The Good Life, Ukrainian Style

July, 2020
Christopher Thorton, Blog Correspondent

Tennis anyone?  Horseback riding?  A round of golf?  Try your luck at the shooting range, or out on the hunting grounds?  Aim clear of the private zoo, with its collection of peacocks, yaks, ostriches, deer, antelope, pheasants, and wild boar.  For the motoring minded there is a lineup of antique cars to ogle, 27 in all, valued at more than $1 million.  At the end of a busy day a spa awaits to offer massages (Thai, Swedish, or facial, with designated rooms for each), a tanning room of nagging clouds has obscured the Slavic sun, and a fully functional gym to tone muscles is left untried.  Dinner awaits in either of two formal dining rooms or a restaurant housed in a Spanish warship afloat on a manmade lake.  Before bedtime, nightcaps are poured into crystal glasses in the wood-paneled bar.

Were these the delights on offer at a five-star resort on the Black Sea coast?  No, they awaited guests of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych at Mezhyhiriya, the site of his country home until he fled to Russia on February 21, 2014 following a flurry of nationwide protests.  Until then he could lay claim to the dacha of all dachas, funded through the proven combination of political savvy, ritual payoffs, exploitation of bureaucratic loopholes, and the  ability to pull the strings of power so that the Ukrainian state would become a puppet in the service of his personal needs and tastes.

Mezhyhiriya is a land of low rolling hills and woodland along the Dnipro River.  As expected, its history is as knotty as the rest of Ukraine.  Mezhyhiriya got its start as the site of a monastery built in 1786, but the next year it was burned to the ground, allegedly on the order of Catherine the Great.  One hundred years later it was resurrected as a convent, but its lease on life was cut short in 1923, when the Bolsheviks ordered it closed following the Russian Revolution.  For a few years Mezhyhiriya served as a school for ceramics production, and then a retreat for Communist Party bosses until Nazi officer Erich Koch chose it as his home during the German occupation of World War II.

How Yanukovych came to acquire Mezhyhiriya is something of a case study in the mechanisms of Ukrainian corruption.  He came of age in the hardscrabble province of Donetsk in the post-Soviet 1990s, when organized crime was the primary industry in the region.  In his teens he did jail time for robbery and assault but worked hard enough on polishing his image to become the governor of Donetsk in 1997.  Five years later he was appointed prime minister by President Leonid Kuchma, and was given one of the buildings at Mezhyhiriya that had been lying idle in the Fund for State Property for his exclusive use.  Yanukovych had quickly learned the tricks of Ukraine’s political trade.  The following year, he was able to rent another building through a state charity based in Donetsk, under the condition it would be used for “the promotion of national and international programs aimed at improving socioeconomic status.”  He paid 80 cents a year in rent.

Old habits die hard, and no harder than in countries long governed by the backdoor rules of cronyism, prestige, and financial leverage.  He cozied up to big business interests, including billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, founder of the System Capital Management Group, a conglomerate involved in mining, energy, banking, insurance, telecommunications, and real estate.  Government positions from the police department and taxation to diplomatic posts and heads of government agencies were filled with “friends of Yanukovych,” mainly from the Donetsk region.

In 2004, Yanukovych saw an opportunity to run for the presidency but was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko in a closely contested race that ended in a runoff.  Six years later he tried again, this time defeating professed reformer and prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, and was savvy enough to wrap himself in a reformist cloak.  Shortly after taking power he stated: “Bureaucracy and corruption are today hiding behind democratic slogans in Ukraine. . . . because a small handful of people who have been plundering the country for 20 years, from which the whole society, the whole state and our image in the world have been suffering.

The masquerade didn’t last.  A year later Yanukovych found himself dutifully following the autocrat’s playbook.  Rival Timoshenko was thrown in jail on trumped up charges of corruption.  Yanukovych sought to see Russian declared an official language, rejected NATO membership in favor of Ukraine becoming a neutral, nonaligned state, and appeased Vladimir Putin by pushing for an agreement on the status of Russia’s Black Sea fleet at the port of Sebastopol—a move that arguably emboldened Putin to seize Crimea four years later.

But Yanukovych had overplayed his hand.  Ukrainians had had enough.  Near the end of 2013 protestors filled central Kiev and came onto the streets in other cities.  They, too, had been hardened in the realities of Ukrainian politics, having faced down security forces in another uprising in 2004.  Yanukovych saw the writing on the wall.  In February 2014 he fled Kiev for the eastern city of Kharkiv, and from there hopped over the border for safe haven in Russia after a warrant was issued for his arrest.  The charge? The mass murder of protestors.

The Orange Revolution of 2014 ended Yanukovych’s plans for control of the Ukrainian government, and his hold on Mezhyhiriya. Yushchenko and Timoshenko became president and prime minister.  Yanukovych was shown the exit and evicted from Mezhyhiriya.  Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the next prime minister, estimated that within two years of Yanukovych’s time in office $2 billion in bribes were paid to officials across the government spectrum—senior judges, members of parliament, the election commission, international organizations, and anyone else who could benefit from, and offer benefits to, the Yanukovych regime.  And during his hold on power government funds worth $70 billion were spirited out of the country.  Yanukovych’s net worth today is estimated at $12 billion, yet in his entire career as a government functionary his salary never topped $2,000 a month.

I had read a great deal about Mezhyhiriya in both the mainstream and tabloid press, but reading is first cousin to hearsay, while seeing is believing.  So one cold, cloudy December day in Kiev, I decided to head out to the suburbs to see it for myself. I took the M3 metro line to its terminal station and there hopped on the 902 bus for the last leg of the trip. 

Earlier I had read that a spanking-new highway had been built to link Mezhyhiriya to Kiev so the president could rush to his country retreat untrammeled by local traffic.  But the road from the M3 metro to the gates of Mezhyhiriya would have passed for standard issue just about anywhere in Ukraine.  Once it leaves the Heroiv Dnipro metro station it passes through Kiev suburbia, lined with the customary cordon of shopping complexes, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants.  As it approaches Mezhyhiriya the townhouses become spacious villas girdled with walls and fences, and the cars in their driveways rise in price and resale value.  This is hardly Yanukovych’s world—far from it, and far below it—but it does represent the expanding upper class that benefits from contacts with oligarchs and the nouveau riche who feed from the trough of politicians like Yanukovych. 

Soon enough the bus reached its end point—a tiny parking lot across from a large sign that announced, in English, “Mezhyhiriya National Park.”  But no English was spoken at the tiny ticket kiosk at the entrance gate.  A tinier plastic window slid open and the woman on the other side snapped at me when I tried to ask about the widely advertised guided tour. I paid for my ticket, she pointed toward the gate, and the window slid shut.

There was no one to punch my ticket so I walked on through.  A pair of security guards in olive drab fatigues with wool stocking caps pulled over their heads stomped their feet to ward off the winter chill.  One recognized the word “excursion” and waved vaguely beyond a stand of trees and in the direction of I knew not what.

I wandered deeper into the grounds, crossed over a bridge that spanned one of Yanukovych’s many manmade ponds.  The bridge and the pond and the rolling greenery evoked an Asian garden, even in December, but the marble busts perched on pedestals tried to mimic the architectural glory of Versailles, Peterhof, and Schonbrunn.  They served as a rude transition from commoner’s Kiev, with its crowded, rumbling metro and irregular bus service, and the make-believe world of the oligarch class.

Yet aside from the stone heads and odd security guard, the grounds were empty.  Further ahead a plume of colored balloons floated in the breeze at the entrance to a bland, squat building that turned out to be the Mezhyhiriya souvenir shop.  I popped in, more to get warm than with any hope of getting reliable information about the tours. 

Cotton linen shirts and blouses embroidered with geometric peasant patterns hung on the walls.  Hand-carved wooden knickknacks were piled in plastic bins.  It wasn’t so much a shop as a shrine to rural Ukrainian culture, as most souvenir shops are in Ukraine these days.  Ever since the Russian invasion of 2014 half of Ukraine has become a flea market, peddling resurgent nationalism wrapped in the homespun symbolism of the heartland.  It stirs the memory of a time, illusory it may be, before complex geopolitics made the world, well—more complicated.

The clerk was immersed in his smartphone and hardly noticed me enter.  Were tours running?  The sign at the entrance gate said they were conducted daily at two o’clock.  I raised two fingers.

He held up a printed sign the size of a piece of paper and pointed to a phone number.  I tried it.  A voice answered, and I asked about a tour, or “excursion.”  There was a grumbled reply, and the line went dead.

The clerk had returned to his smartphone. I got his attention, pointed to my own phone, and shrugged.  He put his game on pause and tried a different number.  There was an answer.  He babbled to someone on the other end, cut off, and then led me out the door.

“Five,” he said, extending as many fingers.

I shrugged.

“Five,” he said again.  “Five,” and this time pointed around the corner of the building.  “Five!” he repeated, and then returned to his cave of warmth and the distraction of his video game.

I did as I was told, took two right turns but found nothing but a locked glass door and large adjoining window filled with a papier-mâché mockup of Viktor Yanukovych.  I waited, beat my feet together.  A guard or two strolled along the footpath, and a woman with two children bundled into bright, puffy parkas the color of gumballs.  I felt like a fool, standing idle in the December chill, but after a few minutes the door rattled open and a man appeared wrapped in a flag—not the blue and yellow banner of modern Ukraine, but one comprised of two black and red stripes and embroidered with the tryub, a slender, aquiline trident that appears on T-shirts and coffee mugs, soldier’s graves and flower arrangements, and has become independent Ukraine’s national symbol.  The flag itself evoked a whiff of déjà vu—it had been the standard of the Ukrainian Liberation Army in its struggle against the Nazi occupation in World War II.  Throughout the former Soviet Union history is a stain that continues to bleed through the fabric of the present day.

The man draped in red and black was Petro Oliynyk.  Petro was from the western city of Lviv, which languished under Polish rule for almost 600 years before the carve-up of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War I passed it to the control of the Soviet Union.  Petro had run a grocery store in Lviv, but came to Kiev in 2014 to join the Orange Revolution that eventually toppled Yanukovych, and afterward found a second career as the guardian, host, and tour guide of the former president’s country digs.

“Health club,” Petro smirked, snapping on the lights in the separate chambers designated for massage, suntan, and facial treatments, but he saved the best for last.  Another light popped on in the room, where the walls were caked from floor to ceiling in sparkling white. 

“Salt,” Petro said.  He inhaled deeply.  “For the lungs.”  His grin spread wider.  The scent was thick enough to taste.  I licked my finger and rubbed it along the wall, touched it to my tongue—a taste test.  It passed.

“One person,” Petro chirped, and then he was on the move again, jangling an immense  keyring that hinted at even more spectacles to come.

Petro led me to an underground passage that led from the gift shop entrance to the “Honka,” named for the Finnish company specializing in the construction of log buildings that built the “club house,” the modest name it acquired during Yanukovych’s salad days.  We emerged into another underground reception room.  Petro again jangled his keys and opened the gateway to a greenhouse-like corridor outfitted with tropical plants and bird cages. 

“Cockatoo,” Petro chirped, pointing at a cage where a ball of bright orange and pink feathers fluttered inside. 

The keys jangled again.  We entered another reception room.  A dark wood-paneled bar stocked with premier liqueurs awaited guests in a small room to the left.  Yanukovych’s tastes were definitely national budget sized.  The bar featured bottles of Cristal, a liqueur favored by 19th-century Russian tsars.

Petro tapped the surface of a circular glass table in the center of the room.  It was at least an inch thick, with decorative frosted trim wrapped around its circumference.

“Crystal—French,” Petro snipped.

It was time to enter the main house.  An elevator awaited.  The former president of Ukraine was not going to waste precious state time climbing stairs.

Yanukovych’s summer-home elevator was double-doored and of French crystal, decorated in frosted designs.  Petro and I were now traveling within the summer cottage as the former president would have.  We reached the first floor.  More keys jangled.  Petro flipped a light switch.  A billiard table—the necessary fixture of any British aristocrat worthy of the name –filled the middle of a large drawing room.  Petro flicked his finger on the surface of a window that overlooked the Dnipro.  A ping rang through the room.

“Crystal,” Petro added—without the ping.

He pointed to a trio of mosaic panels stretched across the back wall.  They were Mediterranean in style—Greek, ancient or modern, maybe Italian, or Roman.  Whatever their intent, they evoked a classical age.  Petro tapped the crusty glass baubles dangling from a light fixture.

“Swarovski,” he said, and again, “All for one person.”  And after the necessary pause: “Super crazy!”

The keys rattled again.  Petro flung open a door made of hand-carved cherrywood, priced at $64,000 per panel, according to Mezhyhiriya’s own accounting.  What awaited?  A dining room that sat two dozen.  Once again, crystal glass windows offered a crystal-clear view of the Dnipro.

“Crocodile,” Petro said, pointing to the leathery skin stretched out on the tabletop.  But the reptile skin wasn’t the highlight.  Petro pointed at the floor.  For the first time I noticed it—a mix of hardwoods that formed swirling patterns that drew from the interior designs of ancient Greece and Rome.

“Parquet,” Petro said.  “All Ukrainian wood.”

I rubbed a finger across the surface, the margins where the various woods and patterns met.  It was marble smooth, the entire surface untroubled by the slightest change in material or design.  Only master craftsmen could have accomplished the feat.

Petro’s keys rattled once more.  He led me into Mezhyhiriya’s private cinema.  A TV screen the size of the billiard table filled one wall, but this was obscured by the silver screen that descended, when needed, from its resting port above.  Fifteen or twenty leather recliners awaited the president’s favored audience.  Upfront, stage right and left, were a pair of overly oversized leather thrones that were intended to magnify the stature of anyone they received but in truth did the opposite, made them seem small and inconsequential.  I wondered if Yanukovych reserved these for guests he wanted to humble or himself.  My guess is the latter.

Petro and I rode the crystal elevator up another floor.  Another dining room awaited, larger than the one below.  Another giant TV screen filled the far wall.  In every room we passed there had been at least one TV screen, sometimes two, or even three, all two meters wide, all high definition, all Sony.  I asked Petro how many TV screens filled Mezhyhiriya.

“Twenty-two,” he replied.

Here the floor was even more multicolored, or multi-shaded, than the one below, and even more dazzlingly intricate.  Complex patterns were expressed in swirls and curves of brown, beige, yellow, and amber.

But enough of the floor—Petro ran his hand along the top of a chair. 

“Silk,” he said.

I ran my finger along the chair.  It was soft and as smooth at the parquet floor, the silk tightly spun, without as much as a ripple for the threads of gold brocade.

One person?” I threw at Petro.

“Super crazy,” he replied.

The thicket of keys rattled again.  A door swung open. Petro—host, guide, footman exemplar—offered me entrance with a sweeping gesture of his hand.  Beyond the threshold was the Honka’s holy of holies: Mezhyhiriya’s master bedroom gazes out over the Dnipro beyond a balcony separated from the main chamber by floor-to-ceiling panes of crystal.  It was as big as a New York apartment.  The cherrywood headboard stood high against the wall like an Orthodox altarpiece.  A yellow silk bedcover, putting-green smooth, stretched out below.  At the back of the room, undivided from the sleeping area, was Yanukovych’s toilette.  Petro pointed to the faucets.

“No gold,” he said, dispelling a myth of Mezhyhiriya.  Yanukovych’s golf clubs may have been golden but his water taps, which few would see, were merely gold plated.  But the floor of the shower, of walled-in glass, was real, genuine mosaic.

The household lift sped us down to the first floor and Mezhyhiriya’s showpiece—the grand salon, three stories high.  A white Steinway limited-edition piano stood in the bay window, a replica of the original that John Lennon had given to Yoko Ono.

Petro was quick with the numbers: “Only twenty-five made.”

The salon was several rooms in one, 18th-century style, with separate seating areas for conversation, games, musical entertainment, and since the 21st century, television.  Another cinema-size screen took pride of place above a circle of leather couches. 

The walls glowed warm reddish brown, matching the carved ceiling, the curved double staircase, and the balcony overlooking the entire room below.

“Cherrywood,” Petro stated, “all cherrywood,” his hand drawing a sweeping arc, taking it all in.

Petro’s tour was wrapping up.  He fished for the last of his keys and unlocked the door that would return me to the grounds, and ultimately everyday Ukraine—the December chill and grey clouds scudding across the sky, the crowded metro, the vendors offering sausage rolls and half-liter cans of beer.  The annual profit from one of these stalls would have paid for a single Swarovski bauble at Mezhyhiriya.

It was a bit of a walk back to the entrance gate, enough time, if I dawdled, to tally some of the costs of Mezhyhiriya.  The price for the wooden staircases, $200,000; paneling for the winter garden, $328,000; the cover for a neoclassical column and flight of steps, $430,000.  Almost $1 million was spent on imported fittings.  Each chandelier cost the Ukrainian budget $100,000.  Yanukovych spent $800 in state funds to treat his fish, $14,500 for tablecloths.   But all of this pales in comparison to the $42 million spent on light fixtures.  Yanukovych also had a dreadful fear of being imprisoned.  To foil possible schemers, he constructed greenhouses to produce twenty different climates, to satisfy his diverse culinary tastes.  The final tab for Mezhyhiriya came in at anywhere between $80 and $100 million, all of which, to be expected, was foisted onto the Ukrainian state.

An age-old saying says that “clothes make the man.”  Let’s take this a step further and argue that one’s house is like the “clothing,” and is therefore a projection of what one imagines themselves to be, like most clothing.  Seen that way, what did Mezhyhiriya say about Yanukovych?  What kind of man was he?  Man of the Ukrainian people?  Greek or Roman dignitary?  British or French aristocrat?  Oligarch?  All of these in a kind of wannabe manner, but in the end, none of them, except in a wannabe manner?

I nodded goodbye to the remaining guards at the entrance, still stomping their feet to fend off the now late-afternoon chill.  As for Yanukovych, and other megalomaniacs like him, the only explanation came from Petro, who had seen his life up close and yet had a commoner’s distance to make an informed judgment: “Super crazy!”

An age-old saying says that “clothes make the man.”  Let’s take this a step further and argue that one’s house is like the “clothing,” and is therefore a projection of what one imagines themselves to be, like most clothing.  Seen that way, what did Mezhyhiriya say about Yanukovych?  What kind of man was he? 

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