Soviet authorities built the transit system to withstand a potential NATO attack. Now, stations are shielding Ukrainians from Russian missiles.
Nov 12, 2022
By Fabrice Deprez
KYIV, Ukraine—Early on the morning of Oct. 10, Svetlana Prystupa was in her apartment in southwest Kyiv when she was shaken by the loudest explosions she had heard since the early days of Russia’s war in Ukraine. After grabbing a pre-packed emergency bag and rushing down nine flights of stairs, the 39-year-old communications specialist and her 15-year-old daughter, Lera, had to decide where to go: the bomb shelter inside a nearby hospital or the closest metro station. Both were just a few minutes’ walk away.
“The hospital’s shelter is an excellent one, with thick concrete walls, ventilation, beds, and water,” Prystupa told Foreign Policy. “But when we got there, it turned out there was no internet or cellular network, no way to call my husband [who was stuck in traffic on the other side of town], look at social networks, or understand what was going on.” So Prystupa and her daughter went out again, this time to the Holosiivska metro station, where hundreds of people were already seeking protection from Russian missiles.
“The [station] staff was extremely friendly and immediately told us where we could sit—you could feel it wasn’t the first time for them,” she remembered. Prystupa and her daughter stayed in the station for nearly four hours, anxiously looking at news on their phones until the air raid alarm was lifted at midday.
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the 47 underground stations of Kyiv’s metro system together sheltered around 40,000 people, Viktor Brahinskyi, the head of the Kyiv Metro, told Foreign Policy. Some remained for weeks in the metro’s ornate, marble-encrusted terminals, turning platforms and trains into makeshift encampments, using toilets and showers usually seen only by the metro staff, and consuming food and water delivered by humanitarian workers and local volunteers.
Eight months later, when Russia kicked off a new bombing campaign that is still ongoing, using cruise missiles and Iranian exploding drones to target the Ukrainian capital and critical infrastructure throughout the country, the stations—some located nearly 100 meters underground—once again became a place of refuge for thousands of Kyiv residents and their pets. But while in February city authorities halted rail service for nearly two months to accommodate civilians seeking shelter, the boxy blue and yellow cars of the Kyiv Metro have continued working throughout the near-daily air raid alerts that have resonated in the city since Oct. 10.
“The Kyiv Metro has always had two functions: first as a transport infrastructure and second as a civil defense infrastructure,” Brahinskyi said. The rail network was built during the Soviet era, and its stations were designed to double as bomb shelters—during a potential NATO attack. Many residents find it surreal that those same stations are now shielding civilians from Russian missiles.
“We still can’t really believe that it’s happening,” said Nelia Shamraichuk, the head of the Obolon metro station in northern Kyiv, who has worked for the Kyiv Metro since 1983. “The instructions [for how to turn the station into a shelter] were written back in the Soviet Union, though of course they’ve been updated since,” she explained from her small office above Obolon’s platform.
The Kyiv Metro’s underground stations have specialized ventilation and filtration systems as well as thick metal blast doors that can be sealed hermetically at both aboveground entrances and in tunnels. The blast doors had for decades been nothing more than objects of curiosity for commuters who used the transit system. “You’d say, ‘Oh, look at the blast doors. Look at how they were made to withstand a nuclear strike.’ People would smile and say how funny it is to think about this,” Oleh Totskiy, a blogger and Kyiv Metro expert, told Foreign Policy.
Even in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “we would train regularly” for an attack, Shamraichuk said. Though the threat of nuclear war had by then almost entirely dissipated, the metro system instead sought to prepare for possible chemical warfare or flooding. “We’d come to the metro station at night, assess the situation, and do first-aid training. But for us it always felt like a game.”
That game became very real on Feb. 25, when Russian troops reached Kyiv’s outskirts and nearly 2,000 frightened people—along with the dozens in other metro stations – heard that at Heroiv Dnipra [two stations north of Obolon], there were Russian paratroopers and BTR armored vehicles, and decided to close the hermetic doors. Then they said the same thing at the Minska metro station [one station north of Obolon], and one employee asked me what to do. And I said, “Let’s close the doors. We have 2,000 people here. Let’s not wait until they start shooting at us.” In the end, Russian forces did not make it to Obolon.
The number of people sheltering in Kyiv’s metro system gradually decreased as the Ukrainian military beat back Russian troops, who ultimately retreated from the capital region. When the metro slowly reopened in April, it had become a symbol of the city’s resilience. On April 23, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky chose the Khreshchatyk metro station in central Kyiv to hold a rare news conference. He returned there in early November for an interview with American TV host David Letterman. The metro station remains one of the few permanently closed since the beginning of the war, likely because of its proximity to Kyiv’s government quarter.
The metro “plays one of the very first roles in our civil defense plan,” Roman Tkachuk, the director of Kyiv’s department of safety, said. On paper, the 47 underground metro stations represent only a tiny fraction of the more than 3,000 shelters, the majority of them private, registered by city authorities. But not all shelters are created equal: “A few days before Feb. 24,
my fiancé and I took a walk in our neighborhood, to try and identify where the shelters were. We realized that every space that was supposed to be a shelter was taken up by a bar, or an animal shop, or things like that,” recalled Olga Kotrus, a 34-year-old Ukrainian writer living in central Kyiv. “If something happens, we pretty much have nowhere to go except to the metro station.”
Eight months into the war, keeping shelters open remains an issue. “The situation is a lot worse when it comes to private shelters. We have to constantly fight with them so that they fulfill their mission,” Tkachuk told Foreign Policy. Owners of private shelters are required by law to keep them free and accessible to the public when there is an air raid alarm, but local authorities threatened on Oct. 12 to send police to “cut the locks” of private shelters not being opened during air raid alerts. Apps and maps provided by the Kyiv government allow residents to find the closest shelter, but the city’s spacious, always-open metro stations often remain the most visible and convenient refuge.
When Russian missiles started falling on Kyiv again in October, the Kyiv Metro had adapted to concurrently run trains and function as a shelter. In August, prerecorded announcements started blasting through the stations during air raid alerts, warning that the metro “now operates as a shelter” and that trains service only underground stations. In October, about 500,000 people rode the Kyiv Metro every day, according to Brahinskyi, the head of the transit system, a sharp decrease from the nearly 1.5 million people who used it daily before the war, but still a sizable number.
Though trains continue to run during air raid alarms, some rules are dropped. “I can also get in with my dog. Usually it’s not allowed,” 35-year-old Dmytro Kucher told Foreign Policy on Oct. 18, when Russian strikes killed three people in Kyiv.
Kucher waited out that day with a few hundred other people in the Zoloti Vorota metro station, which is 95 meters below ground and decorated with intricate mosaic panels depicting the princes of medieval-era Kyivan Rus and the archangel Michael, patron saint of Kyiv. Kucher and his dog “were going for breakfast when the air raid alarm sounded,” he said. “We weren’t far from the station, so we decided to wait out the alarm here.”
Kucher and his dog stood in a vestibule below the station’s first escalator—stations here are so deep they usually have multiple—with dozens of other locals, some of whom waited on folding chairs or yoga mats. Nearby televisions usually displaying ads instead showed Ukraine’s “information marathon,” a special TV broadcast set up in the war’s early days to provide Ukrainians with news about the war and safety recommendations. Another escalator down, some residents anxiously waited for the end of the air raid alarm, while others took the metro as usual.
Eight months into the war, with missile attacks once again routine, the Kyiv Metro is playing a central part in keeping the city’s residents safe. “Of course it’s different now compared to Feb. 24,” Prystupa, the communications specialist, said. “Yes, I know where to go. I know where the shelters are. Yes, I have my emergency bag ready, with food and water.”
“I know how to act, but the fear is still there. [During missile attacks] I can’t stay between two walls. I need to know that I can be in a place that is safe for my family and me,” she said. The metro is that place.
Fabrice Deprez is a French freelance journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Twitter: @fabrice