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.
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.