NOVI PETRIVTSI, Ukraine – The opulent residence of President Viktor Yanukovych has always been a closely guarded secret — and a symbol of the alleged corruption at Ukraine's highest levels. On Saturday, after he fled the capital and its gates were thrown open, thousands streamed into the compound to get a first-hand look.
Inside the walled compound known as Mezhyhirya, posh mansions stood amid manicured lawns. There were parks dotted with statues, ponds with fountains and wild ducks, a tennis court, a golf course and a colonnaded pavilion.
As throngs of ordinary Ukrainians got their first look at Yanukovich's luxurious estate, many expressed disgust. Some brought their children — one even brought his dog. They considered the tour a victory for anti-government demonstrators who fought street battles with police this week in which dozens were killed.
Associated Press correspondent Maria Danilova has covered President Viktor Yanukovych for years, from his defeat in the Orange Revolution to his rise to Ukraine's highest office. When the opposition took over the capital of Kiev and the gates to his once-secret residence were opened, Danilova joined thousands of Ukrainians who got their first look at the grandeur of the presidential compound.
At a protest of government censorship of the media in June outside the walls of Yanukovych's residence, the gates were cordoned off by dozens of beefy riot police in red berets.
On Saturday, the compound known as Mezhyhirya was guarded by the opposition's self-defense units.
Yanukovych had always refused to talk about his residence, admitting only to living in a modest house on a small plot inside Mezhygirya Park, about 140 hectares (345 acres) of forested hills along the Dnipro River.
Journalists' investigations traced the property and buildings around it to Yanukovych's allies.
Now those gates were open to the public.
The protesters' self-defense units were deployed inside the compound to maintain order and prevent any looting or damage to the property. One of them, a middle-aged man, could not hide his anger: "Look how he lived, son of a bitch."
Activists described one giant wooden building as a guest house. It was closed and no one was allowed inside but a peek through a window revealed marble floors, crystal chandeliers, a massive stairway with what looked like gold-covered railings, and a giant piano in a reception hall with luxurious beige armchairs.
Activists attached a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag to the house, and many posed for photos in front of it.
"It's like we entered Berlin and seized the Reichstag," said Oleksiy Tiunov, a 33-year-old computer specialist from Kiev. He added that he was proud of his fellow protesters.
"They didn't flee, they didn't run, good guys, even when they started getting killed. Everybody stood there, even peaceful citizens. We Ukrainians still have this spirit which cannot be crushed," Tiunov said, choking back tears.
Many waved Ukrainian and European Union flags, embracing each other and chanting, "Glory to Ukraine."
A self-appointed guide who introduced himself as Roman told of the construction of the guest house and showed everyone a multilevel pond, surrounded by elegant statues. "This is where our money was wasted," he said.
People were overwhelmed but also curious. "Where is the helicopter pad? Where is the golf course?" one woman asked. "Where are the ostriches?" questioned another.
One of those inside the estate was Mykhailo Havrilyuk, a well-known activist who had been stripped naked, beaten and humiliated by Yanukovych's police force last month. He insisted Yanukovych must go, and he suggested Mezhygirya be turned into a children's sanatorium.
"Let him be hanged or hidden away in a place where nobody will find him," Havrilyuk said.
Yulia Yashchenko, 26, brought her 5-year-old son, Volodymyr, so he could witness history.
"I want to see how the guarantor of our constitution, so to speak, lived, and to show this to my child," she said, with some sarcasm. "These are historic events."
Vitali Rus, 31, and his wife Lilia, 28, both lawyers from Kiev, could not hide their disgust.
"It looks like a medieval pharaoh who had an entire empire working for him, who was spending all this tax money on himself," Vitali said, holding his 3-year-old son, Artem. "When we saw footage from the residence of the British queen, we didn't see such luxury as with this modern Ukrainian dictator."
By afternoon, thousands had lined up to enter. Some walked several kilometers (miles), because the roads were choked with hundreds of cars going there. Over loudspeakers, activists urged the visitors not to destroy anything and checked those who were leaving to make sure nothing had been taken.
Back in Kiev, funerals were held for some of the dead protesters. Those victims were on the mind of Vitali Rus as he toured Yanukovych's compound.
"Today is a day of sorrow, when we must mourn the hundreds of those who died, and thanks to whom we were able to enter this territory," he said. "And this wicked man, who calls himself the president of Ukraine, has fled."