Ukraine’s war has evoked dark aspects of European history such as artillery duels and mass graves. It has also revived a more curious element of the continent’s 20th century politics: diplomacy by train.
Ever since the country’s airspace was closed to civilian traffic when Russia invaded in February, political leaders hoping to visit President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine have been forced to take the train to the capital, Kyiv. The rail trip on Thursday by the leaders of France, Germany and Italy was just the latest example.
Ukraine’s railway timetable lists the journey from Lviv, in the west, to Kyiv as taking about eight and a half hours, a decidedly sluggish form of travel for global leaders used to being zipped from place to place by plane, limousine or helicopter. But for image-conscious politicians of the Instagram age, the inconvenience of such a slow form of travel is offset by new opportunities for optics.
A photograph from Friday’s train trip showed President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy at ease as they chatted around a wooden table in a carriage whose brocaded curtains were decorated with the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s national flag.
None wore ties and Mr. Scholz wore jeans, though in a photo taken hours later when they met Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv all had returned to dark suits, the power costume of male European leaders.
Ukraine’s rail network is one of the most extensive in the world and it has served a vital role since the war began as a conduit for millions of people who have fled fighting in the east of the country for safer locations in the west, or have sought refuge outside the country.
While millions of refugees have fled Ukraine, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia were the first leaders to make journey in the opposite direction, doing so in March when Kyiv was still under bombardment by Russian forces. Since then, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made the trip, as have Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.
In the pantheon of European diplomacy, however, these train trips can seem prosaic compared to other historic train journeys. Vladimir Lenin, for example, took a train from Zurich to the city that is now St Petersburg in 1917 to lead the Russian Revolution.
And the armistice that ended World War I was signed in the dining car of a train parked in a forest north of Paris in November 1918. In revenge for that moment of national humiliation, Adolf Hitler made sure that the treaty that secured France’s surrender to Germany in June 1940 was signed in the same carriage in the same place.
The carriage was transported as a trophy to Germany. But as Allied troops advanced toward Berlin in 1945, it was destroyed.