Mezhgorye, Ukraine — Earlier this week, I stood in Putin’s bedroom. When the Russian dictator would visit his pal the president of Ukraine, he would stay at a luxury cabin tucked in the woods of Mezhgorye, the gaudily posh estate Yanukovych abandoned when he fled on February 22.
On a chilly morning, I climbed into a car to visit the deserted palace. Though Mezhgorye is just twelve miles from downtown Kiev, it took nearly an hour to drive there. Traffic in the city is often bad even in times of stability, and the barriers are still up at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a main thoroughfare in Kiev.
Yanukovych never experienced these traffic problems, though — when he wanted to drive, he simply ordered that select roads in the city be shut down, creating a commuter’s nightmare in the already tangled traffic. On the highway to Mezhgorye, he had a middle lane built for his exclusive use. Since Yanukovych was deposed, a few daring drivers now encroach on the middle lane, but others are wary of the corrupt police that still patrol nearby. No one knows whether it’s legal to drive there or not, and opportunities for extortion aren’t neglected.
It’s hideous. Yanukovych may have pilfered about $1 billion from the Ukrainian people to build his castle, but money can’t buy taste. He started building in a Greco-Roman style, then changed his mind and switched to a Victorian theme. Builders managed to finish the first floor before he changed his mind again; the top of the house is a log cabin. One wing was for Yanukovych, the other for his mistress.
Today, the doors and windows of the gargantuan eyesore are welded shut. Ukrainians rightly feared that the corrupt police “guarding” the mansion might decide to steal. The temptation would be hard to resist, given that it was the sort of place decorated by artificial loaves of bread made out of gold. But I peek in the windows and see a large smoking table surrounded by an advanced air-filtration system. A sooty white smoking glove remains behind, alongside an ashtray full of butts.
Back on the cart, we drive past the immense sauna hut on the bank of a pond full of imported rare fish. Yanukovych had hot-water jets installed in the middle of the pond, in case the mood for a dip struck. We wind past the golf course to Yanukovych’s private beehives. The president loved fresh honey, I’m told. Then we drive past a black swan, rare hares, and squirrels. He had the latter flown in from Russia, because Ukrainian squirrels weren’t luxe enough for his forest.
Honey was not the only thing Yanukovych liked fresh. Mezhgorye is home to a high-tech greenhouse where he had everything from bananas to papayas to fresh scallions grown. His staff had to don lab coats before they entered his fresh-food farm; my guide tells me that there is only one other greenhouse as sophisticated as this one in the world.
Yanukovych not only had a taste for exotic fruit, he also made Mezhgorye home to more than 2,000 animals, including exotic species such as African elands and mountain goats. The menagerie was a way to flaunt wealth, and it also provided palate-pleasing dishes for hungry diners; Yanukovych had a wild-boar–domesticated-pig hybrid bred and kept on his estate because of its succulence. South American white ostriches were also on the menu.
The Yanukovych sausages are amazingly delicious — or so say the people who are now eating them, the rebels who helped to overthrow his corrupt government. Volunteers and charity workers are trying to save his rare animals, but the super-organic-deluxe fruits and veggies go to feed those who volunteered at the Maidan.
Putin’s cottage has also been reclaimed. Military and police officials now use it to plan their defense against Russian aggression. In the woods not far from Yanukovych’s giant luxury-car garage, I see troops drilling.
It’s hard to describe the level of tasteless decadence at Mezhgorye. It’s not surprising that Yanukovych went overboard, Ukrainians say — he was an uneducated gangster with too much power and too much spare cash. Surveying his palace, I can easily to understand why Ukrainians got fed up with his corruption.
Perhaps some day Russians will feel the same about their kleptocrat strongman. And perhaps then, I’ll stand smugly in Putin’s bedroom once again.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.