Following recent bloodshed, the ouster of President Yanukovych, and new elections set for May, Ukraine is at a crossroads. It will probably remain there for some time, inspiring many overwrought think-pieces from journalists, including yours truly.
Still, even after grim, violent scenes on the streets of Kiev, there is some laughter to be had, particularly as far as Yanukovych’s lavish presidential compound is concerned.
After the disgraced president had fled, the Mezhigorye compound – which had been illegally privatized by the president – was opened to the public. Unsurprisingly, it seems that Yanukovych did have some failry decent interior decorators and style advisers working on this so-called “Museum of Corruption.” Aside from some obvious mistakes – a peacock mural in the shower, a tasteless crystal chandelier – the overall impression is that of huge amounts of money being spent with some purpose in mind. There are ski-lodge aspects that make the main house appear cozy (though parts of the outside décor also appear to imitate Ancient Rome – yikes), the vintage car collection seems fit for a museum, the winter garden looks lovely, and there floors in particular look extremely expensive. That’s besides the private zoo and the Disney-like ship at the dock outside.
In that sense, Mezhigorye is a powerful symbol of everything that is wrong with modern Ukraine: an opulent, well-tended palace surrounded by a country where the economy is buckling, where most state hospitals resemble nightmare scenes from Guillermo del Toro movies, where way too many roads still give the impression that they haven’t been fixed since the Red Army beat back the Nazis, and where the cops are more likely to beat you up than come to your aid should you find yourself in trouble.
To everyone who wonders how Yanukovych tolerated bloodshed on the streets of Kiev, consider just how removed from reality people like him ultimately become. The fact that Yanukovych came from humble beginnings only exacerbates the issue.
On the post-Soviet landscape, you meet plenty of extremely wealthy people who began their long careers by working a vegetable stand (or stealing hats, or whatever – we all have different opportunities in life). These people tend to despise the poor with such white-hot vengeance that so-called “old money” – which is usually just amused by other people’s financial struggles – can’t possibly muster.
The poor are to be despised because they are a reminder of one’s own indignities, you see. They are a reminder of the fact that everything can still go wrong, and fast – just like it did for Yanukovych over these last few weeks.
Political and economic volatility plays a role in this as well. In the U.S., someone like Mark Zuckerberg can pretty much rest assured that barring some major missteps, he will not go broke in his lifetime. But in countries like Ukraine, fortunes can change rapidly and, seemingly, at will. A different wind will blow, and the entire matrix changes. The extremely rich and powerful can still wind up in jail – hello, Yulia Tymoshenko! – or worse.
Yanukovych could never be counted to display the kind of outward discipline and shrewdness that a former KGB agent such as Russian President Vladimir Putin has displayed. And as much as I want to keep laughing at Yanukovych’s shockingly bad taste, there is still something profoundly sad about the way in which people like him, ambitious and clearly not entirely stupid, end up.
Legal nihilism and lack of civil society has ensured that for many Ukrainians of his generation, the only genuine mark of success was living in luxurious isolation, surrounded by solid-gold paperweights (protesters were particularly amused by a gold paperweight in the shape of a freaking loaf of bread) and other lovely, cold, inanimate objects, hoarding their wealth like ill-tempered dragons.
And while we all know where the greedy dragons of fairy tales inevitably end up, Yanukovych is still a human being. To paint him as a monster right now is to side-step the fact that cynicism, corruption and social inequality are not exactly one person’s – or one country’s – problem.