyiv, lunch in Kyiv and will have dinner in Kyiv.
Ms Maklakova said she feels the same.
The city captured her imagination from the moment she first arrived in 2017, she said. It was an energy that captivated her.
The bustle of the cafes, the beauty of the parks, the feeling that her destiny is her own — that’s what Kiev means to her, she said. “I like the nightlife in Kiev,” she said. “All my friends love to sing and dance.”
A few hours into the journey, she took a nap. As I gazed out the window at the frozen earth, I thought of the warnings that Russia would invade before spring to make it easier for heavy artillery to move across the country.
Earlier, Ms. Maklakova said she didn’t think about the news. And if she did, she believed maybe half of what she heard.
The sun was setting, casting a golden glow on the rushing white birch forests.
As the train pulled into Lviv station, a magnificent building dating back to 1904, a time when Europe was divided into empires, the smell of smoke and petrol filled the air.
There was a rush that was missing when I left Kiev. People seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when they got off the train. Lviv is the city of patriotic zeal, where the blue and gold flag adorns buildings and flies from street poles. It is a redoubt for Ukrainian forces and due to its proximity to NATO forces, it is likely to be the last place to be attacked by Russia should an invasion occur.
On the platform late Tuesday, a group of Ukrainian soldiers prepared to board an eastbound train. A man came towards them with outstretched hand, a stranger. He wished them luck and victory.