Living side by side, Ukrainian and Russian sailors are tested by war

There is an unspoken code among sailors not to talk about politics or religion at sea.

But soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, it became clear to 35-year-old Kyiv sailor Andrian Kudela that politics was impossible to avoid. When his pregnant wife and son fled Ukraine, two Russian sailors boarded the ship carrying Mr. Pierre. Kudelya worked.

On deck, in the control room, in the wardroom, Russian sailors argued with him and other Ukrainian crew members that Ukraine was full of Nazis and that the United States started the war.

“I don’t hear those lies,” said Mr. Black. Kudel. But on a ship, he added, “it’s hard to completely avoid contact with these guys.”

Commercial ships have become one of the few places where Russians and Ukrainians, 15 percent of the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, still live side by side on routes around the world while their countries are at war. Some ships have become rare havens of understanding and forgiveness. On other ships, the mood became tense and at times unbearable, breaking the maritime tradition that sailors viewed each other as teammates, regardless of their origins.

mr. Kudelya said he was relieved to land in Germany in April, where he was reunited with his family, and will look for work in shipping companies that do not employ Russians. “I need to think about my work and not about conflict and useless talk about politics,” he said.

With the global maritime industry already short of commercial seafarers and especially dependent on seafarers from Russia and Ukraine, who tend to be highly skilled, some companies have replaced seafarers to reduce tensions on board.

AP Moller-Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, said in a statement that having Russian and Ukrainian crew members on the same ship could be problematic. “As a precautionary measure, we have decided not to have sailors from Ukraine and Russia on board the same vessel,” the company said, adding that the policy went into effect at the start of the invasion in February.

Another shipping company based in the Baltics required crew members from Russia and Ukraine to sign a form agreeing not to discuss politics on board, according to Oleksiy Salenko, a Ukrainian officer who signed the document and spoke about the episode over the phone.

“That’s the sailor’s law,” said Mr. Salenko. “We are out of politics.” However, a few days later, a Russian captain, who had previously served in the Russian army, began to humiliate him. Salenko said, giving him insufficient time to complete difficult tasks and stating that he was not fit for the job. mr. Shortly thereafter, Salenko left the ship, terminating his contract ahead of schedule.

At difficult times on some ships, close contact between Russians and Ukrainians led to unexpected compassion.

Roman Zelensky, 24, a sailor from Odessa, Ukraine, said that after he and other Ukrainians showed Russians pictures of damage in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, the four Russians on his ship were shocked and ashamed. “It’s people like me who work on the ship,” he said. “We live in the world.”

Credit…Roman Zelensky

On another ship, some Russian sailors said they felt sorry for their crewmates because of the destruction of their cities. “We understand that it’s hard for him,” Russian sailor Ivan Chukalin said of a Ukrainian sailor on his ship as he sailed to the Netherlands. “His hometown is destroyed.” mr. Chukalin, however, argued that it was better not to take sides. “Politics is not a desirable topic for discussion.”

Another Russian sailor, 46-year-old Eduard Viktorovich, who works on a fishing boat in the Arctic Ocean, said the war did not affect relations between the Russians and one Ukrainian on his ship. “We all cook in the same pot,” he said. “Here we are colleagues. Politics does not concern us.”

Even on ships where sailors made a concerted effort to avoid talking about the war, Ukrainian sailors have said in interviews that they were haunted by fears for their families and friends in Ukraine.

Dmitry Deyneka, 24, a sailor from Kharkov, said he and four other Ukrainians on board tried not to respond to the comments of the Russian captain and chief officer on his ship in order to avoid retaliation. But a few weeks after his grandmother’s home was bombed, he took his case to a pro-Russian captain in Crimea. The captain responded aggressively, stating that Ukraine was full of Nazis and the Russians had to save it.

Credit…Dmitry Deineka

The Ukrainians on board wrote a letter to the Dutch shipowner with a request to remove the captain. “The letter contained information about our feelings on board, about what the captain told us, about our emotional state and that we cannot work in such conditions,” he said. Deineka said. Within a few weeks, the company replaced the captain with another Russian captain who sympathized with the Ukrainian sailors and the stress they were under when worrying about their families at home.

Many young Ukrainians from the country’s port cities, Odessa or Mariupol, chose sailing because it offered a stable salary. Now a small percentage of the 45,000 Ukrainians who are at sea are trying to return to Ukraine to fight, but most want to stay on board, Oleg Grigoriuk, chairman of the Trade Union of Maritime Transport Workers of Ukraine, said. According to him, there were cases when Ukrainian sailors on ships that stopped in Russian ports were summoned for interrogations and searches. According to him, recently, when ships stop in Russian ports, Ukrainian sailors disembark in nearby ports outside of Russia, and they are picked up after the stop.

mr. Grigoryuk said rocket strikes last month in Odessawhich comes less than a day after a deal was signed to secure the transit of 20 million tons of grain stranded in blockaded Ukrainian Black Sea ports, heightened his concerns about the safety of port workers and sailors who are paid twice as much every day. that they work in a war zone.

It was a risk some were willing to take when money was tight at home. The sailors currently at sea are those who left before the outbreak of the war and have since remained outside the country. Others, who were between contracts when the war broke out and could not leave due to government restrictions preventing men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, said in interviews that their savings were dwindling and that they had reduced their spending on cigarettes and food. .

Vadim Mundrievsky, a Maersk senior assistant who was between contracts in Odessa, his hometown, when the Russian invasion began, said the Telegram group chat, which included Russian and Ukrainian sailors he previously worked with, had ceased. “There’s nothing more to say,” said Mr. Mundrievsky, 39. “Otherwise it would have become another place for fights.”

With some Ukrainian seafarers unable to work because of the war, shipping companies already struggling with staff shortages are struggling to keep up with staffing, according to Natalie Shaw, director of employment at the International Chamber of Shipping. Some shipping companies are not hiring Russian sailors because they are not sure how they will pay them under Western sanctions. According to her, the long-term inability to deliver Ukrainian and Russian sailors to ships could further exacerbate tensions in the global shipping industry.

Another factor that strains crews is that some ships have to travel long distances to avoid waters close to war zones. Shaw added.

“What could be a fairly harmonious situation is going to be a challenge,” Ms said. Shaw said. “As the war accelerates and people’s families suffer more, the likelihood of problems arising in interpersonal relationships will worsen. It’s unavoidable”.