In more peaceful times, more than 1 million people a day rode the trains of the Kyiv Metro. The three-line network, which was the third-largest subway system in the former Soviet Union, boasts underground stations decorated with marble friezes, mosaics, chandeliers and vaulted ceilings.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb 24, those stations have also served as emergency shelters for an estimated 15,000 Kyiv residents, who bed down on platforms and in hallways after service ends to give people refuge once the city’s curfew begins at 7pm
Kyiv’s 52-station system, which opened in 1960, was designed to deal with situations like the one in which the Ukrainian capital now finds itself - even if its architects might never have imagined the source of the current threat.
Built at the height of the Cold War, most Kyiv Metro stations double as bomb shelters.
The Arsenalna station, reached via an escalator ride that takes five minutes, was constructed at depths of up to 105m - the deepest subway platform in the world. The system as a whole is equipped to shelter up to 100,000 people.
The network’s civil-defence readiness continued after Ukrainian independence in 1991. As a result the stations have essential infrastructure in place, with ample public bathroom facilities and drinking water fountains on concourses.
“For years, metro workers have been doing everything necessary for this function to be maintained,” said Natalia Makohon, Kyiv Metro’s deputy director.
“There is a special service that checks the equipment’s technical condition. There is a special person responsible for civil protection. So when the war started, we were ready.”
The COVID-19 pandemic may have improved the network’s ability to deal with crisis. The entire system was shut down for more than two months in early 2020, which gave transit officials the opportunity to reboot and tighten up cleaning procedures.
“For the first time in its history, the Kyiv Metro was not transporting passengers,” Makohon said. “The staff was engaged only in station services and preparations. It was a great moment to reshape our work.”
That emergency readiness does not mean that metro officials ever expected to have to use it.
“The shelter function was like a rescue button on your phone that you never use, but makes you feel more secure,” she said.
“Even if we did everything possible to maintain the function, we had no idea that we would ever come to use the stations as shelters. Activating that option was a great challenge for us.”
The realities of Russia’s assault on Kyiv creates additional difficulties for operating a transit service by day and a mass shelter by night.
Only about 3,000 of the system’s 8,000 workers are available. People who live in the suburbs mostly cannot get to work because of the heavy fighting taking place there, and many are working around the clock.
“Our team works quite intensively - because of the personnel shortage, people have no chance for rest,” Makohon said.
“Very few people, even those who live nearby, have a chance to go home. People are exhausted, but they understand the importance of their job.”
Remarkably, the subway itself is still running, though service is limited: The blue-and-yellow trains run once an hour until the 7pm curfew. Several central stations are now closed because of their proximity to the government district. Stations and stretches of the line can close and open at short notice depending on the situation above ground.
That has made sheltering people Kyiv Metro’s prime function. The population of residents in the stations, Makohon said, is diverse in age, gender and need.
Some still go to work or volunteer during the day and stay in the subway overnight because they feel safer there than in shelters closer to their homes.
Others are refugees from suburban towns that have been attacked, such as Irpin and Bucha. These are typically women and children who have arrived in a hurry without belongings and need assistance.
Older people are more likely to stay full-time, because they find it harder to move around. Many have brought pets - people with dogs and cats also tend to stay put, because moving around with their animals is harder.
Others, however, are more mobile, sometimes using the trains to move to another station, Makohon said, “just to change the picture.”
In a city in the throes of war, the subway offers an oasis of relative security - a place to charge phones and get food, water or much-needed rest.
“I’ve been here since the third day of the war,” said Dmytro Kavsan, a 57-year-old artist sheltering in Shuliavka Station. “At first, I tried to sleep at home, but each day, the explosions were coming closer and closer.”
On Feb. 26, the fighting was so close that he thought he heard soldiers’ voices and started sleeping in the station. “When I arrived here, it was the first night I could finally sleep,” he said.
“It is a bit cold, so I have to sleep in my jacket. But it is really the safest place in the city. I brought some mates and some sleeping bags.”
Adding to these people are Metro staff and their families, who are essentially sheltering on the job, unable to return home. “Many workers cannot go home as the roads are cut off,” said Makohon.
“Their children live with them at the stations. This is quite a complicated situation for all of them.”
Food and other essential supplies are brought in by volunteer organizations, as well as city and state officials. As fighting edges closer to the city, medical needs are becoming a greater concern.
“We are looking for support to get more medicine,” said Makohon. “Many people have specific diseases that need special treatment,” like a woman who was in urgent need of insulin.
The stations’ marble floors are cold, so Metro workers provide foam mats and other bedding materials. And staffers help in other ways, too, said Makohon.
She describes a cleaner who cooks food for the shelter population on a small stove in the tiny staff room at the Lukyanivska station. That kind of resourcefulness and generosity offer comfort and solace for dealing with the shock of seeing their lives turned upside down so quickly.
“I am a Cold War child,” said Kavsan.
“At school we used to have some kind of security training, where there were sirens, so we had to run to the shelter and hide. But even at that time, I couldn’t imagine it could be real. We children perceived this as some fun or game. Now, it has become my reality.”