Ukraine President's Estate Included Exotic Zoo
When he fled Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych left behind an opulent mansion that underscores the problems many Ukrainians say plague their country: widespread government corruption and a huge income gap.
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Ukraine's new interior minister says ousted president Viktor Yanukovych is now a fugitive, wanted for, quote, "the mass murder of peaceful citizens." Yanukovych was last seen last night in Crimea, that's a Russian speaking region of Ukraine, where Russia has a huge naval base. Saturday, Yanukovych appeared on local television still claiming to be the country's president.
GREENE: But in the capital, Kiev, it couldn't be more clear that he's irrelevant. Government security forces left his mansion on the outskirts of the capital. And over the weekend, crowds of Ukrainians went to take a look.
MONTAGNE: The mansion turns out to have a zoo, a dining room in the shape of a galleon, even a golf course.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on the spoils of four years in office.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Thousands of Ukrainians braved snowy weather and heavy traffic to catch a glimpse of the extravagance Viktor Yanukovych called home. There were so many visitors that most were forced to park their cars miles away from the estate. They walked through a sizeable community of mansions, which look a lot different than the bland Soviet-era apartments that dominate Kiev's suburban skyline.
The heavily guarded neighborhood was off limits to almost everyone for years. But when the president fled two days ago, police handed control of the property to armed protestors. Now, anyone is welcome to enter, not only the community, but the grounds of Yanukovych's beloved estate.
His compound is for many Ukrainians a glaring example of widespread theft and corruption here that helped spark this current revolution. Those who came eagerly snapped photos of the manicured grounds and towering home, which looks rather like a log cabin on steroids. There's a fake, Greek ruin nearby.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
NELSON: Others jostled for a spot at the ornate wooden windows in order to peek at the opulence inside.
OLEG KOMIN: In my humble opinion, the thing that people were let in here, it's the best thing to demonstrate it's no longer - he's no longer in power.
NELSON: That's lawyer Oleg Komin who came to tour the estate with this sister.
KOMIN: It's just unbelievable everything I could imagine was overwhelmed.
NELSON: Protestor Natalia Tereshchnko(ph) says she found the place disturbing.
NATALIA TERESHCHNKO: In fact, it's horrible, horrible because we're told permanently the budget has no money for medicine, for schools, for education for pensions. And right at this moment all these stupid, hilarious luxury things were built and it's a symbol of craziness, you know?
NELSON: Yanukovych never spoke publicly about his home, saying only that he lived modestly. But what's emerged since his ouster shows he did anything but.
Inside the mansion, among other things, is a bathroom with gold showerheads. Nearby garages house two fleets of expensive cars - one to ferry him around and the other, a collection of antiques.
Tereshchnko, who is a privatization consultant, says the extravagance is embarrassing.
TERESHCHNKO: I don't think that Bill Gates or somebody else who really built his business empire dreams to build such crazy, absolutely crazy things.
NELSON: Andre, who wouldn't give his last name and is one of dozens of armed anti-Yanukovich protestors in charge of security at the estate, says he's glad Ukrainians are getting to see how the president lived.
ANDRE: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: But he says they've decided against letting visitors inside the buildings. Andre explains they don't want the place vandalized on their watch and need to protect what's inside so that it can be used as evidence against Yanukovych in any criminal or civil trial.
The consultant, Tereshchnko, says she would welcome such a prosecution, as would most visitors here. But she believes given the history here, Yanukovych won't be the last Ukrainian politician who will try to fleece their country.
TERESHCHNKO: We've had bad experience with our revolution in 2004 but this time we have blood.
NELSON: She's referring to the scores of anti-government protestors who were killed by police in Kiev last week and whose deaths galvanized many of her countrymen and forced Yanukovych out.
Tereshchnko believes their sacrifice and the protestors' ultimate success will be enough to prevent future Ukrainian leaders from getting away with stealing taxpayers' money to build estates like this one.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.