During the summer of 2011, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych opened up his modest home to six television reporters, revealing what a journalist with the AP described as "a cozy place with a small office just big enough for his grandchildren to play in." Except even at the time, it was pretty obvious that he didn't live there. The same AP story went on to detail "strong evidence he actually lives in very different digs: a luxurious, marble-columned mansion with a golf course, a helipad, and even an ostrich enclosure."
Yanukovych's critics were right. When the public finally got a glimpse of the leader's true housing situation after he fled Kiev a week and a half ago (just before Ukraine's parliament voted him out of power) they found all of the above, plus a replica galleon floating on an artificial waterway, elaborate statuary on neatly manicured lawns, garages filled to the brim with vintage cars and motorcycles, bathrooms the size of studio apartments with gilded toilets, and more.
The opulence is overwhelming. The mansion wouldn't look out of place as the country abode of an oil baron or a Hollywood starlet, perhaps, but this is the private resident of a public official, who for most of his career made a salary in the realm of $2,000 a month. Yanukovych is currently missing and wanted on charges of mass murder related to the killing of Euromaidan protesters, who for the past three months have been protesting Yanukovych's policies, including rejecting an accord with the European Union in favor of strengthening ties with Putin's Russia. How Yanukovych's grand residence came to be is a baffling tale of corruption, secrecy, and questionable design choices. Now vacated and overrun by journalists and citizens hoping for a glimpse of the president's secrets, the palace remains an architectural tribute to the fantastic wealth and power wielded by its owner. And yeah, it's pretty ugly.
Mezhyhirya, as the residence is called, was, up until 1923, the home of a monastery. In 1935, the 350-acre estate was taken over by the government and turned into a park with summer houses for Soviet officials. In 2007, Yanukovych privatized the property in his final days as Prime Minister, demolishing the Soviet-era buildings and erecting a five-story palace built by Honka, a Finnish company that specializes in log houses.
In Yanukovych’s final weeks as Prime Minister, his government illegally privatised Mezhyhiriya. No money was paid to the state for its sale; instead, a couple of semi- derelict buildings in Kyiv were handed over in return (they have continued to fall down ever since).
Mezhyhiriya, meanwhile, was acquired, without any competitive tendering process, by a Donetsk company called ‘MedInvestTraid’, which immediately resold it and a few years later filed for bankruptcy.
Yanukovych then proceeded to decorate the interiors of his giant log cabin in a style seemingly calculated to conjure images of an 18th-century European palace. What's inside, according to Open Democracy, amounted to millions of dollars of fancy decor:
The Ukrainian Customs and Excise Department’s database lists details of fixtures and fittings imported for its embellishment. Each of the mansion’s Lebanese cedar doors cost $64,000. Three sets of wooden panelling for staircases came in at $200,000, wall panelling for the winter garden at $328,000, and cladding for a neoclassical column and parapet for a flight of steps at $430,000. In the course of one and a half years the overall cost of fittings imported for Mezhyhiriya was $9,416,000.
Plus, naturally, Yanukovych was also blowing piles of money on a still-under-construction vacation home built at the expense of a rare old-growth forest on the Crimean coast. An even larger mansion than the one outside Kiev, it would have featured an indoor swimming pool and 40-foot-high ceilings.
According to the Kiev Post, one set of chandeliers alone cost 39 million euros (around $53 million). Journalists found 200 folders of documents dumped into the reservoir at Mezhyhiriya that are expected to reveal long-guarded secrets about the president's embezzlement and illegal activity—once they dry out. By one estimate, Yanukovych's skimming cost Ukraine $70 billion in the last three years. That's a third of the country's $200 billion annual gross national product.
No wonder his estate had such tight security that independent Ukrainian journalists reportedly had an "unspoken competition as to who will first publish photos of this monument to national corruption."
As far as the palatial residences of despots go, a reporter at the Washington Post opined, this one was done in fairly good taste, at least. Others called its architecture "Swiss chalet brutalism" and "some sort of woody, vernacular, retro Edwardian style, just 10 times bigger than usual." For my part, I'll add that it's only a few marble countertops away from a house we once labelled as the ugliest in America. It's like Lincoln Logs meets Disneyland meets Versailles.
But when you're robbing state coffers to gild your toilets, taste becomes secondary. If the main point of Yanukovych's estate was to serve as a monument to the control he exerted over the country, and the level of corruption he succeeded in achieving, well, he succeeded. Thousands of people showed up to wander Mezhyhirya's grounds once Yanukovych vacated, and pictures of it dominated international news. This, more than surrounding its residents in comfort and beauty, is the point of the opulent architecture of state leaders. If good design is largely invisible, it has no place in a house like this, where gaudy decor and grand landscaping exist to serve as conspicuous reminders of the owner's grip on financial and political power.
[Image: Inside The Presidential Palace Of Former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, By Jeff J Mitchell (GETTY)]