How world leaders travel to Kyiv, what they eat, and what they do
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv two months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine (Photo:Tetyana Dovgan / Ukrzaliznytsia)
Dmytro Bezruchko, head of the transport planning department of railway operator Ukrzaliznytsia, told NV how world leaders are currently visiting Kyiv and what emergencies sometimes occur during such trips.
A few days before the full-scale Russian invasion, international airlines canceled flights to Ukraine and withdrew their planes. And since Feb. 24, due to the fighting and missile threat from Russia, air travel in Ukraine has completely stopped.
Since then, the war-torn country has relied entirely on its land transport system, in particular the railways, to transport IDPs, humanitarian aid, and weapons. Therefore, it was the national carrier Ukrzaliznytsia that was tasked with evacuating almost 4 million people from dangerous areas of the country, including 1 million children and 112,000 pets.
At the same time, Kyiv needed strong support from foreign allies. So then Ukrzaliznytsia also began to transport Western presidents and prime ministers to the Ukrainian capital. Railway charters with foreign delegations were labeled Iron Diplomacy.
The first visit of foreign leaders since the beginning of the all-out war took place on March 15. The Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, and the then head of the Slovenian government Janez Janša came to Kyiv.
Since then, Ukrzaliznytsia has organized about 200 journeys with foreign dignitaries, and its passengers have included Antony Blinken, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, as well as successful businessmen and celebrities such as Richard Branson, Angelina Jolie, and the legendary Bono and Edge from U2.
NV asked Dmytro Bezruchko, head of the transport planning department of Ukrzaliznytsia, about how exactly western VIPs travel to Kyiv during wartime.
- Whose visit was the most difficult for Ukrzaliznytsia?
- I would call the first visit the most difficult one, because then the whole concept of Iron Diplomacy was still being formed — we had to arrange a charter, prepare cars, organize boarding and disembarking in a restricted area in a few hours. Some things were discussed with the special services directly on board. If you remember, the first haul brought the prime ministers of three countries at once, that is, it was necessary to ensure coordination of Polish, Slovenian and Czech special services with Ukrainian ones on board. This charter, as well as the majority of diplomatic visits during the war period, was top secret, there were still hostilities around Kyiv, so we did not disclose a word until the delegations were already in front of the cameras next to the president. In the rail company itself, a maximum of ten people always know about the charter and the actors on board.
A clear schedule and safety of such hauls is a priority: the dispatcher "leads" diplomatic trains from point A to point B, the route and speed can be quickly adjusted depending on the circumstances, there is usually full camouflage and a clearly defined order of personnel on board.
- Do the offices of world leaders send their riders to UZ, what are the requirements there? What was the most exotic request?
- We quickly realized that we spend on board with distinguished guests sometimes ten times more time than even the president. Moreover, we have a task to form the first impression of the guest about Ukraine and to be the last to shake his hand when he leaves our borders. Therefore, the railway has become more than a transport: it is the first echelon of interstate diplomacy.
Therefore, the first thing we focused on is service and care. Our guests are greeted by English-speaking railway workers, personalized postcards, a collection of free books of Ukrainian and international publishers, press and cinema on request.
We are rarely provided food, but there has never been anything extraordinary there. In fact, we took the initiative in this and established cooperation with (gastronomic expert, co-founder and brand chef of the restaurant 100 Years Back in Future) Yevhen Klopotenko and with his help we are trying to present our country through Ukrainian cuisine. For example, (former British Prime Minister) Boris Johnson absolutely sincerely appreciated both smoked borsch and Galician lard. But the most popular dish among all delegations is still hands down syrnyky (cheese cakes). Almost without exception.
In addition to food, we have now begun work on the aromatization of our executive cars with Ol Factory perfumers, who have chosen a scent that successfully integrates into the ventilation system of the car and neutralizes everything unnecessary.
The publisher Anton Martynov and his publishing house Laboratoria help us with the onboard library. Our guests often take these books with them. We already know who prefers which genres.
Books, movies, food, and fragrances are now the subjects of our non-commercial agreements with friends of the railway, who also appreciate that you can't make a first impression twice, and the support of the world's top leaders during the war is worth ensuring top quality by joint efforts.
- In this case, are world leaders accompanied by their chefs, stylists? What do they bring with them? Who had the biggest "retinue"? How many people accompany each of them on average?
- As a rule, delegations arrive in small numbers: ministers, ambassadors, press officers, guards. For example, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša was accompanied by one person. The largest delegations are usually from the Polish side. But it is definitely not about chefs or stylists — there is no time for this during the war, all diplomats are well aware of this and do not come to Kyiv to walk along Andriyivskiy Uzviz.
- What emergencies happened during the visits of world leaders to Ukraine?
- Everything is always thought through minute by minute, so in fact there are not so many emergencies, but there were some incidents. For example, on the first haul of the British delegation, we did not take into account that all the guests would drink tea with milk, and therefore the milk on board ran out before crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine. We had to wake up the manager of one of the border stations at 4 a.m. to provide morning milk for the prime minister of the United Kingdom.
An interesting story occurred with the band U2, which on the way back from Ukraine asked to hold the train at one of the stations, where the national anthem of Ukraine was played at 9 a.m. At the end of the anthem, Edge, the legendary guitarist of the band, approached one of the Ukrainian soldiers on the platform and after a brief conversation gave him his guitar.
U.S. actor and film director Sean Penn has completely redesigned his entire route and program of events to spend a day in Lviv.
Our Lviv station manager has already compiled a considerable collection of photos with celebrities, starting with Angelina Jolie and ending with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
- Do world leaders communicate with UZ staff: conductors and others. What do they say?
- Naturally, all the leaders we transport have different personalities and degree of sociability. For example, Boris Johnson, [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen, [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau, [Finnish Prime Minister] Sanna Marin, and [Swedish Prime Minister] Magdalena Andersson shook hands with everyone on board, took pictures and recorded videos for the railway workers, and in August we traveled together with the mayors of eight European cities on Kyiv City Express to Irpin and involved them in the Advisory Board of the project.
In general, we have something from every guest of more than 150 diplomatic charter: a T-shirt from the Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese, a cup holder from Boris Johnson, a pillow from Bono, a book signed by Richard Branson, a signed photo album by Annie Leibovitz, a ball from Andriy Shevchenko and a Eurovision victory flag from Kalush Orchestra. We are already seriously considering opening an Iron Diplomacy Museum.
In addition, we always invite top officials to the exhibition Saving the Future between the Central and Southern Railway Stations (in Kyiv), where artifacts from the evacuation of a million Ukrainian (and not only!) children by rail are displayed. This is not a mere formality on the program: railway workers risk their lives every day to evacuate children, the sick, the wounded, and our guests, as a rule, represent countries where these children are now safe, the sick are being treated, and the wounded are recovering. Therefore, this is also an opportunity for the railway workers to thank them for the support and shelter of those whom we have rescued.
By the way, the reaction of world leaders to the scenes of evacuation at our exhibition is also usually very telling: for example, the Prime Minister of Ireland, Micheál Martin, a week after the visit, gave Ukrzaliznytsia a pair of collectible candlesticks made of Galway crystal as a gift for the trip. Micheál Martin is a father of five children who lost two of them, so it was a very sensitive moment for him personally.
- If you compare the trip of Ukrainian and foreign officials, who is easier to transport?
- It is much more difficult to transport the wounded or evacuate children from the frontline cities. And it is equally pleasant and honorable to carry all those who work for the victory of Ukraine. Railroaders just do their job – no more, no less.
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