The war in Ukraine has awakened dark aspects of European history, such as artillery duels and mass graves. It also revived a more curious element of 20th-century continental politics: train diplomacy.
Since the country’s airspace was closed to civilian traffic when Russia invaded the country in February, political leaders hoping to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have been forced to take a train to Kyiv. Thursday’s train trip by the leaders of France, Germany and Italy was just the latest example.
Ukrainian railway timetables indicate that the journey from Lviv in the west to Kyiv takes about eight and a half hours, a decidedly slow way for world leaders accustomed to getting from place to place by plane, limousine or helicopter. But for the image-conscious politicians of the Instagram age, the inconvenience of this slow form of movement is offset by the new possibilities of optics.
In a photo from Friday’s train ride, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi chatted at a wooden table in the carriage, whose brocade curtains were adorned with the blues and yellows of Ukraine. National flag.
No one was wearing ties, and Mr. Scholz was in jeans, although in a photo taken a few hours later, when they met with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv, everyone was again in dark suits, the imperious suits of European male leaders.
Ukraine’s rail network is one of the most extensive in the world, and since the beginning of the war it has played a vital role as a conduit for millions of people who fled the fighting in the east of the country to safer places in the west or sought refuge outside the country.
While millions of refugees fled Ukraine, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia were the first to head in the opposite direction, doing so in March, when Kyiv was still under bombardment from Russian forces. The trip has since been made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
However, in the pantheon of European diplomacy, these train journeys may seem prosaic compared to other historic train journeys. Vladimir Lenin, for example, took a train from Zurich to what 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 retaliation for this moment of national humiliation, Adolf Hitler ensured that the treaty that secured the surrender of France to Germany in June 1940 was signed in the same car at the same place.
The carriage was transported as a trophy to Germany. But as the allied forces advanced towards Berlin in 1945, it was destroyed.