Kyiv’s subway stations were built for an invasion

Subway station/bomb shelter.
Subway station/bomb shelter.
Image: REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi
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As Russian forces launched several missiles at the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv the night of Feb. 23, thousands of citizens hunkered down in subway stations. On Thursday Feb. 24, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko imposed a curfew and halted public transit so that subway stations could be used as round-the-clock shelters.

As it turns out, Kiyv’s metro system was built to serve this very purpose. Completed in the 1960s when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it includes stations built deep underground, designed to double as bomb shelters in the event of an enemy attack. Kyiv’s Arsenalna station is considered to be the deepest in the world, located 346 ft (105.5 m) below ground.

Air raid sirens could be heard throughout the city in the early hours of Thursday, a warning for people to seek shelter. In addition to the subways, people are hiding out in the basements, places of worship, and other designated bomb shelters.

many people walk in an underground subway station corridor with arched walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
People walk in a Kyiv subway station, after Russian president Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine.
Image: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Many people sit on either side of a stairwell in a fluorescent-lit subway station in Ukraine.
People shelter in a subway station.
Image: REUTERS/Viacheslav Ratynskyi

First conceived in 1884 when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, the Kyiv subway system is a feat of engineering and architecture. Its stations are decorated with marble archways, beautiful mosaics, and decorative chandeliers. But many stations, especially those in the center of the city, were also built to serve a tactical purpose during the Cold War, when nuclear warfare was an ever-present danger.

Mosaic tiles in red blue and y ellow form a design over an archway in a subway station. Below the arch are passengers waiting for a blue subway train.
A mosaic archway in Kiev’s Gold Gate subway station.
Image: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
two people speak while riding an up escalator in an underground subway station. A flourescent light with a picture decorating it lights the escalator.
Kyiv’s Arsenalna metro station is the deepest station in the world at over 100 m below ground.
Image: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

In April, amidst escalating threats from Russia at Ukraine’s eastern border, Kyiv’s city government released a map of nearly 3,000 designated bomb shelters. It included 47 of the city’s 52 subway stations.

an epty. subway station wit curved white marble walls and a row of lights
“Pecherska” subway station
Image: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
people riding an underground elevator through a white tunnel in Kyiv, Ukraine
“Zoloty vorota” (Golden gate) metro station
Image: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich