The opulent life of Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych laid bare for all to see
Awe and disgust as the gates of Viktor Yanukovych's luxury retreatare swung open to the people, revealing a bizarre world of excess
The opulent residence of President Viktor Yanukovych has always been a closely guarded secret - and a symbol of the alleged corruption at Ukraine's highest levels.
On Saturday, after he fled the capital and its gates were thrown open, thousands streamed into the compound to get a first-hand look.
Inside the walled compound known as Mezhyhirya, posh mansions stood amid manicured lawns. There were parks dotted with statues, ponds with fountains and wild ducks, a tennis court, golf course and colonnaded pavilion.
As throngs of ordinary Ukrainians got their first look at Yanukovych's luxurious estate, many expressed disgust. Some brought their children for what they considered a victory tour.
At a protest last June outside the walls of Yanukovych's residence, the gates were cordoned off by dozens of beefy riot police in red berets.
On Saturday, the compound was guarded by the opposition's self-defence units. One of them, a middle-aged man, could not hide his anger: "Look how he lived, son of a bitch."
According to official declarations, Yanukovych's salary was about US$100,000 a year. The luxury of the estate clearly showed wealth far beyond that.
A sign at the entrance requested: "People, do not destroy this evidence of thieving arrogance."
Inside, visitors peered with disbelief through the windows of the palatial main house at the baroque, marble-covered living rooms decorated with gold icons and suits of armour.
A few boxes strewn around on the marble floors hinted at a hurried exit.
Amused or enraged, people posed for photos in font of towering faux-Greek columns and snapped pictures on their mobile phones of the collection of rare pheasants - imported from as far as Mongolia and Sumatra.
For kilometres, they strolled along the waterfront promenade, up to the helicopter pad or over bridges and past horse paddocks to a vast garage housing a museum of Soviet military vehicles.
The complex for staff - who were nowhere to be seen - was itself the size of a British stately home.
Yanukovych had always refused to talk about his residence, admitting only to living in a modest house on a small plot inside Mezhyhirya Park, 140 hectares of forested hills along the Dnipro River.
Activists described one giant wooden building as a guest house. It was closed and no one was allowed inside. But a peek through a window revealed marble floors, crystal chandeliers, a massive stairway with gold-covered railings, and a giant piano in a reception hall with luxurious beige armchairs.
Activists attached a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag to the house, and many posed for photos in front of it.
"It's like we entered Berlin and seized the Reichstag," said Oleksiy Tiunov, a young computer specialist from Kiev.
People were overwhelmed but also curious. "Where is the helicopter pad? Where is the golf course?" one woman asked. "Where are the ostriches?" questioned another.
One of those inside the estate was Mykhailo Gavryliuk, a well-known activist who was stripped naked, beaten and humiliated by Yanukovych's police force last month. He insisted Yanukovych must go, and he suggested Mezhyhirya be turned into a children's sanatorium.
"Let him be hanged or hidden away in a place where nobody will find him," Gavryliuk said.
Yulia Yashchenko, 26, brought her five-year-old son, Volodymyr, so he could witness history.
"I want to see how the guarantor of our constitution, so to speak, lived, and to show this to my child," she said, with some sarcasm. "These are historic events."
Vitali Rus, 31, and his wife, Lilia, 28, both lawyers from Kiev, could not hide their disgust.
"It looks like a medieval pharaoh who had an entire empire working for him, who was spending all this tax money on himself," said Rus, holding his young son.
"When we saw footage from the residence of the British queen, we didn't see such luxury as with this modern Ukrainian dictator."
By afternoon, thousands had lined up to enter. Some walked several kilometres, because the roads were choked with hundreds of cars. Over loudspeakers, activists urged the visitors not to destroy anything and checked those who were leaving to make sure nothing had been taken.
Back in Kiev, funerals were held for some of the dead protesters. Those victims were on Rus' mind.
"Today is a day of sorrow, when we must mourn the hundreds of those who died, and thanks to whom we were able to enter this territory," he said. "And this wicked man, who calls himself the president of Ukraine, has fled."
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
WHAT IT MEANS
As the crisis has deepened, concerns have grown that it could split the country in two.
Protests began in November when President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign a long-anticipated political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, opting instead for closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych is widely despised in western Ukraine, but has strong support in the Russian-speaking east, where he comes from, as well as in the south.
The pro-Western demonstrators saw Yanukovych's move as a betrayal of national interests and submission to Moscow, and demanded that he reverse his decision. Their number swelled to hundreds of thousands after a brutal crackdown by riot police. Their demands grew more radical to include Yanukovych's resignation and early elections.
His supporters in the east, meanwhile, see the protesters and the opposition as manipulated and financed by the West and feel greater economic and cultural connections to Russia.
Yanukovych left the capital on Saturday for Kharkiv, the heart of his eastern support base, and accused the parliament in Kiev of staging a coup. The governor and mayor of Kharkiv fled to Russia.
Weeks of peaceful rallies turned abruptly violent in January after parliament, dominated by Yanukovych supporters, passed repressive laws intended to quash the protest. Radical protesters hurled firebombs and stones at police, who retaliated with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least four people died and hundreds were injured.
Yanukovych made some concessions, retracting the repressive legislation and firing his prime minister. The opposition kept pushing for constitutional changes that would limit presidential powers. The refusal by pro-Yanukovych lawmakers to endorse the amendments triggered new violence last week. Firearms were widely used this time, resulting in a much higher death toll. In the bloodiest day of fighting, scores were killed on Thursday, including many by sniper fire. That hardened both sides.
Ukraine is strategically located with a large consumer market and untapped economic potential. The US, Russia and the EU have all tried to weigh in on its future.
Moscow sees what is now Ukraine as the birthplace of Russian statehood and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Most of modern-day Ukraine came under the control of the czars in the 1700s after being part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees close economic and political ties with Ukraine as essential for the success of his project to build an alliance of ex-Soviet states.
Russia has done its best to derail Ukraine's pact with the EU with a mixture of trade sanctions and promises. Moscow offered a US$15 billion bailout to help Ukraine avoid an imminent default, but so far has only provided US$3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing strife.
EU leaders stepped up their negotiating efforts last week because of the violence on their eastern border. Two days of shuttle diplomacy produced a peace deal between the opposition and the president.
But the opposition quickly took the upper hand, and Russia slammed the deal as tailored for the West.
On Saturday, protesters took control of the capital and police abandoned their posts. Parliament voted to remove the president from power and set new elections for May 25.
The president accused the opposition of a coup and said he wouldn't step down, but his rule appears to be crumbling.
His chief rival, ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is now free from 21/2 years in custody and is promising to run for president. Tymoshenko is already talking about joining the EU, but that prospect seems a long way off given Ukraine's corrupt economy.
The sharp divide between east and west has fuelled fears of a messy breakup of the country. That remains a risk, though all sides are pleading against it.