Politically Charged Kyiv and a Visit to Mezhyhirya

Maidan KievOne of the most frequent questions we get about living in Kyiv is whether it is safe.

I appreciate that this question comes from a place of care and concern, and I understand why people ask. If Western media is to be believed, Russian troops are marching down our streets and there’s a war going on outside our front door.

The conflict in Crimea and tension in Ukraine’s eastern region makes for a much more compelling news story than people taking their kids to the playground in Kyiv.

From my perspective, there is not tension in Kyiv. Daily life is normal here, which is to say everything is not perfect (nowhere is perfect, after all), but it’s certainly not stressful or dangerous due to the reasons everyone has been led to believe.

When we arrived in Kyiv, we heard pieces of the story about the city’s recent revolution, which took place over the winter of 2013-2014. But it wasn’t until we watched a documentary called Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom that the hazy picture we had of this city’s history came into focus. This conflict, known as the Euromaidan Revolution, helps illustrate, in part, why Ukrainians are suspicious of their government.

The shortened version: After Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union, it struggled with government corruption and mismanagement of funds. The country was on track to create a relationship with the European Union, which would have provided much-needed stability to the country. However, when the country’s fourth president, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign this agreement in the fall of 2013 and instead partnered with Russia, this understandably angered Ukrainians who sought an honest government that stood behind its citizens.

In response, grassroots protesters gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the main square in Kyiv’s city center, and demanded his resignation. Government-paid agitators were sent in to stir up the peaceful protests, which further escalated tensions.

By January, the government had passed a number of anti-protest laws, which restricted free speech and disallowed people from gathering in groups. The protests continued, and, later that month, they turned violent when rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails entered the fray. Amid political negotiations, riot police launched a major attack on the protesters, killing 10 people, on February 18. Using stun grenades and sniper tactics, the police had killed more than 100 people and injured about 1,000 more by February 20.

The next day, Yanukovych said new presidential elections would be held the coming December, and that same day, a bill to impeach the president was introduced in Parliament. Overnight, Yanukovych, as well as other government officials, fled the country, never to return. The corrupt dictatorship and government under which Ukrainians lived essentially came to an end, and life returned to normal – except for that lingering fact that Russia doesn’t agree with the creation of the new government.

Hence, the Crimea situation.

Of course, change does not happen overnight, but we have heard that things are drastically different in Kyiv now than they were just three short years ago. The entire police force was fired and replaced, anti-corruption signs are posted in places like the airport and, from my perspective, people are content with living in a place that is attempting to running on honesty and legitimate hard work.

Yes, there are exceptions to this broad statement.

And, yes, this is a very oversimplified version of the story.

My point is that Kyiv is, in many ways, newly discovering itself and creating its own identity, despite the fact it is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The Euromaidan Revolution is not that far in the past, and living here now is allowing us to watch the city grow into its own.

I highly recommend our family, friends and anyone else interested in understanding Kyiv’s recent history watch Winter on Fire. It is sobering and sad, but it also helps demonstrate why Ukrainians are so proud and protective of their national identity. For someone like me who is still developing an identity in tandem with Kyiv while making sense of the news coming out of the East, it makes me hopeful this city can weather more struggles, if it comes to that.

We watched Winter on Fire shortly after visiting Mezhyhirya. Now that I have context for what has happened in Kyiv in recent years, I wish we’d watched it before.

Mezhyhirya residence ukraine

Allow me to explain:

The Mezhyhirya Residence is the former residence of Yanukovych, the president at the root of the Euromaidan Revolution. The property, located just a bit outside Kyiv’s city center on the Kyiv Reservoir, is a symbol of Yanukovych’s opulent and extravagant lifestyle for which the people of Ukraine paid, quite literally. Construction began in 2010 and commenced rapidly, resulting in a mind-blowing compound built with excessive detail in only a year’s time.

It is massive property, encompassing about 140 hectares of beautifully manicured grounds and a huge house. At its peak, the residence staffed approximately 2,000 people with daily maintenance costs of around $75,000. Regardless of a country’s prosperity, that is a lot of money, and knowing tax payers funded this without their knowledge is simply maddening.

The house, known as Honka because of the Finnish construction company that built it, is three stories on one side and five stories on the other. It is a testament to detail with luxe chandeliers (some costing more than $10,000), in-laid gold decor at every turn and large rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows where the sun floods in. The wooden mosaic floor and ornamental elevator demonstrate that nothing was overlooked when it came to creating the finest, most excessive home possible.

mezhyhirya residence ukraineTruth be told, I’ve been in larger and fancier estates, such as the Biltmore Estate. But what makes this one so striking is the fact that it simply shouldn’t exist. Yanukovych knew he was swindling the people of Ukraine, so he didn’t tell anyone about this home that he lived in with his mistress.

If asked, he said he lived in a smaller house on the grounds, and no one else ever stepped foot in the palatial estate.

The huge dining room table that would have been suitable for state dinners? Never used for such an event. The fully functioning spa, well-equipped health center and full-sized tennis court? Perhaps used by Yanukovych … but then again, maybe not. The media room with approximately a dozen lounge chairs, and the bowling alley and poker room? Since no more than a few people ever went inside the house, no, no and no.

Beyond the house, the grounds are actually incredibly stunning (in fact, it’s where I took many of my favorite photos from this fall). There are lovely flower beds, man-made lakes, fountains, sculptures and walking paths. Additionally, the Mezhyhirya property houses a zoo, helicopter pad, professional golf course and a large garage, where Yanukovych stored a collection of rare cars and motorcycles he received as gifts.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that Ukraine is actually quite young on paper (only 25 years old!), and the end of the Euromaidan Revolution was less than three years ago.

ukraine cars
As such, Mezhyhirya is controversial and currently an active investigation site.
Ukraine’s government is hesitant to touch the property so right now a non-profit organization is running the day-to-day operations. Apparently, some items, such as famous artwork and ancient manuscripts that were taken by Yanukovych for himself, have been removed from the residence and returned to their rightful owners. Other than those things, however, it looks like someone could be living in it today.

The compound was very well guarded while Yanukovych lived there, and former staff members have been hesitant to come forward and speak about working on the property. Therefore, much of what is known about the construction, costs and goings-on at Mezhyhirya have been unearthed from piles of documentation.

Perhaps more information about Mezhyhirya will make itself known over time, but I think one of the most pertinent questions to ask is: What now?

I can’t imagine Ukrainians are thrilled at seeing how their hard-earned money was squandered on this ridiculous mansion built by this despicable man, but they seem to be making the best of it.

ukraine fallThe grounds at Mezhyhirya are open and available to the public for only a couple dollars, which is fairly accessible for the average person here. The entry fees are used to help maintain the grounds, from what I understand. Tours of the home and auto collection are available for an additional fee.

But there’s more than enough to do just by visiting the general property. People are welcome to wander the grounds and take advantage of the many walking trails and bike paths. We visited in fall, and there were lots of families out enjoying picnics, reading books by the lakes and just generally enjoying this beautiful place.

As we toured the residence, I kept thinking about all the ways it could be used. Hold fundraisers in the bowling alley. Open the spa to the public. Rent out parts of the building for holiday parties, weddings and reunions.

Let Ukrainians fully use it. They funded it, after all.

For now, though, it remains relatively untouched as Ukraine decides what the next appropriate step is during this tumultuous but hopeful period of time in its history.

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