1. The Night Train
On the platform in Moscow, two burly men smoke cigarettes beside the idling train. When they aren’t taking pulls, the frost from their breath leaves its own haze. The carriage is painted deep blue with a thin yellow stripe running horizontally along the side—the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The men, both Russians, face away.
“I hear they’ve raised the Russian flag in Donetsk?” one says.
“I hear Crimea, too.”
“We should just take that damn place back. It is ours, after all.”
It’s late February—Ukraine’s fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is on the run and I’m heading to Ukraine to see the aftermath of the “Euromaidan.” Months of protests on Independence Square in Kiev—known colloquially as the “Maidan”—led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s government. The protests began in response to Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU. Now, as Russia has pushed back, moving to annex Crimea, the crisis has escalated into the most ominous clash between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
My sleeper cabin, or kupe, is empty, like most of the countryside we’ll soon roll through. Train travel in this part of the world demands an appreciation of the desolate.
The border between Russia and Ukraine passes imperceptibly, a slow blur of bare birches and knotted telephone wires. We stop once in Dolbino, on the Russian side, where a police officer in black checks passports; we stop again in Kozacha Lopan on the other side, before arriving in Kharkiv, onetime capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The next day, I meet a colleague, and we set off for Crimea on the night train. We pay the conductor a 10 hryvnia—about $1—bribe to let us smoke as we ride.
The passengers, the conductor—everyone, it seems—say the Russians are coming.