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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #69



I imagined the train ride from Dnipro to Lviv would be an uncontroversial and uneventful affair. As is typical in wartime Ukraine, it turned out to be anything but. I have noticed two features of Ukrainian Railways that had hitherto escaped me. Firstly, the prices of the tickets have nothing to do with the distance travelled or the speed of the train. (All long-distance trains travel at the same speed.) Nor really does the price depend upon which class you travel in. There are differences, but they are marginal. Instead the main determinant of the price is the number of stops the train makes. Because most stops tend to involve substantial waits in each station, a lot of stops slows the train right down. Therefore whereas my first train out east, from Lviv to Zaporizhzhia, had taken 26 hours, this train back from Dnipro, just 90 kilometres north of Zaporizhzhia to Lviv, took a mere 12 and a half hours. The reason was that it hardly made any stops.


The other curious feature of Ukrainian Railways long distance trains is that first and second class are exactly the same carriages and it does not necessarily follow that express trains (the more expensive ones) have any first class berths available. In both classes each compartment has four berths but the elevated berths (conventionally considered inferior by Ukrainian to the lower ones because you have to clamber up into them) are raised and not used so only two people occupy a four-berth compartment. Aside from that, everything is exactly the same. The question of whether a train has any carriages assigned to first class is simply a question of expected demand. Busy services - such as this express train across the country - has no first class because it is expected that there will be sufficient passengers for four to occupy each compartment. Quieter trains, that are not full, will sell seats in first class (i.e. half empty) carriages for a slight premium. While there is modest economic logic in this, it is a command economy way of thinking about pricing and supply, premised upon an assumption that the goal is to move the maximum number of people rather than to maximise the railway company’s revenue. In any event, Ukrainian train tickets are extraordinarily cheap, even by Ukrainian standards. This express journey of 12 and a half hours cost me a mere 21 Euros; the 26-hour journey, an even longer distance, had cost me 11 Euros.


I clambered up the steep steps from the platform (that are not elevated in the former Soviet Union, so you must climb up onto trains on small iron ladders that open outwards from the train doors) into the corridor of my carriage and into the compartment which really is quite pokey when you have four people sharing a space of perhaps four square metres. And this train was full. We all sat there glumly as the train rolled out of Dnipro’s impossibly grim dull grey concrete station. And then I took off my boots, that had been drenched in mud, dust and sand from my adventures hiking around the front line.


Immediately there was a gasp. My feet stank. A great commotion ensued. The compartment at the end has a foreigner whose feet smell. And admittedly they did smell bad. One of the people in my compartment was a soldier coming from the front at Zaporizhzhia. He had me take off my socks, and both he and I simultaneously recognised the problem: I have trench foot.


Trench foot is a condition caused by wearing heavy boots in damp environments over an extended period of time without sufficient opportunity to clean one’s boots and socks. The ailment acquired its name because it was common in World War I amongst soldiers serving in the trenches. But in fact it is a common problem in any war. My feet had swollen up, the skin was cracking on the sides, and some sort of fungus seems to be growing on them. It felt as though most of the people in the carriage were entering our compartment to examine my feet. The foreigner has trench foot! Different people emerged with swabs, gauze, antiseptic and other sorts of things that won’t really help. The treatment for trench foot is to stop wearing heavy boots for a while, and to apply a fungicide which I will acquire in Lviv.


Nevertheless for one person in my compartment, who like me turned out to be a lawyer, this simple treatment was not enough. His wife is a doctor in Zaporizhzhia, and his friend is the Director of Lviv’s main military hospital. There are a pair of new boots waiting for me at Lviv railway station - I had to give my shoe size, which is very large by Ukrainian standards, so who knows how they found boots to fit me. Then I will be taken straight to the military hospital, where my infections will be excavated, I was told, by Lviv’s top military doctor. By the way, here is a copy of his law licence and I must take a photograph of it for my records. Everything is to be very official.


At the time of writing these words, I am trying to negotiate my way out of this overly zealous but exceptionally generous exercise in Ukrainian patriotism. All I need is to get to the apartment I am staying at in Lviv; have a shower; and then go to the pharmacy. There is no way on earth I am going to Lviv’s main military hospital over a pair of smelly feet in order to have a surgeon apply a scalpel to my soles.


I try to get my new lawyer friend to talk about something other than my feet, and to stop calling his wife to discuss the matter. He lives in Zaporizhzhia, he has taken an overnight train to Lviv to spend half a day in Court, and then he is taking the overnight train back to Zaporizhzhia tonight without having had any proper sleep. Getting a decent night’s sleep on Ukrainian Railways is no easy feat, as the trains are noisy and bumpy, particularly when they reach high speeds. When I return to Zaporizhzhia, he says, I must meet him for a tour of the courts. I gratefully accept. While the bombs are raining down, nothing sounds more enjoyable then a day in front of some Ukrainian Judges.


If you are reading this, then it is a safe bet that I have evaded any pre-arranged Lviv military hospital transport arrangements and I am safely in central Lviv. I am looking forward to a short does of relative normality. Having bumped and jerked from one crazy event and situation to the next over the past several weeks, I imagine Lviv as a forthcoming oasis of paradise. I am deluding myself, of course. It is still a war zone, and it still full of all the crazy things that happen in the middle of a war. All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

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