October 16, 2017

Photo Essay: The House That Corruption Built

The first thing I saw when I arrived at Boryspil Airport (KBP) just over a month ago for my trip to Kiev and Chernobyl was a sign, just past the passport checkpoint, that showed the word "CORRUPTION" in one of those red circles with the slash through it, the international prohibition sign that means "NO," no matter which language you speak.

I thought it odd, having expected other activities like smoking or use of cell phones to be prohibited at an international border—but, being used to other restrictions at other customs and border crossings, I was averse to take a photo of it. But it turns out that the fight against corruption would inform much of my visit to Ukraine for the next week—not the least of which was at the Mezhyhirya Residence (Межигір'я), a.k.a. the Museum of Corruption.

This palace was owned and built by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who went into exile after being overthrown and unseated in the 2014 revolution—though no one can actually prove his ties to the place.

President Yanukovych was so good at hiding money and running the country like a shell game that the only paperwork that exists of the ownership of Mezhyhirya, where everyone knows he lived, is tied to several companies that can't be traced back to the corrupt politician.

It's true, Yanukovych was elected. Twice, in fact. But many dispute the validity of the second time, at least.

And you know who helped get him elected, despite the popular vote going to his opponent? Our very own Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump who officially registered as a "foreign agent."

Like Trump, Yanukovych had expensive taste and liked to show off his personal wealth—from his own private tennis court...

...bowling alley...

...and boxing ring... his wife's pet project, a conservatory full of taxidermy, plants...

...and live, exotic birds...

...who were left behind when Yanukovych and his wife eventually fled.

Everything at Mezhyhirya is the ultimate in excess...

...from the furniture... the carpeting and wood inlay flooring... the light fixtures in the ceiling.

Everything is so pristine that it's hard to imagine anyone actually using any of these rooms for any routines of daily life.

That's partly because Yanukovych hated the smell of food being cooked, and therefore he required that his meals be prepared off-site and merely assembled in the kitchen adjacent to the dining area.

Of course, it's all empty now—save for the tourists who visit the compound to learn how corruption could make one man so rich and the rest of the nation so poor.

Everything appears to be bathed in gold leaf or cast out of silver ore.

And that which is not made of precious metal has been carved from some exotic wood with some delicate grain.

There's even a limited "John Lennon" edition Steinway piano on display—and, despite the velvet ropes, you can play "Imagine" on it, if you know the tune.

There are no guards to keep you from touching anything. Nobody's going to stop you from enjoying the opulence.

Some might be inclined to call Mezhyhirya "ostentatious"—and, sure, it is flamboyant. It was both designed to impress and also hidden from public view.

It's more regal than presidential, per se.

In fact, its interior design appears to be right out of the handbook for Queen Anne or some other 18th century palatial abode.

But some parts of it are actually kind of nice, though it's hard to imagine anyone actually sleeping here...

...sitting here...

...bathing here...

...or praying here.

And yet, it's all together in one place—everything a despot would need to live in secrecy and assemble wealth without drawing too much attention to himself as he profited off the state and his struggling constituents.

And when Yanukovych fled Ukraine after the 2014 revolution—to Moscow, no less—he abandoned his Mezhyhirya and its grounds, leaving all the spoils of corruption behind.

That turned out to be a boon for Ukraine tourism, as the coined "Museum of Corruption" has become a "must-see" attraction for all visitors to Kiev and the surrounding areas.

But the more that the contents of the main house (a club house nicknamed "Honka" that resembles a Finnish hunting lodge) are publicized, the more it's left vulnerable to thieves, looters, and vandals.

You couldn't blame a citizen for wanting to take what their tax dollars were spent on, after all.

The statuary...

...the gardens...

...the bathhouse and its fountains...

...and a replica of a Spanish galleon would be enough to inspire some resentment in anyone who was living in poverty while the president prospered.

And that's not even counting his collection of luxury cars from around the world—including a 1938 Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (what would become Audi), a 1945 Studebaker, and a 1950 Bentley.

Of course, most Ukrainians couldn't possibly have had an accurate sense of the scope of the corruption under Yanukovych's rule.

That is, until they got to visit his home for themselves and see first-hand the fruits of their labors.

It's a wonder that nobody has taken their frustrations and aggressions out on the windshields of any of those cars in the collection by now.

But even more than all of that, this is the president who refused to stop cozying up to Moscow...

...and who came up with every excuse not to move the country in a more westerly direction (towards joining the European Union).

He was ousted not just for those reasons, or even for the corruption, either. Ukraine's interim government issued a warrant for Yanukovych's arrest because of the mass murder of those who were protesting his policies at Maidan.

Those revolutionaries who survived the bloodbath of Maidan, like Petro Oliynykr, came straight to  Mezhyhirya after the president fled—to both expose and protect the site and its 345 acres. By that point, security police had already withdrawn from their official duties.

The rebels have guarded it ever since. And former President Yanukovych is still on the run and wanted for money-laundering, inappropriate use of state assets, and crimes against humanity.

For 360-degree views inside at outside the estate, click here

Stay tuned for a future post on the revolution at Maidan, which is now known as Independence Square.

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