MEZHIGORYE, Ukraine —
The center of Kiev was relatively calm Sunday after the months of protests that reached their violent apex last week, leaving scores dead in the streets, driving Ukraine’s president out of the capital and placing the opposition in tenuous control of this troubled nation.
But on the highways leading north of the city, it was a different matter.
The roadways were clogged with cars, drivers madly honking, edging their way forward and then parking anywhere they could, leaving people to continue on foot. They weren’t in flight from the capital but on an unlikely pilgrimage.
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On this gray and overcast afternoon, they had come to see the opulent home President Viktor Yanukovych had left behind.
Their destination was a 330-acre country estate here in Mezhigorye, about 10 miles out of the capital. They were drawn by reports of luxury. They didn’t see the rumored golden toilets. But they did find exotic trees and birds. Marble staircases and a steam bath as large as a house. A frigate that houses a dining room and bar overlooking the marvelous expanse of the Dnieper River. A golf course and tennis courts and swimming pool. Streams and lakes adorned with granite, limestone and classic sculptures styled after ancient Greek and Roman works.
While visitors gawked in awe and outrage at Yanukovych’s luxurious mansions, ponds and exotic animals, 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 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.
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.
One was a receipt for $12 million in cash. Another invoice was for a payment of $10 million. Some 80,000 euros (about $110,000) went for curtains in a room called the “knight’s hall.” An additional 1.1 million euros (about $1.5 million) was spent on plants. Wooden décor for a handful of rooms cost $2.3 million.
Notably, $115,000 was spent for a statue of a “running boar,” possibly intended for Yanukovych, who is an avid hunter.
One page listed expenditures, and next to item No. 47 on the sheet was a payment of 32,580 hryvnia (nearly $4,000) for what was described as a “bribe” used in a bidding process.
Whether it was the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, the breaching of the presidential palace gates is a milestone of a revolution.
On Sunday, parliament nationalized the estate, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and allegedly built on property taken by Yanukovych from the state through the use of front companies.
The complex was once a modest government site that Yanukovych turned into a private residence and then expanded, saying acquaintances had built or paid for many amenities. Previous Ukrainian presidents had not lived at the residence. The president claimed he lived in a modest house on a small plot of land on the grounds.
After Yanukovych’s departure from Kiev on Friday, the estate was taken over by the opposition’s self-defense units, which opened it to visitors and deployed activists to maintain order and prevent any looting or property damage.
The street fighters decided not to open the buildings, saying they would wait for prosecutors and experts on valuable art to arrive and assess their contents.
Ukrainians, many bringing their children, reacted with wonder and revulsion at the opulence.
Some have called for turning the site into a hospital, sanatorium or even a “museum of corruption.”
Even as the crowds grew, there was no sign of looting.
By Saturday evening, a vast traffic jam formed on the highway from the capital, and crowds walked along the road’s shoulder to see the open palace. The grounds filled with Ukrainian citizens, awed by what they saw. “I’ve never seen luxury like this,” said one man.
“I didn’t know this handsome, humble man I saw on television on a daily basis was a czar,” said Alla Petrenko, a 59-year-old pensioner, as she stared Sunday through a French window of Yanukovych’s three-story home at a gilded, winding staircase with marble steps inside. “Our country lives like a beggar, always with an outstretched hand, like myself on a pension of $136 a month, and all this time (Yanukovych) lived here like a padishah.”
Dozens of people peered through the windows of the frigate along the Dnieper. In the vast dining hall glittering with gold, they could see dozens of bottles of cognac and vodka on a sprawling redwood table and window sills. Some bottles featured Yanukovych’s portraits on their labels.
Autocrats seem to have a propensity for private zoos, and Yanukovych’s palace complex contained multiple enclosures for exotic animals. Rare pheasants with magnificent, iridescent red tails scratched about in their cages, nervous from the crowds walking past and snapping pictures. The labels on the cages identified them as “Diamond pheasant” and “Japanese long-tailed pheasant.”
Other cages held dogs, and there were pens for goats and what appeared to be rare breeds of pigs.
“It’s beautiful here,” Svetlana Gorbenkova, a realtor, said as she walked about. “It’s so peaceful. But why all this for just one person? This was all stolen from us. It’s obvious now how much he stole. Why didn’t he give anything to the people? When he was running for president, one of his slogans was, ‘I will listen to every one of you.’ But he didn’t listen to any of us.”
Compiled from The New York Times, The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times.