“Ukraine Railroad Ladies” by Sasha Maslov (published by Osnovy)
Some things never change, and we’re happy about that
Our host was offended, thinking we were being disrespectful, or worse offensive, until we explained that, no, our writing had been a bit sloppy and what we actually meant was that we loved the horses and carts, and were very happy to see traditional life holding on. So if we say now that we think the railway ladies of Ukraine are a bit old-fashioned, a sort of throwback in these go-ahead modern times, well, we hasten to add that we think they are delightfully old-fashioned, lest we be misinterpreted again.
After all, in an age ruled by bottom-line economics with automation favoured over flesh-and-blood workers, it might well be thought that the ladies would have been swept away by Progress – with a capital P – ages ago. Fortunately for them, and for us, they remain, perhaps some sort of anachronism in the 21st century but, as we indicated, agreeably so.
Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe and its state-owned national railway service, Ukrzaliznytsia, has a track length of more than 23,000 kilometres, apparently the 13th-largest in the world. Keeping the crossings safe night and day are the signalwomen with their flags and lanterns, changing the lights to prevent a tangle of trains, trucks, cars, death-defying bicyclists, adventurous pedestrians and straying animals.
Ukrainian photographer Sasha Maslov made the ladies the subject of a two-year study, and 40 of them appear in endearing images in his book. (Eleven men doing the same job appear in their own photos in a sort of postscript, but somehow they don’t have the same charm as the ladies; at least not to us. Anyway, about 80 percent of Ukraine’s crossing controllers are female.)
When Maslov popped up to peek into their lives, some of the signalwomen were apparently reserved and shied away from his lens, but then they came to trust his intentions and were happy to talk and be portrayed. Here that trust is repaid as they pose proudly inside and outside the distinctive signal boxes that are their work environment.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrzaliznytsia inherited one of the most prosperous railway networks in the former USSR, with railway workers able to be treated in hospitals reserved for them and containing the best of equipment and staff. First-class sanatoriums spread around the country were available for them to enjoy their holidays.
Ukrzaliznytsia was and is Ukraine’s biggest employer, and the book tells us that even during the recessions of the 1990s and 2000s when workers in other Ukrainian state sectors often went unpaid for months, working on the railways remained a stable and worthy career.
Transformation and modernisation did come to the railways but Ukrzaliznytsia staunchly defends its old-fashioned practices, and the level crossings have stayed essentially the same. True, semi-automation has arrived but the signal boxes remain unchanged. Basically, Ukrzaliznytsia distrusts automatic barriers, partly due to Ukrainians’ odd habit of bending the rules by such escapades as sprinting across the tracks in front of oncoming trains when they think no one is watching.
As the book points out, the younger generation is not so interested in what is described as a stable but monotonous job. It is seen as an “old people’s thing”, as evidenced by Maslov’s pictures where the ladies are on average middle-aged. The imbalance towards women is ascribed to their being more drawn to this meditative type of work that requires a lot of concentration, good observational skills and attention to detail.
Here, then, we see the charming ladies of the Ukrzaliznytsia adding a little comfort to their 12-hour shifts in their distinctive second homes, colourful mini-castles with ferns and flowers, lace tablecloths and checked curtains, religious icons, bikes and the occasional cat or dog. Some of the signal boxes apparently resemble traditional Ukrainian mazanka huts from the 19th and 20th centuries. Outside are gardens with sunflowers and other plants and hedges, and perhaps an old tyre shaped into a rubber swan.
Finally, an important point. One thought above all strikes us as we look through this book. Here are, we imagine, uncomplicated women simply doing their best at a responsible job. No doubt they just wish to live happy lives but over the border a beady-eyed despot enjoys upending what should be a peaceful world in pursuit of his own nefarious aims.
This poisonous man started a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, since when those signal boxes that are in the military “grey zones” have had little to do. But Ukrzaliznytsia keeps the crossings open, with the controllers still employed there. Every day, the book recounts, the ladies come to work, inspect the crossings and the track conditions, check the machinery and now and then wait for a train to appear on the horizon.
Perhaps one day, inspired by the evocative images of Sasha Maslov, we will be able to pass through on a journey into a part of Ukraine’s past well worth preserving.
Sasha Maslov is a Ukrainian-American portrait photographer and storyteller based in New York City. His work has been exhibited in various photo galleries and art spaces around Europe and the United States. Maslov is a regular contributor to a number of magazines and leading publications in New York and around the globe and is actively pursuing work on his documentary projects. His 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. “Ukrainian Railroad Ladies” is published by Osnovy Publishing
About Osnovy Publishing
Osnovy Publishing is an independent publisher in Kyiv, Ukraine, founded in 1992. Osnovy is one of the most important publishing houses in Ukraine. In the 1990s they published the first Ukrainian translations of world classics, everything from Aristotle to Kerouac. Today they are famous for beautiful books on travel, architecture, and design, such as “Soviet Modernism. Brutalism. Post-Modernism. Buildings and Structures in Ukraine 1955-1991”, “Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics”, “Balcony Chic” and the “Awesome” series city guides.