“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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.