Ukraine has long been consumed by turmoil: political prosecutions, a stalemated war in the east and the loss of its territory to an aggressive Russian neighbor, not to mention rampant corruption and a troubled economy. It’s easy to understand, then, why people here pay little attention to the women they see from their train windows, standing at attention at railway crossings and often holding a folded yellow flag — a sign to the train engineer that all is well on the tracks ahead.
In Ukraine, railroad traffic controllers and safety officers — about 80 percent of whom are women — spend long shifts in small dedicated buildings beside the tracks.
In many respects, the buildings are more like homes than offices. Personal touches line the interiors: religious artifacts, calendars, bicycles, photographs, lace curtains — even, in some cases, cats and dogs.
Some buildings were inherited from the Soviet Union; others were built after independence.
Railroad crossings in Ukraine are almost fully automated — and yet the railroad women persist. They act as a kind of safety net, one that, for now, the Ukrainian railway companies have deemed as still necessary.
Most of the women I met were happy to be noticed and photographed, since their work is so often overlooked — even if it’s very much on display. Some, however, were uncomfortable with the attention. A few declined.
The women spend most of their time in solitude, working 12-hour shifts every two or three days, depending on their location.
Sometimes, though, especially in small villages, a station can become a kind of social hub, where fellow residents come to say hello and spend a few minutes catching up.
The women are paid about 8,000 Ukrainian Hryvnia per month, or a little over $300. Ukrainian Railways is a state-owned commercial enterprise; these are government jobs.
After war broke out in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine, the crime rate rose throughout the country, and some of the railway buildings were vandalized. Since then, some have been covered with protective wiring.
While the country and the world are consumed with larger, more pressing issues, the women with their folded yellow flags play a big — if silent — role in everyday life.
In a storm, it’s often hard to see the lighthouse. Ukraine’s railroad ladies are a kind of lighthouse: a symbol of how certain things in this country stand firm in the present as a defiant nod to the past.
Unfazed by the passing of trains and time, they are here to stay.
Sasha Maslov is a Ukrainian photographer who lives and works in New York. His most recent book, “Veterans: Faces of World War II,” was part of a worldwide project to interview and photograph some of the last surviving combatants from World War II. Another book, based on this series and titled “Ukrainian Railroad Ladies,” will be published in Kyiv later this year.
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