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FROZEN IN TIME

Photos: The ridiculous mansion that Ukraine’s president abandoned and is now a museum

Misha Friedman
A Ukrainian couple poses for a wedding shoot on the grounds of Mezhgorye.
Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Editor’s note: When the revolutionaries of the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, toppled president Viktor Yanukovych in February, he fled the country, leaving behind a 140-hectare (330-acre) estate, Mezhyhirya (or Mezhgorye in Russian), complete with a zoo, a vast mansion, several guesthouses, lakes, fountains, a dock with a faux Spanish galleon, a large collection of classic cars, and more besides.

Seven months on, the estate continues to function as a museum for curious tourists and a wedding site for local couples. Unlike the abandoned palaces of so many despots, it is in practically pristine condition, tended by a group of former revolutionaries who came to gawk and stayed to run the place. On the eve of this weekend’s parliamentary election, Misha Friedman, a Russian-American photographer, visited and photographed it. His pictures capture the absurd luxury, but also convey a sadness and loneliness that it must have had even when it was inhabited.—Gideon Lichfield 

Friedman explains: “Near the main entrance, vendors hawk bike rentals, guided tours, and memorabilia. You have to pay for everything. It’s 20 hryvnias [$1.60] to get into the compound, another 200 hryvnias to get into the main house, more for the guided tour, and the train that takes you around the property is extra. Even the bathroom near the main gate costs money. It’s a port-a-potty and it’s 10 hryvnias.”

“Because it costs so much a lot of people just pay the 20 hryvnias to get into the compound and then look at the house from the driveway.”

“A lot of couples get married at Mezhgorye. This courtyard has fake Greek columns like the ones at Khersones [Chersonesus, an archaeological site in Crimea], so they call it Yanukovych’s Khersones. I saw five weddings in three hours, and it was a Friday. I’m sure it’s even busier on a Saturday or Sunday, a constant stream. It’s not that people are saying ‘we fought at the Maidan, so we have to hold our wedding here.’ It’s completely unironic—there’s nice landscape, and some ponds, and it’s a new landmark, and so it’s like, ‘Why not?'”

“Traditionally you throw coins into water when you want to come back somewhere. People here were throwing the coins into the pond, but again I don’t think it’s in an ironic way—it’s just for good luck.”

“The life-size horse standing in the grounds has an ‘aerograph’ of a country estate—not Mezhgorye—on its side.”

“On the ground floor of the house there’s a bunch of suits of armor. On the right you can see an empty picture frame. The guide said a few things were looted in the first couple of days—people cutting pictures out of the frames. Of course, who knows if it was the looters or Yanukovych himself.”

“This is one of the many paintings in Mezhgorye depicting Yanukovych. In one he’s in a military exercise of some sort, looking at some helicopters. Some were probably stolen or burned. This one has him as a race-car driver. I think before he was governor of Donetsk, he managed a car garage in Enakievo, his home town.”

“This is a painting of Yanukovych’s lover. She was rumored to have lived there with him in Mezhgorye, while his wife lived in Donetsk.”

“This is Pyotr, the tour guide, at a private chapel inside the main house. He is a 34-year-old grocery salesman from Lvov who participated in the revolution on the Maidan and came to Mezhgorye on Feb. 22, day the compound was breached, and has remained there ever since. He spent an hour-and-a-half of the two-hour tour complaining about money, and about how the politicians and the state don’t do anything to support the museum, so they have to do it all with tickets. He said about 20 other people came from the Maidan and have stayed on. He is in charge of the sports complex and the main house, and other people are in charge of other parts of the property like the guesthouses and the zoo.”

“There is a Steinway grand piano from the John Lennon ‘Imagine’ line.”

“An underground tunnel about 50 yards long leads from the main house to the ‘physical-health complex,’ known as the FOK (fizicheskii-ozdorovitel’niy kompleks). It’s lined with these images of classical Greek athletes.”

“The FOK is a one-story building, a long hallway with different rooms coming off it. There’s a boxing ring, a gym, saunas, massage rooms, and so on.”

“This is part of the banya (sauna) complex in the FOK. There are several different steam rooms—this one just happens to have an external view. I have no idea what that metal basin is. We speculated it would be heated for water or steam.”

“There were different massage rooms. This was the Thai massage room. There were two Thai women who worked in this room.”

“In the bathroom they put this toilet paper with Yanukovych’s face on it. You can buy it in Kyiv. You can buy it with Putin’s face on it too, and it says Putin, poshel nakhui—Putin, go fuck yourself.”

“That shrink-wrapped object is Yanukovych’s chair that he used to sit in in his office. There were so many rebels coming and sitting in the chair that they shrink-wrapped it to protect it, of course without thinking of the symbolism of what they were doing.”

Follow Misha on Twitter @mishafriedman.

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