“A Museum of Corruption”: inside the palace that was promised to Ukraine

Seen better days: inside the palace. Image: George Grylls.

It’s not often you find yourself alone in a palace with a man in a leather jerkin. But last month on the forested fringes of Kiev, it was me and Petro Oliynik in the former residence of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. We listened to the squawking of hungry parrots.

Yanukovych clearly liked his tropical birds. In room after gilded room, there were cages full of parakeets, budgies and cockatoos. There were even some ostriches outside.

“He thought he was a god,” said Oliynik, a former protestor who has occupied Honka for five years. And looking at a golden statue of a loaf of bread, it was hard to disagree.

The palace sits within Yanukovych’s old estate of Mezhyhirya. The sprawling site on the hilly banks of the Dnieper was seized by Oliynik and his band of protestors during the Maidan Revolution in 2014. It has since opened to the public as a national park, and Ukrainians can now rent golf buggies to inspect the peculiar sites: a fleet of classic cars, a galleon, a driving range and a private zoo.

Honka.

At the centre of the 340 acres is Honka. Yanukovych’s private residence has now become Oliynik’s personal palace. Admission is not advertised at the entrance to Mezhyhirya. It functions as an almost independent attraction within the park.


“It’s like a prison for me,” says Oliynik, who comes from Lviv in the far west of Ukraine, but feels duty-bound to stay and protect the legacy of the revolution.

Supposedly styled as a Finnish log cabin, Honka is a confused mishmash of Neoclassical, Alpine and Gothic motifs. Inside there are stuffed lions and stuffed alligators, suits of armour and snakeskin plant-pots, the deeds to a meteor and a $90,000 Steinway. Never have the profits of corruption been so neatly catalogued. Never has so much money been made to look so cheap.

Honka has some of the trappings of a museum. You have to put on disposable galoshes to protect the floors. And Oliynik is clearly passionate about his subject. But it is far from the “museum of corruption” it was slated to be.

To visit, you have to call up Oliynik in advance. He will coyly unlock the front door, and lead you on a slurring rant around his fiefdom. He drapes himself in a nationalist flag that carries the same connotations in Ukraine as a confederate flag might do in the USA.

Oliynik’s tour costs nearly £15 cash in hand. That’s a lot more than what the average Ukrainian earns in a day.

Deer in the private park.

Given the country’s pretensions to openness in the aftermath of Maidan, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. And the accusations of corruption continue to fly around. The current President Petro Poroshenko recently wrote an editorial in the Washington Post entitled, “My goal is to defeat corruption in Ukraine.” But for Oliynik, these words ring hollow.

“Poroshenko is worse than Yanukovych. He wants to close down the territory. It’s evidence of what goes on.”

Certainly Poroshenko’s name appears in the Paradise Papers, but Oliynik’s claims that the President is seeking to undermine Mezhyhirya’s status is a bit unfair. By all accounts, Mezhyhirya is indeed treated as property of the state. Soldiers patrol the premises to protect the assets from looting. And their presence is necessary: another of Yanukovych’s old properties was ransacked in 2016 when soldiers were ordered away to fight on the Eastern front.

In a sense, the tale of Mezhyhirya has become the tale of Ukraine’s ongoing battle with corruption.

Oliynik looks at a chandelier. 

When Yanukovych fled Mezhyhirya in 2014, suspect documents were rescued from their botched drowning in the Dnieper. Investigative journalists set up a website called Yanukovych Leaks. Originally their aim was to expose the venality of the ancien régime. But their role has necessarily expanded.

Last month Yanukovych Leaks forced the Government Agency for Returning and Managing Stolen Assets (ARMA) to delay awarding new contracts for the management of the Mezhyhirya. They released an open letter accusing the agency of a lack of transparency around the competition.

So Mezhyhirya currently finds itself limbo. And the longer it takes to root out corruption, the wider political disaffection spreads.

A dummy of Yanukovych.

It is tempting to conclude that all is lost in Ukraine. Next month there are Presidential elections. The polls currently favour a well-known TV comedian called Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He is running on anti-corruption platform but the main attraction seems to be that he is a complete and utter wildcard on a ballot otherwise filled with familiar names.

In a strange example of life imitating art, Zelenskiy originally became famous for playing an ordinary Ukrainian who rises to the Presidency after an anti-corruption rant goes viral.

But before succumbing to the popular ennui that has led to Zelenskiy’s success, it is worth remembering Mezhyhirya. The fight against corruption may be slow, but at least the fight is being fought.

ARMA is struggling with the tender of Mezhyhirya’s contracts. But five years ago such an agency did not exist – and five years ago there was no organisation like Yanukovych Leaks willing to take such an agency to task. Five years ago, Yanukovych was still feathering his nest.

All photos courtesy of George Grylls.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.