Daily trips to the Park Street T station in Boston bring back memories of riding a train to get to Kyiv’s city center. First and foremost, I am also taking the Red Line, with the starting point in the suburbs. The T also goes above the ground, passing a river. The only difference is its name — the Charles, not the Dnipro.
Through the late spring, summer and fall, the Ukrainian capital’s metro has been functioning almost normally. The stations are still being used as shelters during air-raid warnings and Russian missile strikes. Built in the Soviet era during the Cold War, many of Kyiv’s subway stations are bomb proof. Initially they had a dual purpose: making commuting efficient in peaceful times and providing protection in case of a war. Some of the stations have public bathroom facilities and drinking water fountains; the presence of these amenities makes them bearable for temporary use. Yet none of them were ready to serve as a long-term shelter. Due to the efforts of subway workers and regular citizens in the end of February and early March, the stations were turned into permanent places of refuge for many residents of Kyiv. In that way, Kyivans who do not have basements in their homes to hide from Russian attacks could have some relatively safe accommodations during the first months of the war, when the occupiers were still actively invading towns nearby Kyiv — particularly in Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin.
Although the depth of Kyiv subway stations is an advantage in terms of hiding from attacks, it is not an ideal place to spend more than a couple of hours in. The lack of warmth and fresh air may cause and worsen existing health problems of people — particularly the elderly — using them for protection. Civilians that had to become residents of the metro this spring have reported frequent colds due to the damp conditions while they prioritized saving their lives over the comfort of the above ground apartments. Even with supplies of food, water and medical treatments provided by volunteers as well as foam mats and other bedding materials from subway staff, spending days or weeks underground is not a challenge that humans should be forced to undertake. The impact of living in such circumstances on mental health has yet to be researched. It is clear that the stress of being in a closed space with hundreds of other people and animals, without sufficient internet, scared for the lives of relatives and friends who did not make it to a shelter, is detrimental to one’s well-being.
The Kyiv subway has continued running limited public transit while operating as a full time shelter with people living in some of the stations. In most scenarios the only reason for a train to be late is another Russian attack — during missile strikes and air-raid warnings the metro stops operating. Those looking for a shelter, however, can access it at any time, with a single requirement: show an identification document. The efficiency with which the subway reopened demonstrates the strength of the entire Ukrainian nation. Just like how the metro quickly came back to its regular work schedule, Ukrainians are rebuilding the areas damaged by Russian occupants and restoring the power supply amid the ongoing war.