The National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev is currently hosting an exhibition of art, religious icons, and decorative objects taken from Mezhyhirye, the extravagant private residence of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych abandoned his estate and possessions when he fled Ukraine with his inner circle during the uprising in February. Grushevskogo Street, where the museum is located, was the site of fierce street battles during the Maidan revolt and there were reportedly grenades detonating near the entrance of the museum itself.
Yanukovych’s childhood was, as he himself put it, “without sandboxes, cotton candy, and bright toys.” When he reached the highest post in the country, he was able to acquire a luxurious castle, a helicopter, a yacht, a private plane, and many other expensive items and antiques, but he once complained to a journalist that he had “no time to enjoy” it all.
And he had a lot to enjoy: In his Mezhyhirye residence, there was a bowling alley, helicopter landing pad, a sauna, fitness center, golf course, indoor tennis court, underground shooting gallery, and a garage with rare cars, all on the territory of 136 hectares (or about 336 acres).
The exhibition at the National Art Museum displays 518 objects that Yanukovych and his subordinate, former prosecutor general Victor Pshonka, had in their residences. Curators say the collection is worth more than $50 million.
Some of the exhibits were gifts to Ukraine’s president, while others were his own purchases. The overall effect is strange, what with the objects being a somewhat random collection of kitsch, fakes, and real unique works of art, strewn through the seven halls.
Yanukovych – who always wore a crucifix – had an impressive collection of religious icons, one of them a rare Byzantium icon dating back to the fourteenth century. There is another unusual icon, which is also a music box that plays church music. The owner of these icons seemed to want to make the impression of being religious. What still remains a mystery is why he needed a mitre, the headdress of a priest, in his collection.
There are also some 20 portraits of Yanukovych himself, mostly presents from others. One of the portraits was painted by one of the most well-known Russian artists, Nikas Safronov, and it depicts Yanukovych as a bit younger and a bit more slender than he actually is. There is a portrait made of amber as well as a portrait made of millet, rice, poppy seeds, beans and corn given to him as a present from one of the provincial branches of the Party of Regions. In addition, there is an embroidered portrait, a portrait made of gold and silver, a bronze bust, and an amusing wax figure, looking a bit like a scarecrow amidst all these grand portraits.
There is also a portrait of Yanukovych and former prosecutor general Victor Pshonka painted in overlord and vassal positions. The part of the painting where Yanukovych’s face is was hit by someone at some point, so there is a hole in the canvas.
The most expensive paintings in Yanukovych's collection are Vasily Polenov’s “Christ and the Sinner” and an Aivazovsky seascape. There are also two Picasso vases and various sculptures in the collection.
Among the books exhibited is the reportedly priceless "Apostle" by Ivan Fyodorov, which was the first Russian printed book and dates back to 1574.
Yanukovych was fond of hunting, so there is a whole collection of ancient blunderbusses, seventeenth-century hunting rifles, yatakhans, and swords. At one point, his wife was quoted in the press as saying that he was “becoming sentimental” and had no wish to shoot anymore.
The former president reportedly took the best and the most precious works of art when he fled. Visitors can see a pile of empty boxes in one of the halls and one is open so that the words “Fabergé egg” can be seen on it.
On March 12, security camera footage allegedly recovered from the residence was published on YouTube and showed people taking out different objects, including pictures.
Certificates found at Mezhyhirye mention a number of exotic objects that were at the residence such as a tennis racket made of gold and a Smith & Wesson pistol made out of gold with 5.1 carat diamonds.
Olga Podolskaya is a Monitor contributor.