A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
29 July 2020
Today the Mezhyhirya estate might be one of the lushest public parks in all of Europe. Sprawling acres of landscaped gardens, speckled with fountains, bridges, duck ponds and marble statues, spread out along the bank of the River Dnieper just north of Kyiv. Ukrainian families wander the grounds with ice cream cones in hand, stopping along the way at attractions that include a petting zoo and a classic car museum. This place is idyllic – but it was never intended to be seen by the outside world.
At Mezhyhirya, Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, had built himself a stately pleasure garden worthy of Kubla Khan. Millions of dollars were siphoned out of the national budget to fulfil this one man’s private fantasy: these private gardens surrounding the most ridiculously extravagant dictator’s mansion, decorated in the very pinnacle of poor taste.
Ex-president Yanukovych now lives in exile in Russia, having been charged with high treason against Ukraine. His 140-hectare estate has been nationalised as a park, but the mansion itself is still off-limits, and is now controlled by one single man: a shopkeeper from Lviv, called Petro.
This is the story of Mezhyhirya – the most offensive display of wasted wealth you are ever likely to see – and of Petro, the flag-wearing revolutionary who still occupies the mansion now, six years after the rest of the revolutionaries went home.
The Maidan Revolution
By November 2013, the centre of Kyiv was unrecognisable. The city’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, became a forum for protest when Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych attempted to back out of the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement. This agreement would have built stronger ties between Ukraine and the West, and it promised a greater degree of transparency in the pursuit of Ukrainian democracy. But Yanukovych was not the kind of man who valued such things.
Viktor Yanukovych had grown up poor, in a village in the Donetsk region. In his teens, he did two spells in prison – for five years in total – on charges of robbery and assault. But then at 21 he married the niece of a local city judge, took a job in a coal-mining company, and began working his way up through the ranks. By 30 he was chief manager of a transportation company, whereupon he was admitted to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1996 he was made governor of Donetsk; in 2002 he served as prime minister of Ukraine under President Kuchma; and in 2004 he ran for president himself. Initially Yanukovych was declared the winner, until allegations of election fraud led to the protest later known as the ‘Orange Revolution.’ Yushchenko won the presidency instead, while Yanukovych became leader of the opposition. Yanukovych’s party went on to win the parliamentary elections in 2006-07. An investigation into his criminal past – along with recently resurfaced allegations of rape and battery – would begin to mount against him… however Yanukovych was nothing if not persistent.
When Yanukovych finally succeeded in becoming president of Ukraine in 2010, he immediately imposed a new, more authoritarian constitution on the country. He was accused of corruption, and of deploying constitutional amendments to usurp positions of power – for example by replacing the nation’s judges with his own people, loyal to him. So in 2013, when Yanukovych hesitated to sign the new agreement with the EU, many Ukrainians viewed this as their last chance to make their voices heard.
Protesters filled the square in 2013, largely peaceful crowds who occupied this space with their bodies and their tents for most of the winter, demanding a fairer democracy. However what had started as a pro-EU protest soon evolved into an anti-Yanukovych protest, when the president began using force against his citizens in December – telling riot police to clear the square, and force out the protestors to make space for Kyiv’s Christmas tree.
The first fatality was on 22 January 2014 – Serhiy Nigoyan was shot by police with a vehicle-stopping round, when protestors began marching towards the presidential office. After this point things escalated quickly. Calls for Yanukovych to sign the EU deal were replaced with calls for Yanukovych’s resignation. The self-proclaimed ‘Leaders of Maidan’ negotiated with the president, who in turn offered them positions of government power if they could persuade the protestors to back down – but the crowds refused. Multiple clashes with police occurred between 19-21 February, and as protestors advanced up Institutska Street, they were met by security police armed with flash grenades, tear gas, machine guns and sniper rifles. A hundred people were killed and more than a thousand injured in the ensuing chaos, as Maidan began to resemble a medieval battlefield: full of camp fires, makeshift barricades, and volunteer troops dressed in motley suits of homemade armour.
On 21 February, Yanukovych was ousted and the opposition parties and acting President Turchinov formed a temporary ‘National Unity Government.’ The disgraced ex-president fled the capital, and on 24 February the new interim government issued a warrant for his arrest – but Yanukovych had already made good his escape, and by 28 February was hosting glum press conferences from his new home in Russia.
It was around that time the protestors stormed Yanukovych’s presidential home: the Mezhyhirya estate, a fenced compound roughly 25 kilometres north of the capital. Little had previously been known about the president’s home, Yanukovych having been relatively successful in keeping his private life off-camera. And so those first protestors to enter Mezhyhirya were in for a surprise: as they were confronted with an incredible display of wealth, of tasteless, tacky opulence, on a scale beyond anything they could have imagined.
The Mezhyhirya Estate
The name Mezhyhirya means “between the hills.” There was once an Orthodox monastery on these grounds, beside the Dnieper River. Later, the place would be used in turn as a summer retreat by both Soviet, and – briefly – local Nazi leadership during WWII. Viktor Yanukovych managed to acquire the land in 2007, when he was serving as prime minister under President Yushchenko. It wasn’t until 2010 however, when Yanukovych himself became president, that he began construction on his own ostentatious estate at Mezhyhirya.
After the Maidan Revolution, the liberated Mezhyhirya became a popular attraction for foreign tourists and Kyiv residents alike. I was taken there by Ukrainian friends one time. They told me how revolutionaries had seized the building, and turned the ex-president’s lavish home into a ‘Museum of Corruption’; and this museum experience began before we even arrived. The 8 kilometres of road from Kyiv’s outskirts to the Mezhyhirya estate were as smooth as butter. To ensure himself a comfortable commute, Yanukovych spent almost 50 million hryvnias (then equivalent to $6.3 million) of the country’s money on this road – and in 2012, the addition of a similar road connecting Mezhyhirya to Yanukovych’s private hunting lodge brought the total expenditure up to roughly 120 million hryvnias.
Yanukovych was deeply paranoid too, so he travelled to the office with a large escort around him. One of my local friends told me how regular traffic would be halted for up to 30 minutes to make way for the president’s motorcades, with reports of even ambulances being forced to wait for Yanukovych; “which annoyed the hell out of people,” my friend added.
The Mezhyhirya estate looks stern from the outside, but past the military guards on the entry gates the grounds inside are as lavish as those of any stately home. Inside the high security fence we strolled through ornamental gardens where young couples now posed amongst colourful blooms for their wedding photos; and between fountain-splashed ponds inhabited by flocks of exotic ducks. Down on the water, at the lake’s edge, what had once been the president’s private promenade now featured open-air café seating. His network of tarmac roads around the estate – once a playground for his personal collection of classic cars – had been painted with cycle paths.
We did not see inside the house that time – the ‘Honka,’ they call it, named after the Finnish company who built it – a Nordic-style log cabin blown up to the size of a four-storey McMansion. Word was that no one got inside the mansion without permission from the revolutionaries still squatting it after Yanukovych fled. In time, though, I would get to know those new occupants.
In 2016 I started running tours in Ukraine with my friend Yomadic, and one of our local tour industry contacts said she knew the man in Mezhyhirya: Petro. The situation was truly bizarre. Not even Ukraine’s official tourism ministry could get visitors inside the Honka. The government had no jurisdiction at this former presidential residence. Either you knew Petro, or you didn’t… and as we would discover, even that would count for nothing if Petro decided not to answer his phone on the appointed day.
When we did get to take visitors inside the house, Petro – dressed in his trademark leather jerkin, with shiny buckles and a red-and-black flag draped around his shoulders – would meet us at the entrance to the wellness complex: a smaller block near the Honka, that was connected to Yanukovych’s main house by a series of underground tunnels. He would then lead us on a sombre tour of the residence, dutifully unlocking doors, switching on lights and then turning them back off as we left each area. Sometimes he talked about what we were seeing, which would then be translated to English for our groups – other times, he accompanied us in silence.
The Mezhyhirya house itself was extraordinary. Everything inside was needlessly, offensively expensive: the corridor floors were inlayed with patterns in seventeen different varieties of wood; plant pots were covered with real alligator skin; and in the billiards room sat an antique music box valued at $460,000, which played twinkly little tunes carved onto playable canisters. A court document in 2015 valued the estate and its total contents at somewhere in the region of 1 billion UAH (at that time, approximately $135 million)… though Petro points out that the total Yanukovych paid, is not necessarily the same as the total value. He was spending money for the sake of spending money, and he didn’t always necessarily get a good deal from his suppliers. Additionally, the building’s contents are still yet to be properly inventoried.
Perhaps the greatest single illustration for Yanukovych’s total disregard for actual material value, is the chandelier that hangs above the balconies in the multi-floor entrance hall of the Honka. A quarter of a ton of solid silver, the president had it installed before deciding he didn’t like how it looked – and so ordered his staff to have it plated in gold, instead.
It’s not that all the fittings and furniture at Mezhyhirya were necessarily terrible. Things like the Steinway grand piano, the crystal chandeliers, or even the medieval-style suits of armour that lined one ground floor lobby, could each have made an attractive focal point in a well-balanced room. But Yanukovych had stacked one showpiece on top of another, filling the Honka with ill-placed symbols of wealth until it felt like everything in the house was screaming louder than everything else. The result was, at best, exhausting; at worst, nauseating.
We took groups there maybe eight times, over the course of a few years. The house itself had held my attention completely the first time I went – like it did for every new visitor we brought along – but over time, my gaze began shifting to Petro himself. Who really was this man, dressed like some medieval militant, who alone held the keys to the president’s mansion? Friends in Kyiv told me rumours: some believed he was Yanukovych’s man, a butler posing as a revolutionary, just watering the flowers until his boss got home. But Petro Oliynik’s story is far more complicated than that.
My curiosity peaked during one of those group visits in 2017, and I asked Petro if I could come back to Mezhyhirya alone sometime – to meet with him in private, and hear the story of how he came to be the de facto caretaker of Yanukovych’s estate. He agreed. Here’s what he had to say for himself.
Petro Oliynik: The Man in Mezhyhirya
Petro Oliynik greets us – myself and a translator – at the entrance to the Honka. He waves us inside, his flag-cape rippling heroically in the wind as he raises his arm. He has had a haircut since I last saw him, four days ago; and I wonder if it was specifically for this photo opportunity. In Russian, I thank him for agreeing to this meeting. Petro smiles and replies in Ukrainian. Like many Ukrainians, Petro says he prefers to use the country’s own national language – though in practice, throughout our interview he will usually respond in Russian, or sometimes a fluid mixture of the two. Anyway, I add a Dyakuyu (Thank you, in Ukrainian) for good measure.
He asks if I would like to take some photographs before we talk. I nod, and Petro leads me through the ex-president’s house on a surreal photo safari. Whichever direction I point my camera in, this becaped revolutionary quietly slides into the frame to strike a noble pose – beside Yanukovych’s boxing ring, in front of a taxidermied lion, or amongst pipes and dials in the mansion’s gloomy boiler room. Eventually we settle for a conversation in the home cinema, a space decked out with a fleet of leather armchairs and faux-Gothic wood panelling. When I ask if he ever watches films in here, Petro replies abruptly – Absolutely not. For him, he explains, making leisure use of the luxurious facilities would devalue the nature of his occupation. Petro, along with his girlfriend Yulia, maintain the house but they do not allow themselves to enjoy its contents – they don’t sleep in Yanukovych’s bed, but rather, they’ve set up their own makeshift quarters in the gym.
I ask Petro to tell me about his background.
“I come from Lviv. I ran a small stall at the marketplace there. The thing is, our whole lives the government makes it so that we have to keep paying off corrupt officials. It’s a mess… Say for example, you open a shop or start a company. You pay a fee. Then once per year you’ve got a tax inspector – you have to bribe him. Then the police come to protect your business – you have to bribe them as well. Then the fire inspector – you have to bribe him too. Why then should I pay the official taxes to these government agencies, if all of their representatives still come demanding their own shares from me directly? I refuse to live in their matrix – I have always been fighting, I’ve never paid them anything. As a result I’ve been arrested, taken by the police, and they’ve tried to scare me into paying.
“Why is all of this still here?” Petro gestures around, at the opulence that surrounds us. “Because there’s a few other people like me who live outside of this matrix – unlike the rest of the country – and that’s why we won here.”
When the Maidan Revolution kicked off in the capital in 2013, Petro immediately travelled to Kyiv to add his support. He tells me how the revolution was already long overdue.
“Our young people are either being killed in the East, where our government wastes their lives fighting for nothing, or they’re driven out of the country as living conditions become unbearable. Young Ukrainians are travelling abroad to help develop other countries! They just want to earn money, but they are unable to do it here. That’s why we came to Maidan in the first place. To show that we, the people, had had enough and that we wanted a responsible government. That’s why so many people came to Maidan, risking their lives.
“I came to Kyiv on 25 November 2013. We joined the fighting in Maidan and continued the fight against corruption when we came to Mezhyhirya. But the leaders of the Maidan Revolution betrayed us all. They said they would lead us and that they would change things in Ukraine. They didn’t, so now we act as we see fit… fighting corruption as best we can.
“It doesn’t scare me, as I believe we only live once and nobody knows when they’ll die. For example, government representatives came for us here saying we’d committed a criminal offence by breaking into Mezhyhirya. If I am to be found guilty, I’m ready to do my sentence… but, say I get fifteen years in prison: when I get released in fifteen years I want to be sure that this place will still be here as it is now!”
I ask Petro how he got from the streets of Kyiv, to the ex-president’s mansion.
“After everything that happened in Maidan, after the mass shootings in February 2014, I went past the barricades where the shooters were and we stayed there to warn people in case the police and special forces came again. I spotted a man – he was walking through Maidan. We had various people visiting Maidan at the time: journalists, and also pro-government spies asking questions, asking for names, and so on. I didn’t think he was one of the spies. He showed me the news on his smartphone – that Mezhyhirya had been ‘liberated.’ He asked if I wanted to go there with him. I thought maybe he wanted to kidnap me, which is something that happened to many activists in Maidan – to scare them or to make them disappear for good. I think we lost something like a thousand people in Maidan, dead. Or maybe not so many. Anyway, we walked towards his car and I spotted two more guys I didn’t know – I asked them if they wanted to go to Mezhyhirya, and they agreed. That’s how we ended up here, four of us.
“When we arrived, some people were standing just outside the gate… and others were already inside. Maybe you saw a shield, a helmet and a bat at the entrance? Those were mine, from the day I arrived here. The people on the fence told me they wouldn’t let anyone through with weapons. I guess they trusted me – I was dirty, you could tell right away that I had come from the protests on Maidan. They didn’t stop me – I just went through. There were some guards still, Yanukovich’s employees. The former head of security requested safe passage for them, so someone took all the guards safely outside, to the nearby road, where they could leave in peace without any unnecessary tension.
“We met more people near the Honka, and I quickly assumed the responsibility of guarding it – telling others not to destroy or loot the house and the valuables inside. We guarded the door until late in the night. Not a single one of the so-called ‘Leaders of Maidan’ came… and before long, most of the other revolutionaries left Mezhyhirya.”
Since then, Petro has remained. He says that he will stay in Mezhyhirya for as long as it takes for the process of nationalisation to be completed. When I talk about Ukraine’s 2014 revolution in the past tense, he corrects me – for him, the revolution is still ongoing. I ask him why it is so important that the house is guarded, and that Yanukovich’s estate is protected against damage.
“Yanukovich won’t come back. He’s not afraid of the current government or prosecution… but he’s afraid of the Ukrainian people. He could try to retake the house through legal channels, but the people are against him and so that keeps him away.
“Now we want this place to remain a part of our history… for it to be useful for people. We want Mezhyhirya to be nationalised, for it to remain state-owned, so that nobody can ever buy it back and so it remains accessible for all who want to visit. The building itself could become a museum. Those contents that have already been given to other museums could be brought back… or replicas could be made to exhibit here in Mezhyhirya. We could also exhibit other art and antiques here. All these items should be serving some purpose, serving the people, instead of just sitting in a private collection.
“Mezhyhirya offers great potential for education. It demonstrates how our government officials steal from their own people. But it also shows how it was us who created this corrupt system. It didn’t appear on its own – we made it so. We have so far been unable to change this situation by force… but perhaps, at Mezhyhirya, we can change things by showing, by teaching. Because this building we’re in… this is not even the largest of its kind in Ukraine. This is only middle class. People need to see this place, but of course the government won’t bring visitors here. They don’t want me telling you these things, because President Poroshenko himself lives in a similar building!”
President Petro Poroshenko (2014-19) had emerged victorious from the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution. His platform promised exactly the kind of change that Ukrainians had already demonstrated they so desperately wanted. However, many of his initial promises would go unfulfilled, leading some Ukrainians to question if this new president wasn’t in fact just more of the same corruption they’d seen before. Petro Oliynik is certainly not a fan.
“[President Poroshenko] exterminates his own people. We’re fighting on two fronts now: in the East, Putin is sending his thugs to fight us – and on the other side, Poroshenko undermines our own army by not providing enough finance and material support. At the start of the war, Canada sent us 30,000 sets of military uniform… but I’ve met huge numbers of soldiers and volunteers, who’ve been to the front lines, and I asked everyone if they received a set of those 30,000 uniforms. Nobody saw them.
“Poroshenko is doing nothing for us, but just keeps saying that Putin is our enemy. So then why is Poroshenko still doing business with Putin? If he’s an enemy, then you can’t have your own companies working in Russia. Poroshenko is collaborating in a genocide against the Ukrainian nation.”
I ask him who currently owns Mezhyhirya.
“Tantalit LLC, a company owned by Klyuyev.* Yanukovich created what we call a ‘criminal family’… Klyuyev was part of it, and an owner of Tantalit LLC… which in turn owns Mezhyhirya. Yushchenko, our ex-president, agreed the transfer of 139.7 hectares of land here for a 49-year lease to the Tantalit company. Before fleeing from Ukraine, Klyuyev managed to sell his share in Tatalite LLC. According to some rumours one of the current owners is a resident of the United Arab Emirates. It would probably take a lot of work to expose the whole chain of ownership, but we’re not interested: it’s our land, we live here.”
[* Andriy Klyuyev was head of the Security Council under Yanukovich. According to some politicians he was partly responsible for the mass shootings on Maidan, and there’s a warrant for his arrest in Ukraine. His whereabouts remain unknown to the public.]
“Tantalit’s lawyer came here two years ago and called us thugs. He said he’d bought a 0.03% share of Tantalit LLC for 44,000 UAH [roughly $1,570] and was elected as CEO… and he asked us to leave. He alleged that on 22 February 2014 we broke into Mezhyhirya in what was a criminal action and that we now illegally occupied it. They had prepared all the legal paperwork already, but they still couldn’t simply force us out – because the Ukrainian people would never support it. They don’t see us as ‘thugs.’
“In fact, various government agencies have sent different groups of people to trick us into leaving. The first group was sent by [right-wing political party] Svoboda. They came at the order of [former party member] Prosecutor General Makhnitskyi. Makhnitskyi transferred the management of Mezhyhirya to the Puscha Voditsya recreational complex… this is a state-owned company that has many bankrupted properties under its management. We decided that we could let them take Mezhyhirya, only on the condition that they created a thorough inventory, and made a public valuation of all the property within the estate. They refused, however – and so we didn’t let them in. We can’t allow anyone to take Mezhyhirya just like that, without recording an inventory.
“Then the second group came, from the State Management of Affairs. They had documents that showed they had been authorised to remove Yanukovich’s science lab from the premises, and transfer it somewhere else. When we declined their request, they cut off the gas supply to Mezhyhirya. We contacted the gas company, but they said we were nobody and that they couldn’t sign a gas supply contract with us. Then the electricity supply was temporarily cut off too.
“The latest attempt to remove us was ordered by President Poroshenko himself, who sent his Ministry of Defence representatives. He had authorised them to create a military rehab centre here. The Ministry of Defence tried coming here by force, but we talked to them and some of them understood that they were being manipulated. We won’t use force against anyone. First we talk. We invite them to talk. We showed them around but we told them that they couldn’t just turn this place into soldiers’ barracks. We told them: ‘we can’t fight the Ministry of Defence, but since you’re here we might as well transfer this complex into your management officially – so we should make an inventory and do it all properly.’ But the Ministry of Defence representatives refused this proposal, and said they had been authorised only to start a rehab centre here. Nobody had authorised them to take an inventory.”
I ask Petro what it’s like to live in these conditions – guarding the house against government agencies and private corporations. I ask how he and his girlfriend provide for themselves, and what they expect the future to look like.
“Most of the people that work here don’t get paid for it. I have no income, no kind of salary from this place… but then, I didn’t come here with that intention. We buy food and clothes from the money people pay for tickets. It is very hard to develop anything here, because we can’t give people any guarantees. We can’t guarantee that they’ll still have work even after a month or two. For example, one businessman wanted to set up coffee vans at Mezhyhirya for the visitors. These vans are quite expensive, he was investing a lot – and we warned him: ‘tomorrow you might have to take those vans and move them elsewhere. Or you might lose them.’ But he took that risk.
“I can’t predict anything. Officials could arrive tomorrow to seize back Mezhyhirya, but we’ll be here to oversee it – to make sure they don’t steal anything that now belongs to the people of Ukraine. In part, we’re all thinking about how to get back to our regular lives. But after these events I think we shouldn’t be thinking that way. The fight continues. When it will all be over, I can’t tell.”
I am still curious about his clothes, so I ask Petro about the significance of his jerkin, and the flag around his shoulders.
“This is the UPA flag [Ukrainian Insurgent Army]. If you pour blood over Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag, it becomes this black and red one. This is how our flag looks in times of revolution and struggle. Then the jacket, this is like a trophy. On the shoulder here, I wear a strap from Yanukovich’s own jacket. There’s one more set like that, owned by Poroshenko. If I can take that one from Poroshenko too – then by that point, perhaps we’ll finally have peace and order in Ukraine.”
The Situation Now
Since my interview with Petro Oliynik in 2017, some things have changed… while others have stayed the same.
Yanukovych remains in Russia. He was tried in absentia by a Ukrainian court, who on 24 January 2019 found him guilty of high treason. Should he ever return to Ukraine, he will immediately face thirteen years’ imprisonment.
His successor, Poroshenko, faced dwindling support from the Ukrainian people as his post-Maidan promises consistently failed to materialise. Polls suggested he would lose the next presidential election in March 2019. In November 2018, following a naval altercation between Russian and Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait just off Crimea, Poroshenko placed Ukraine under a state of martial law; his critics worried that the president was attempting to cling onto power by suspending democracy, and postponing the elections. Nevertheless, after 30 days of martial law the 2019 presidential elections went ahead as planned, and Poroshenko lost – to Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who had previously played the Ukrainian president on the television series Servant of the People.
I recognised Zelensky. On one of our previous trips to Mezhyhirya, a television crew had been filming scenes inside the Honka. In the dining room, cameras pointed to the table where a handsome man in a suit stood shouting and shaking a fistful of documents. Strange to think that this actor we saw, impersonating a president in Yanukovych’s former home, would soon after be taking Yanukovych’s job as leader of the country.
Meanwhile, Petro Oliynik is still occupying the house at Mezhyhirya.
Yanukovych’s holding company, Tantalit, had its Ukrainian assets frozen by a court decree in 2015. In mid-2018, the ARMA (Asset Recovery and Management Agency of the Ukrainian Government) took ownership of the Mezhyhirya residency. However the government provided no plan for making an inventory of the contents. Petro, who trusted Poroshenko about as much as he trusted Yanukovych himself, found this unsatisfactory and so refused to vacate the property.
When I have spoken to Petro on more recent visits, he tells me he’s getting tired. Living under these pressures for six years has not had a good effect on his mental or emotional health, he says; but he remains committed to the cause. Petro still says he will stay at Mezhyhirya until the building officially belongs to the people of Ukraine, with all of its contents carefully catalogued to ensure they won’t disappear into the coffers of government officials… and he will keep fighting, no matter whether that process takes another six months, or a decade.
This article has been an incredible amount of work to research and put together. It would have been impossible without help – most notably from Sviatoslava Maksymchuk at Kyiv Friendly Tours, for the introduction to Petro; her colleague Olga, who translated our interview; and Anton Lebedev, who provided further audio-to-text translations, along with additional research. Lastly, I owe a debt of gratitude to Petro Oliynik for taking the time to share his story with me.