Published February 24, 2014
The Ukraine’s most-wanted man, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, remains on the run as his stunned countrymen tour his dream home, the impoverished nation’s answer to Versailles and what some are calling a “monument to corruption.”
Yanukovych, who OpenDemocracy.net reported earned less than $25,000 per year for most of his political career, is believed to have owned several homes around the economically-strapped nation, but none symbolized his greed and corruption more than the $75 million mansion he completed in Mezhyhirya in 2012. Built on the site of a Soviet-era dacha, the 340-acre estate, just north of Kiev on the bank of the Dnieper River, has features that would make the stickiest-fingered dictator blush, according to OpenDemocracy.net.
In a 2012 article on the excesses of Mezhyhirya, the nonprofit site reported that:
“In a country where 35 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, spending $100,000 on each individual chandelier seems excessive, to say the least,” wrote Sergii Leshchenko.
Yanukovych even used the people’s money to build a gleaming new highway connecting Mezhyhirya to Kiev shortly after he came to power in 2010.
The story of how Yanukovych acquired the 340-acre estate where he built his dream home illustrates his brazen abuse of power to enrich himself, say critics. The property, built on the site of a 14th century monastery, was originally a Soviet-era dacha, or country home, used by communist leaders as a getaway. After Ukraine gained its independence from Russia, it was used to accommodate foreign delegations. But when Yanukovych was appointed prime minister in 2002, he moved into the dacha. First, he rented the home; then, after a series of changes in Ukraine’s government that saw him leave and return to power, he simply took the home for himself, according to OpenDemocracy.net.
When he became president in 2010, he demolished all of the buildings at Mezhyhirya and began building his dream home, a five-story stone palace replete with imported marble floors, gold fixtures and exotic wood -- and surrounded by a 35-mile long, 15-foot high fence. Although he often bragged about his home to other world leaders, his ego did have a limit: When the Finnish construction company that built it for him sought to nominate it for inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records based on its sheer size, Yanukovych blocked the move.
The 63-year-old Yanukovych served as president of Ukraine from 2010 until last week, when he was ousted from power in what he called a coup. He is now the nation’s most-wanted man, accused of a litany of crimes -- including murder and corruption.
A political survivor who as a teen served prison time for robbery and assault, Yanukovych rose from a career as a trucking manager and mechanical engineer in the 1970s and 1980s to a minor position in the province of Donestk. In 1997, he became the governor of Donetsk, serving until 2002 when he became prime minister of Ukraine. He held that position for two years, before failing in his first bid to become president. But he returned as prime minister in 2006, serving another two years and setting the stage for his election to the presidency in February 2010.
With the manhunt now on for the ousted kleptocrat, the home reporters called a “monument to corruption” is open to the people, with opposition guards on hand to prevent looting. Thousands of Ukrainians poured onto the grounds over the weekend, marveling at the sheer opulence in which their former president lived.
Visitors gawked in awe and outrage at the ponds and exotic animals, and journalists combed through heaps of documents that appeared to show a leader who basked in extravagant wealth while his country sought bailouts from both the West and Russia.
Many of the financial and other documents were burned, while others were dumped in a lake before Yanukovych fled his closely guarded residence, flying to the eastern city of Kharkiv, where his support base is strongest. Divers were able to retrieve many of the documents, and activists laid them out to dry.
The drying papers included a bank receipt for $12 million in cash, a $2.3 million receipt for the decoration of a dining hall and a $115,000 price tag for a statue of a wild boar.
Photos of the documents were posted online by Mustafa Nayem, a top Ukrainian investigative journalist for the Ukrainska Pravda website and Hromadske.tv online news channel.
Yanukovych remains at large, but for now it seems clear he will never again dwell in the lavish home he built. Freedom-minded Ukrainians, still stunned at the greed of their ousted president, are calling for the home to be turned into a hospital, sanatorium or even a “museum of corruption."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.