There’s an unwritten code among sailors: Do not talk about politics and religion when at sea.
But soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, it became clear to Andrian Kudelya, a 35-year-old sailor from Kyiv, that avoiding politics was not going to be possible. As his pregnant wife and son were fleeing Ukraine, two Russian sailors boarded the ship where Mr. Kudelya was working.
On the deck, in the control room, in the mess room, the Russian sailors engaged him and other Ukrainian crew members in debate, arguing that Ukraine was full of Nazis and that the United States had started the war.
“I can’t hear this lie,” said Mr. Kudelya. But on a ship, he added, “It’s hard to fully avoid contact with these guys.”
Commercial vessels have become some of the few places where Russians and Ukrainians, who make up 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 has become tense and at times unbearable, upending the maritime tradition of sailors viewing each other as teammates, no matter their backgrounds.
Mr. Kudelya said he was relieved to disembark in April in Germany, where he reunited with his family, and he will look for jobs with shipping companies that do not employ Russians. “I need to think about my work and not about the conflict and some useless conversation about politics,” he said.
With the global maritime industry already short of commercial sailors, and especially dependent on sailors from Russia and Ukraine, who tend to be highly skilled, some companies have switched out sailors to cool tension on board.
A.P. Moller-Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, said in a statement that having Russian and Ukrainians crew members on the same ship could be challenging. “As a precautionary measure, we have decided not to have seafarers from Ukraine and Russia aboard the same vessel,” the company said, adding that this policy had come into effect at the beginning of the invasion in February.
Another shipping company, based in the Baltics, required Russian and Ukrainian crew members to sign a form in which they agreed not to discuss politics on board, according to Oleksiy Salenko, a Ukrainian officer who signed the document and recounted the episode over the phone.
“That is the law of the seaman,” Mr. Salenko said. “We are out of politics.” A few days later, though, the Russian captain, who previously served in the Russian military, started demeaning him, Mr. Salenko said, giving him insufficient time to complete difficult tasks and telling him he was unfit for the job. Mr. Salenko left the ship soon after, ending his contract months early.
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Amid the difficult moments, on some ships, the close contact between Russians and Ukrainians has led to unexpected compassion.
Roman Zelenskyi, 24, a sailor from Odesa, Ukraine, said that after he and the other Ukrainians showed the Russians photos of the damage in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, the four Russians on his ship were shocked and ashamed. “This is people like me working on a vessel,” he said. “We live in peace.”
On another ship, some Russian sailors said they felt sorry for fellow crew members about the destruction of their cities. “We understand that it’s hard for him,” Ivan Chukalin, a Russian sailor, said of a Ukrainian sailor on his ship, as it sailed to the Netherlands. “His hometown is destroyed.” Mr. Chukalin maintained, however, that it was better not to take sides. “Politics is an undesirable topic for discussion.”
Another Russian sailor, Edward Viktorovich, 46, who works on a fishing vessel in the Arctic Ocean, said the war had not affected the relationships between the Russians and the one Ukrainian on his vessel. “We all cook in the same pot,” he said. “Here we are colleagues. Politics doesn’t touch us.”
Even on vessels where sailors made concerted efforts to avoid talk of the war, the Ukrainian sailors said in interviews that they were haunted by fears about their families and friends in Ukraine.
Dmytro Deineka, 24, a sailor from Kharkiv, said that he and the four other Ukrainians on board had tried not to respond to comments by the Russian captain and chief officer on his ship to avoid retaliation. But in the weeks after his grandmother’s house was hit by a bomb, he laid out his point of view to the pro-Russian captain from Crimea. The captain responded aggressively, saying that Ukraine was full of Nazis and needed to be saved by the Russians.
The Ukrainians on board wrote a letter to the Dutch shipowner asking the captain to be removed. “The letter contained information about our feelings on board, what the captain was saying to us, our emotional condition and that we cannot work in such conditions,” Mr. Deineka said. Within weeks, the company replaced the captain with another Russian captain who empathized with Ukrainian sailors and the stress they were under as they worried about their families at home.
Many young Ukrainians from the country’s port cities of Odesa or Mariupol chose sailing because it offered a steady salary. Now, a small percentage of the 45,000 Ukrainians who are at sea are trying to return to Ukraine to fight, but the majority want to stay on board, said Oleg Grygoriuk, the chair of the Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine. He said there had been instances in which Ukrainian sailors on ships stopping at Russian ports were taken in for questioning and searches. More recently, when ships have stops at Russian ports, Ukrainian seafarers disembark at nearby ports outside of Russia and get picked up after the stop, he said.
Mr. Grygoriuk said missile strikes last month in Odesa, which came less than a day after a deal was signed to secure the transit of 20 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine’s blockaded Black Sea ports, heightened his concerns about the safety of port workers and sailors, who get paid about double for each day that they work in a war zone.
That was a risk that some were prepared to take, with money at home tight. The sailors at sea currently are ones who left before the war started, and have stayed out of the country since. Others, who were in between contracts when the war started and could not leave because of government restrictions prohibiting men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country, said in interviews that their savings were dwindling and that they had cut back their expenses to cigarettes and food.
Vadym Mundriyevskyy, a chief officer for Maersk who was in between contracts in Odesa, his hometown, when the Russian invasion began, said that conversation in a group chat on Telegram, which included Russian and Ukrainian seafarers he had worked with previously, had ceased. “There is nothing to say anymore,” said Mr. Mundriyevskyy, 39. “Otherwise it would become another place for fights.”
With some Ukrainian sailors unable to work because of the war, shipping companies, already grappling with staff shortages, are only just barely managing to staff vessels, said Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping. Some shipping companies are not hiring Russian seafarers because of uncertainty about how they would pay them, given Western sanctions. A prolonged inability to get Ukrainian and Russian sailors on ships could further exacerbate strains in the global shipping industry, she said.
Another factor that is straining crews is that some ships are having to travel longer distances to avoid waters close to war zones, Ms. Shaw added.
“What would have been a reasonably harmonious situation is going to be challenging,” Ms. Shaw said. “As the war accelerates and as people’s families get more affected, the probability of issues arising with interpersonal relationships will worsen. That’s inevitable.”