She lives in a remote town in Ukraine, but her collection of photos with powerful Western leaders is impressive. Because Tetiana Kogout is a train hostess and accompanies the VIPs who come to support the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion.
Here she is with the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen or the Slovak Head of State Zuzana Caputova: these are just a few photos that she scrolls through on her phone.
“I accompanied dozens of passengers: presidents, prime ministers, princes…”, this carefully made-up 36-year-old woman told AFP.
Originally from Golovetsko, a village two hours from Lviv, the big city in the West, where she still lives with her husband and their teenage son, Tetiana would never have thought she would meet celebrities or heads of state when she started to work as a “providnytsa” –sleeping car hostess– 19 years ago.
In this country, the largest in Europe where all commercial planes have been grounded since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, night trains remain a central element of travel for Ukrainians in the country and towards the ‘stranger. All at relatively cheap rates, and with impressive wartime punctuality.
Western supporters of Ukraine have no choice: they too must travel on these trains, most often from Poland.
Each carriage is served by one or two hosts who check tickets, serve tea, coffee and biscuits, while ensuring peace and cleanliness.
At the start of the Russian invasion, Tetiana worked for weeks, sometimes under bombardment, on civilian evacuation routes.
When Russian forces were forced to retreat in the spring of 2022 after failing to take Kiev and Western officials had begun to flock, several dozen hosts and hostesses were assigned the mission of accompanying these delegations.
Its first was that of the President of the European Parliament Roberta Metzola in early April 2022. The train crew understood that there were going to be VIPs when they saw security guards at the station in Poland.
More than a year and a half later, Tetiana no longer has her distinguished guests. She learned to get by in English to “offer tea or coffee” and “understand questions” from her passengers.
Ukrainian Railways transported more than 500 official delegations in 21 months of war--
“They thank us for the work, say: ‘You stayed in the country, aren’t you afraid?'” says Tetiana, sitting on a berth on train 091/92 linking Kiev and Lviv, where she works when she is not on a VIP mission.
In total, Ukrainian Railways transported more than 500 official delegations in 21 months of war.
For security reasons, these trips are organized in great secrecy, but sometimes details emerge later, like this video from the media Politico, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then-Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi tease the president Frenchman Emmanuel Macron who apparently obtained the most chic compartment during the trio’s trip to Kiev in June 2022.
The traveler with whom Tetiana traveled most often is the former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom she accompanied four times as head of government and after his departure from this post. He gave him his hat with the London Underground emblem.
It was also Mr. Johnson who consoled Tetiana during her “worst journey” on August 24, 2022, when a Russian strike on a railway junction killed at least 25 civilians, including two of her colleagues.
The team of the head of German diplomacy, Annalena Baerbock, was on the other hand “very impressed” by the punctuality of her train which arrived in kyiv right on time.
“They said that back home, in Germany, it doesn’t exist,” says Tetiana, while the German Deutsche Bahn is in fact mocked for the uneven quality of its service.
Tetiana assures that her VIP train was only a quarter of an hour late once. The cause was bad weather causing a tree to fall on the rails. “We had to explain (to the delegation) that it was not a bombing but simply rain.”
Finally, she says she created “a little museum” of souvenirs offered by her passengers: badges, thank you notes, pens, notebooks…
“I never imagined that I would be able to meet presidents of other countries, talk to them,” confides Tetiana, “but I would have preferred peace at home and only seeing them on television.”