The best way to appreciate Mezhigorya is to approach it in the way its former occupant and his most select high-flying guests could: from above, by helicopter.
Viktor Yanukovich, the self-exiled president of Ukraine, enjoyed a country residence north of Kiev that sprawls across 137 hectares – almost the size of Monaco, and almost as complete a city-state, with its own heliport, zoo, private car collection, golf course, dairy and restaurant themed in the style of a boat.
At the front gates of the complex, where once guards kept uninvited guests out, enterprising volunteers from the Maidan vigil (named after the central square of Kiev) now stand watch. They sell maps and charge a modest entry fee for those curious to see how their former leader lived.
While Mezhigorya may have been opaquely privatised to Yanukovich for almost nothing, it cost many millions of dollars a year to furnish and maintain. In an echo of many other plutocrats’ palaces from Nicolae Ceausescu’s in Romania to Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, much of the spending was extravagant but tasteless.
“It should be turned into a museum of corruption,” said Petro, an activist who has helped guard the site since the day after the former president fled in February. “I wouldn’t mind if he’d earned it, but this is our money.”
He leads the way past manicured gardens into a private spa, past a reception desk stocked with expensive creams and ointments. Nearby, a portrait of Yanukovich dressed as a racing car driver looks on into separate rooms for a snooker table, boxing ring, shooting range and pool.
Downstairs, multiple chambers – one with fake stalactites – offer mud and saltwater treatments, oxygen baths and sun tans for the lucky few. A chapel with icons and stained glass provided a place to placate any spiritual guilt – albeit including a sacrilegious panel portraying God.
An underground passage connects to the main house, where wood marquetry, marble inlay and crystal chandeliers are ubiquitous. There is a white Steinway “John Lennon” grand piano, and glass-lined lifts. One corridor in pseudo-medieval style with a suit of armour is lined with mosaics. It leads to a private cinema equipped with a dozen massage chairs.
In the former president’s office, a large aquarium and the cage for a (now liberated) parrot dominate one corner. There are few books, but a selection of DVDs left behind by Yanukovich lies intact, including the film Comrade Stalin. Were it not so striking a symbol of the abuse of trust of his people, the overall impression would be less terrifying than comic.
Two of the Financial Times’ leading style gurus met me for drinks at the Ritz hotel, London, to discuss Yanukovich’s palace, and the essence of “tyrannical taste” .
DAVID TANG: The living room is where he got everything wrong. Number one; the clock is not in the centre. If you have a grand clock it’s got to be in the centre of the room. And to have a piano like that, a white one, that is a travesty. And, of course, these marble things are so cheap because nowadays they just generate it by computer.
BEN PENTREATH: (Looking at a photo of a hallway containing a suit of armour) There’s a faux medieval armoury – hello, Queen Victoria.
DT: What he should order is a corridor-full. People say quality’s all that counts. For me, quantity is as important. If you go to a shop, you don’t buy one glass, you don’t buy 10, you buy 30. If you want an armoury, you’ve got to have a whole corridor full. If you want books you’ve got to have 28,000 books to make a library. Jimmy Goldsmith’s house is absolutely masterful for that.
BP: Doesn’t the master bedroom look like a lot of bad presidential suites in a lot of bad hotels?
(Looking at a photo of Yanukovich’s phone and switchboard) That’s the coolest thing. The dictator phone. I want one of those.
DT: All Gaddafi’s houses looked the same, he just delegated the whole thing. I shot with three of Gaddafi’s sons – I went shooting with them in Tripoli. The trouble was that [Gaddafi] loved shooting so much he imported 40,000 partridges but, of course, he had no idea that they would be eaten by vermin.
The palaces I saw had the same old stuff: white marble, terrible sofas.
BP: Leopard-skin seats.
DT: There were a lot of leopard-skin seats.
BP: Gold niches and Murano glass chandeliers.
DT: [But when you compare modern dictators with] Caligula, or Pope Pius VI, or Alexander, are they really any worse? Of course we look at it from a different point of view. If you went to Mao, he didn’t have any monstrous edifices, but his room was absolutely packed full of books. Every visitor had a bed, shelves of books and half a dozen spittoons. That was very much within his character. Whereas if you look at Mussolini, he used fascism’s grandiose plans to make you feel small. You invariably go into a room and he’s right at the other end, at a desk, and you feel totally dwarfed. His palaces were probably vulgar by people’s standards at the time. These other modern dictators’ residences are also terrible, they’re all rather tacky, because first of all, they don’t understand proportions.
Those of us who have a sense of architecture can see that’s where fascism got their visuals wrong. By having too high a ceiling, you actually lose the human relations. If you look at the Temple of Heaven, it’s almost a perfect building. If you go to the Acropolis, it’s large, but it’s not dauntingly large. Grecian and Roman proportion, which is large enough but not too large, gives you a sense of real beauty. Where the dictators got it wrong was that they never thought about proportions, they just want it large. They say, look at the Acropolis, look at the Forbidden City, look at the Vatican. Let’s have it larger . . . I can’t really think of a dictator who’s got a little bit of artistic taste.
BP: There again, you had Speer, he was Hitler’s great architect. He knew what he was doing. His buildings were classically authentic. It wasn’t kitsch. I think that what happens is that classical architecture has been on a weird course anyway because it got very tainted by fascist dictatorship.
DT: The difference is that the greatest edifices, and the most beautiful, were done by proper architects through commission. So Pope Julius II said, ‘I want Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel’. It’s a choice. Whereas other people just didn’t bother. They just said, ‘OK, show me a grandiose plan’, and some second-rate architect comes along and just draws up some huge plan, and you’re going to have 68,000 sq ft of bedroom, or whatever.
BP: Yanukovich’s palace is just that kind of the naffness – the ersatz kind of fake classical. Looking at the photos, it’s sort of a mock-up of Versailles. That’s just someone with too much money and no taste, which is quite a generic issue, I think.
DT: Well, it’s megalomania, which always underlies a dictator.
BP: You’re possibly quite intimidated if you go to Buckingham Palace, which is our equivalent of the dictator style, isn’t it?
DT: I think it’s very beautiful. I wouldn’t mind living in there. I’ve walked around the gardens at night, and it’s very beautiful. It’s like an old Georgian pile in the middle of London. It’s not offensive.
BP: You could argue Yanukovich’s palace is not real dictator style, it’s just too-much-money style, which is a different thing. Because if you’re going to be a proper dictator, it’s got to be much scarier than that. This is just McMansion style. Why do they want a kitsch American style house?
William Kent was the architect of the equivalent regime in the 18th century: arriviste, lots of money, very politically fragile, needing to make a big splash, to consolidate. He designed buildings for nouveau-riche people, who were making tons of money on sugar and slavery, and yet they are sublime works of architecture, because they’re properly classical. They’re not kitsch but they are bling.
DT: Towards the end, businessmen want position in the social order, so by the time they are old enough, they want art, they want to have galleries named after them. Politicians are different because they have shorter lives. And they’ve got to make a mark in history. It’s not as if they’ve got time to attend to the niceties of culture. They want to make their mark in politics and they cannot pass on their heritage automatically to a future generation, unlike wealth.
Unlike businessmen, being able to pass on the bulk of their assets, they have to make somebody realise that ‘now I’ve got the big house, now I’ve got the paintings, now I’ve got to preserve it, now I’ve got to enhance it’, and so forth. That’s why dictators are much more transient than businessmen, because their assets are either what they steal in their lifetime, in which case they’re bound to be caught most of the time nowadays, or they actually do not accumulate wealth, in which case they’ve nothing to pass on.
BP: I think businessmen aspire to the trappings of old money a lot more. I’m thinking about my own clients. I’ve got a lot of business clients, I don’t have any political clients, but if you want to look at the naffest example, look at Ted Heath’s former house in Salisbury. Oh, my God: the interiors are dreadful! And it’s all preserved as a little museum to him.
DT: This is the crux, my theory. Nouveau riche in general, whether politicians or businessmen, want everything now. You cannot have quality without craftsmanship, which takes time. You cannot accelerate a marble panel, you cannot paint the Sistine Chapel in two days. The crux of the matter is that these people do not understand that in order to create great works of art and craftsmanship time is required. I think it’s getting worse, because there’s less ambition. Less time, more money.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s deputy analysis editor