Ukrainians get peek at secret luxury
NOVI PETRIVTSI, Ukraine - A sprawling forested estate of graceful waterways and summer houses - half the size of Monaco but just one hour's drive from Kiev - stands as a symbol of the folly of Ukraine's fugitive president.
Even the most cynical Ukrainians who on Saturday streamed to see Viktor Yanukovych's luxury estate rubbed their eyes in disbelief when they were confronted by the scale of the opulence he built around him and kept secret from the outside world.
There were Australian and African ostriches, stretching their legs. There were hares darting around people's feet - clearly unused to large numbers. Deer and billy goats, their cages neatly labeled, were hunkered down, slightly alarmed at the numbers of sudden visitors.
All this in a country where the average salary is less than $500 a month.
Yanukovych, 63, who fled into hiding on Saturday as the turmoil of three months of confrontation with his people caught up with him, relaxed in luxury on weekends behind high walls patrolled by scores of security guards.
When the dream ended and Yanukovych's staff fled the Gatsby-like mansion in the early hours of Saturday, the Kiev protest movement that had opposed him invited Ukrainians to go to see the opulence.
As they poured in the thousands, by foot and by car, onto the 345-acre grounds for a first glimpse at a luxury they could only suspect, Ukrainians gawked in wonderment at the fairytale surroundings.
What they saw reflected more the inflated dreams of a Middle East potentate, with all the attendant obsessions with security, rather than a rough-hewn man from the gritty eastern Ukraine who got to the top the hard way.
The incongruous presence of ostriches - labels said they were from Australia, Africa, and South America - suggested a weakness for nouveau riche status symbols.
Yanukovych bought a small house on the plot at the start of his presidency in 2010. Subsequently, according to local media, he acquired control of the full estate, which exists today through a chain of companies with which he had close interests.
Beyond a five-floor Russian-style house - some said it was his guest house - a stone staircase opened up to a landscaped vista of water features, arboreal walkways, and tree-lined avenues stretching into the distance.
Few people apart from Yanukovych's chosen few and family have visited a secret place which has been charted by satellite images that show a helicopter pad and a golf course.
Locals said that up to 3,000 security and support staff would arrive when Yanukovych planned a major social event.
With Yanukovych obsessed by security and fear of attack, they had to leave their mobile phones at the entrance to the grounds and pick them up only on leaving, locals said.
Over the years journalists have often tried to penetrate the security cordon, often with unfortunate consequences.
Journalist Tetyana Chernovil broke into the heavily guarded grounds last year and though she escaped, she was badly beaten months later.
"This is a monument to a tyrant which we want to show the people," said Eduard Leonov, a parliamentary deputy from the far-right nationalist Svoboda party.
Graeco-Roman statues - a goddess covering her modesty with her hair, lovers intertwined - decorated the lawns. Ornate ponds, half frozen on Saturday, nonetheless bubbled with water being pumped through them. Loveseats and colonnaded meeting places dot the estate.
There is a Russian bath-house, closed to the public on Saturday, with an opposition protester's helmet on a chair across the door. On a hilltop, looking down on the Dnipro river through trees, was a plaza for a barbecue.
Families and lovers out for a different sort of Sunday afternoon excursion, posed for family album snaps at a once-in-a lifetime occasion.
Most shook their heads in wonderment at the ambitions of a president who had always proclaimed that he was on the side of the poor people of Ukraine. "We did not expect anything like this. It is really extensive and all done with our money, the money of ordinary people. It really is too much for one person. It's very emotional when you see something like this," said Serhiy Remezovsky, who had brought his wife and 9-month-old son.
His friend Roman Gretsky suggested that the estate should be turned into an orphanage or something recreational for the children of Ukraine.
Some sneered at decor which seemed over-the-top for a president known for his cultural shortcomings, having once described the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as a "great Ukrainian poet".
The vanished president had his own production line of fresh meat. Cows, sheep, and goats could be seen through the window of a large livestock pen, though staff refused to open the doors to inquiring visitors.