In this fourth installment of E&M‘s exclusive series about the current situation in Ukraine “On the Brink”, Christian Diemer takes a trip to the former presidential residence in Mezhyhir’ya, not far from the Ukrainian capital.
A girl in a headscarf is waiting where the buses leave for the president’s former residence. “No, I am not going to the residence, I live in Mezhyhir’ya.” Ayya, 28, is a refugee from Donetsk. “I always wanted to live in Kyiv once in my life. And my family has come with me. So I am OK with that.” Ayya is studying to become a dentist, but the university in Donetsk is no longer functioning. She moved to Kyiv just in time to register for the winter semester, which began a couple of weeks ago. “Well, how do you think the situation is over there?! Terrible.” And whose side is she on? Instead of an answer, Ayya points at her backpack, where a blue and yellow ribbon is fixed.
Mezhyhir’ya is a sleepy village on the outskirts of Kyiv. With fast steps, her skirt rustling rhythmically, Ayya leads me up the road to the main entrance of Vyktor Yanukovych’s former residence. “No one in Donetsk wants to go over to Russia! Russia is attacking Ukraine. Everything else is a ridiculous lie. I know what I am talking about.” When the separatists started arbitrarily confiscating people’s cars, Ayya claims even those who were sympathetic understood that their cause was no good. Ayya may well have her own reasons not to sympathise with Russia, as she is of Chechen origin. “What Putin is doing in the east of Ukraine is just a continuation of what he did in Chechnya.”
Herbs, relaxation and shamelessness
At the entrance to Yanukovych’s residence, there is row upon row of Ukrainian flags. To call the premises vast does not come close to doing it justice; even to mention its size in hectares barely evokes the true scale: vast is only a word, 138 is only a number. An entire zoo with exotic creatures is to be found somewhere. Waterfalls cascade down a slope decorated with pseudo-antique statues. A gigantic house is enthroned at the top of the incline, decorated with columns and pilasters. Built by a Finnish company and made entirely of timber, it is said to be the largest wooden house ever constructed. The black and red flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) flutters on its roof. Since the revolution, the estate has been transformed into a local holiday spot and a museum of the former president’s sumptuousness at the expense of his people. The residence is supposed to have cost 60 million euros. Some chandeliers are worth 100,000 euros alone. The average salary in Ukraine lies between 150 and 200 euros.
Across an artificial river, a bridge leads to the presidential bathhouse. From the bottom of a perfectly circular pool, iridescent mosaics look up at tiled walls and columns. In the Finnish sauna, a “V” has been engraved into the wood – both the president’s first initial and the symbol of victory. The Russian smoke sauna is opposite. It smells of old wood, herbs and relaxation. Horoscopes are being broadcast on a flat screen television in the anteroom, which was designed to give visitors a place to take it easy after their bath or steam.
“If I were rich, I would like to live in such a beautiful house”, says Aleksandr. Originally from St. Petersburg, he works as a volunteer guide at Mezhyhir’ya. “I find it elegant, comfortable, this is simply what a rich person’s house looks like. If a person has worked hard and earned a lot of money, isn’t it fair enough that they show it and lead an enjoyable, luxurious life?” Aleksandr shows me the presidential toilet. “Only this president didn’t earn his money. He stole it from the Ukrainian people. With the money that it took to buy this bathhouse, a hospital could have been renovated, so that children don’t have to die from insufficient treatment.”
Aleksandr asks: “Is everything quiet in Germany?” Aleksandr’s boss, tall, muscular, ponytail, wants to close the bathhouse. He looks at me with narrow, menacing eyes. “Yeah, up to now, everything has been quiet in Germany. Up to now…” He walks towards me threateningly. “You don’t understand, eh? Just wait and see. Do you think Putin will stop? Today Donetsk and Luhans’k. Tomorrow Kharkiv and Odessa. Then Kyiv. Then Warsaw. Then Berlin. You’ll be in for a bit of a shock!”
Aleksandr thinks he has found the key to the conflict: shale gas. Russia’s energy supplies will run out in thirty years. Shale gas in Ukraine will suffice for a century and a half. “And where are the main deposits of shale gas? In the Donbass, and in the Mariupol’ region.”
“Do you think Putin will stop? Today Donetsk and Luhans’k. Tomorrow Kharkiv and Odessa. Then Kyiv. Then Warsaw. Then Berlin. You’ll be in for a bit of a shock!”
“But Putin doesn’t rule the world either”, Aleksandr concedes. “There are other, hidden forces. The Americans do a lot. The Freemason Lodge. Things you don’t perceive because you are European.”
It is evening. The residence is closed. The last day-trippers depart, the marshrutkas [minibus taxis] have already stopped running. I am offered a lift to the city. In a pragmatic mid-range saloon car, Ol’ya and her husband are returning back home from their first excursion to the resort that they have observed with a mixture of disgust and indifference. “We hope Poroshenko steals less. We don’t know for sure, and he may not be the ideal solution yet either. But we hope things will gradually start to change in this country. Of course it won’t happen within one day, we know that, especially not with the situation we have in the east. And we also know that in the end we cannot simply expect a great change to happen. It is up to each and every one of us, every single day.”
Kyiv’s skyscrapers appear in front of us. I cannot find the seatbelt, and for some reason I don’t want to find it. In a sudden impulse, I sense freedom, and a deep, painful love for this country and its people.