Dispatch

Postal Workers Are Keeping Ukraine’s Front-Line Villages Alive

Deliveries of packages and pension payments have helped uphold a fragile sense of normalcy for civilians under fire.

People gather in front of a shuttered post office in Ukraine.
People gather in front of a shuttered post office in Ukraine.
People gather in front of a shuttered post office to receive their pension from a postal delivery van that reached the front line despite ongoing conflict in Mayaky, Ukraine, on May 6. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
By , a French freelance journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

MYKOLAIV OBLAST, Ukraine—As Ukraine’s military battles Russian troops in grinding firefights and artillery duels, unassuming white and yellow vans filled to the brim with parcels, food products, and bags of cash drive down the isolated and exposed roads closest to the front line. In this southern region, where Ukrainian troops kicked off a long-awaited counteroffensive toward the Ukrainian city of Kherson on Aug. 29, the vehicles of Ukraine’s state postal service, Ukrposhta, have remained a rare familiar sight for locals exhausted by months of fighting.

“We’re scared every day,” Oleksandr Adamtchuk, a 52-year-old Ukrposhta driver from Mykolaiv, told Foreign Policy. “But what can you do? Just cross yourself and pray.”

Nearly seven months into Russia’s invasion, Ukrposhta has become one of the most striking illustrations of Ukraine’s transformation to a wartime society. Along with its privately owned competitor, Nova Poshta, the state-controlled company initially helped support Ukrainians evacuating the country. Ukrposhta processed some 502 metric tons of parcels sent from Ukraine to Poland in the first half of 2022 alone—up from just 34 metric tons total in all of 2021. Beginning in the spring, Ukrposhta’s decision to print stamps celebrating Ukraine’s resistance against Russian troops proved to be a morale-boosting public relations hit. Tens of thousands of people lined up to buy stamps featuring a Ukrainian soldier giving a Russian warship the middle finger and a Ukrainian tractor towing a destroyed Russian tank.

MYKOLAIV OBLAST, Ukraine—As Ukraine’s military battles Russian troops in grinding firefights and artillery duels, unassuming white and yellow vans filled to the brim with parcels, food products, and bags of cash drive down the isolated and exposed roads closest to the front line. In this southern region, where Ukrainian troops kicked off a long-awaited counteroffensive toward the Ukrainian city of Kherson on Aug. 29, the vehicles of Ukraine’s state postal service, Ukrposhta, have remained a rare familiar sight for locals exhausted by months of fighting.

“We’re scared every day,” Oleksandr Adamtchuk, a 52-year-old Ukrposhta driver from Mykolaiv, told Foreign Policy. “But what can you do? Just cross yourself and pray.”

Nearly seven months into Russia’s invasion, Ukrposhta has become one of the most striking illustrations of Ukraine’s transformation to a wartime society. Along with its privately owned competitor, Nova Poshta, the state-controlled company initially helped support Ukrainians evacuating the country. Ukrposhta processed some 502 metric tons of parcels sent from Ukraine to Poland in the first half of 2022 alone—up from just 34 metric tons total in all of 2021. Beginning in the spring, Ukrposhta’s decision to print stamps celebrating Ukraine’s resistance against Russian troops proved to be a morale-boosting public relations hit. Tens of thousands of people lined up to buy stamps featuring a Ukrainian soldier giving a Russian warship the middle finger and a Ukrainian tractor towing a destroyed Russian tank.

But in the front-line villages of southern Ukraine, surrounded by sunflower and wheat fields, the brigades of women manning post offices and the drivers who keep them stocked have played a more subdued—but no less crucial—role in Ukraine’s war effort. These workers help maintain a connection to villages in Ukrainian-held areas isolated by their proximity to fighting and regular shelling.

“We’re the only state company that operates in these villages, and people wait for us,” explained Valentina Matkivska, the head of the post office in Novyi Buh, a town roughly 55 miles north of Mykolaiv and a departure point for Ukrposhta vehicles going near the front line. Novyi Buh itself is around 37 miles from the front line.

A woman covers her ears from the sound of mortar fire as people line up to collect pensions from a postal delivery van .
A woman covers her ears from the sound of mortar fire as people line up to collect pensions from a postal delivery van .

A woman covers her ears from the sound of mortar fire as people line up to collect pensions from a postal delivery van in Mayaky, Ukraine, on May 6. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Well before the war, Ukrposhta had already expanded beyond parcel delivery, turning its network of rural post offices into small community hubs where locals can buy canned goods, sunflower oil, and cookies and sweets at subsidized prices; pay utility bills; and, crucially, receive their monthly pension payments.

“These villages don’t have banks, don’t have ATMs, often don’t have shops, and we provide all this. That’s why it’s so important,” said Yehor Kosorukov, head of Ukrposhta for the Mykolaiv region. As the war grinds on, Ukrposhta vans’ regular rounds have helped uphold a now-fragile sense of normalcy for villagers who have suddenly found themselves living in a war zone.

Being a postal worker on the front lines is a dangerous job, particularly in a war that has involved indiscriminate shelling and widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure. In Novyi Buh, a Russian strike razed a small commercial building in the city center on May 29, killing one person and, 100 meters away, shattering every window in the post office Matkivska runs. Across Ukraine, 15 Ukrposhta employees have been killed and 14 injured since the beginning of the war while 480 post offices have been damaged and 50 destroyed, according to data Ukrposhta provided to Foreign Policy via email. The company has also had to deal with an employee shortage, as many women and children flee the country and men join the military. At Ukrposhta’s main regional office in Mykolaiv, just 70 out of the 330 people who were employed there before the war are still working, Kosorukov said.

In the Mykolaiv region, the responsibility of carrying Ukrposhta’s cargo to front-line villages has fallen on a group of a few dozen middle-aged and older men who are paid around $200 a month and drive brand new—but unarmored—Citröen vans. “We should be paid double, considering that a rocket could fall on us at any moment,” Adamtchuk said. “Instead, salaries have been lowered since the war began, and prices are rising.”

Despite the risks, drivers like him have kept working, seeing little other opportunity in a country whose economy has been devastated by the war; 80 percent of locals in the city of Mykolaiv have lost their jobs since the conflict began, city mayor Oleksandr Sienkevych told Ukrainian outlet Zaborona.

For drivers, the trick is to get in and get out of front-line areas fast. The roads near the southern front line are not in good condition and vary from aging asphalt broken up by deep potholes to narrow, dusty alleys and sandy tracks. This means, for example, that drivers must make a 3-hour trip through half-deserted villages and lonely military checkpoints to cover the roughly 47 miles from Novyi Buh to Bereznehuvate, a village that was, as of mid-September, about 12 miles from the front line and subject to regular shelling.

Shards of glass are seen in the broken windows of the Bereznehuvate post office after damage from nearby shelling
Shards of glass are seen in the broken windows of the Bereznehuvate post office after damage from nearby shelling

Shards of glass are seen in the broken windows of the Bereznehuvate post office in Ukraine on Aug. 11 after damage from nearby shelling. Fabrice Deprez for Foreign Policy

Employees at Bereznehuvate's post office sort newspapers that will later be delivered to local residents in Ukraine.
Employees at Bereznehuvate's post office sort newspapers that will later be delivered to local residents in Ukraine.

Employees at Bereznehuvates post office sort newspapers that will later be delivered to local residents in Ukraine on Aug. 11. Fabrice Deprez for Foreign Policy

Deliveries to Bereznehuvate are still done four times a week, though the ever-changing military situation means schedules for a given day are now decided the evening before rather than a month ahead of time. As a two-van convoy reached the village on a hot August afternoon, explosions could be heard far in the distance. A week before, Russian shelling had come close enough to shatter the vast glass panel at the Bereznehuvate post office’s entrance, leaving hundreds of small pieces of glass that still litter the hall.

Ukrposhta drivers moved fast to unload their cargo, which that day included 45 parcels. “There’s been more of them since the war started, heavier packages too,” said Boris Chevtchenko, a 58-year-old employee who works alongside Adamtchuk. “Bikes, flour, big sacks of potatoes … things we didn’t use to see before the war.” Across the country, the delivery of packages increased 14 percent in July year-over-year, as millions of displaced Ukrainians sought clothes and basic necessities that they didn’t have time to take with them when fleeing their homes.

In isolated villages like Bereznehuvate, sealed burlap bags emblazoned with bold letters spelling “National Bank of Ukraine” are Ukrposhta drivers’ most precious cargo. The delivery of pension payments was a key aspect of Ukrposhta’s business model before the war. But it became even more important as fighting threatened to cut off thousands of older citizens who depend on the state to survive.

“Many people here can’t leave,” said Alla Bodenko, the 56-year-old head of the Bereznehuvate post office. “We bring the pensions directly to them. They can also pick up the newspaper, and it’s a big deal for them.”

People wait to receive their pension from a postal worker in Ukraine.
People wait to receive their pension from a postal worker in Ukraine.

People wait to receive their pension from a postal worker in Mayaky, Ukraine, on May 6.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Waiting patiently in the hall of the post office, Oksana, a 53-year-old pensioner who declined to give her last name, told Foreign Policy she came to Bereznehuvate from a nearby village specifically to pick up her monthly pension of 2,300 hryvnias (around $62). “If Ukrposhta wasn’t there, we would have to go to a bank somewhere in the [Bashtanka] district,” around 22 miles away, she said. In villages where many people don’t own a car—and war has all but shut off most public transportation—driving to the nearest bank can be nearly impossible.

As Russian troops consolidated control over the southern region of Kherson in early March, Ukrposhta faced some difficult choices. The company initially kept working, delivering parcels and pension payments to localities in the region. “Then, sadly, my colleague chose another path,” said Kosorukov, the head of Ukrposhta in Mykolaiv, referring to the reported decision of his counterpart in Kherson to start working with Russian authorities. Ukrposhta announced on June 30 it would stop all operations in the Russian-held parts of the Kherson region, writing in a press release that the company “does not work with rubles, traitors, and occupiers.”

Pension payments to people living in Russian-controlled areas didn’t entirely stop, however, as Ukrposhta and local authorities allowed those physically able to make the dangerous journey across the front line and to the closest post offices in Ukrainian-held territory pick up pension payments on behalf of others and, in some cases, carry them back to occupied villages. “It’s usually the head of the village because local people trust him. He’s being given power of attorney and can take the pensions,” Bodenko said. 

Women leave after receiving their pension from a postal delivery van that reached the frontline in Ukraine.
Women leave after receiving their pension from a postal delivery van that reached the frontline in Ukraine.

Women leave after receiving their pension from a postal delivery van that reached the front line in Mayaky, Ukraine, on May 6. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

The issue is sensitive, and how many of these crossings have occurred remains unclear. One source in a local administration in the Mykolaiv region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic, told Foreign Policy the crossings had almost entirely stopped over the summer because the front line became too difficult to cross.

“It’s been one way to solve this problem, but, of course, it’s very difficult for people to cross as the roads are closed and the fields are mined,” Kosorukov admitted.

In early September, the beginning of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in southern Ukraine also risked further disrupting Ukrposhta’s work. Bereznehuvate, located in what has been reported as the central axis of Ukraine’s offensive, “remains under constant shelling,” Mykolaiv Gov. Vitaliy Kim wrote on social media. The village has since been shelled at least three times on Sept. 11, 13, and 17. Yet, according to Matkivska, Ukrposhta kept working there. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said.

Fabrice Deprez is a French freelance journalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Twitter: @fabrice_deprez

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.