After months of ignoring journalists asking to see his estate outside Kyiv, President Viktor Yanukovych finally broke down in late June and took six select representatives on a tour of his house and gardens. Afterward, the seven sipped tea on a veranda and chatted about Ukraine.
It was all very casual and laid back—although Yanukovych did look a bit stiff in his pinstripe, button-down shirt and dress slacks—and hardly newsworthy, except for the little details. For starters, the journalists included only men. You’d think that the president’s advisers would have thought to include at least one woman—if only to give the topless activists of FEMEN one less thing to protest about—but no, Yanukovych and his advisers remained true to form. Also interesting: five of the six journalists were bona fide professionals, while one, Mikhail Podolyak, was until recently working as a consultant to Yuri Ivanyushchenko, the president’s boyhood pal, a key behind-the-scenes player in the administration, and an alleged underworld kingpin. Podolyak, by the way, was the only journalist without a jacket and in jeans. And his shirt wasn’t even tucked in.
The front of Yanukovych’s house is adorned with four gigantic columns, which he added to the modest original structure. If it weren’t for the sleek exterior and the excessively elaborate ironwork, you’d think for a moment that you’re viewing an antebellum plantation house in the American South. The inside, on the other hand, is a post-Soviet nouveau riche dream come true. You expect shiny marble to be everywhere, and it is. Naturally, the furniture is all heavy, without a hint of modernism or even IKEA-style lightness. The candelabra, the candle holders (yes, there are candle holders on the mantle above the marble fireplace!), the chairs, and tables all have the Baroque quality beloved by Soviet and post-Soviet hotel designers—and readily available to Americans in mall home-furnishing outlets with a flair for the excessive. Unsurprisingly, there are curlicues galore. But, to Yanukovych’s credit, there are also paintings galore—in the hallways, along the staircase, and in all the rooms—with heavy gilded frames and spotlights. It’s hard to tell just what their subject matter is, but they don’t seem to be socialist realist masterpieces. Many appear to be landscapes in brown and green tones. One appears to depict the Grand Canal in Venice. The long thin painting above his bed looks like an Italian or Roman cityscape.
And then there’s the president’s office—a small room with a tiny, neatly ordered desk, photographs of the family (sons, grandkids, and daughters in law, but no wife), and a chaise longue that, to tell the truth, looks a bit small for the big Yanukovych. There don’t seem to be any bookcases, at least not in the office. Outside, there’s a three-tiered fountain, old-style street lamps, an artificial waterfall and pond, a swimming pool, and a nicely groomed garden, where the president works out. As he also told the journalists, he plays tennis three to four times a week, for one and a half to two hours, and swims every day. How much? one journalist asked. “Up to five kilometers,” said Yanukovych. As one uninvited reporter, Mustafa Naim, observed, that would mean swimming about 400 lengths. Well, if Mao Zedong could swim the Yangtze, why not? By the way, I don’t want to sound catty, but with so much exercise, Yanukovych really should look slimmer. (Don’t forget your caloric intake, Mister President!)
Why did the president choose to open his digs to public scrutiny just now? That’s easy. He’s in trouble with the public, and the visit was an obvious public relations ploy intended to humanize him—to show that he’s just a regular guy. Of course, since the place is a mansion, Ukrainians may also come away wondering just how a working class kid from the Donbas, who’s never been a businessman, was able to cough up the dough for a palace on a measly government salary.
The visit was also a ploy—or an attempt, if you prefer—to reach out to the media. Most journalists are, or have become, extremely critical of him and his administration, and it’s at least possible that some of the six will now have a slightly different view of the president. Or not. Like the Ukrainian public, they’ll want to know who paid for the house. (It’s been valued at a cool $10 million.) They’re also likely to wonder why they didn’t get to see the many acres of public property appended to the mansion, where Yanukovych has built a fabulous club house for himself and his friends.
Oh, two more things. Yanukovych likes to give very long and plodding answers to pointed questions and he keeps bees. Guess which other Ukrainian president also talked too much and kept bees. Viktor Yushchenko.