By Vivienne Walt
March 8, 2014

People and protesters roam the garden in front of the mansion of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s residency.

On the first warm Spring day in Ukraine on Friday, hundreds of Kiev residents headed to the capital’s loveliest spot to soak up the sun: A sprawling park-like estate, with manicured gardens, and a tennis court, bowling alley, and yachting marina. Until a few weeks ago, Ukrainians did not even know this place existed. Certainly, they would have faced immediate arrest had they dared venture through the tall, gold-trimmed gates. Now, the area is one of Ukraine’s most visited sites, a living museum to a world that has suddenly, unexpectedly vanished, leaving an uncertain future in its place.

Welcome to the home of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Hours after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled for his life to Russia on February 22, activists raced to the village of Novi Petrivci, outside Kiev, where Ukraine’s presidential residence has for years sat on the banks of the Dnipro River.

What they found behind the high walls astonished them. The old official residence was dwarfed by a new, five-story, wood-sided mansion, which the president had commissioned for himself and his young mistress around 2011, at a time when Ukraine was deep in debt, and trying to dig itself out from the global recession.

Outside, the manicured grounds contain graceful bridges, a full-sized pirate ship, a greenhouse, and a zoo filled with rare birds and ostriches. So secret was the area that the airspace above was closed to planes until February 22. Security cameras embedded in the gardens helped to ensure that no staff member snapped evidence of the president’s wealth — money that was largely siphoned off from public coffers, according to Ukraine’s new government.

But the truly jaw-dropping opulence is off-limits to regular Ukrainians, who have descended on the estate during the past two weeks: Inside Yanukovych’s private mansion. Filled with priceless objects, the house is locked, and young activists—who until last month were demonstrating on Kiev’s Independence Square — stand guard outside.

On Friday morning, Fortune was treated to an in-depth tour of the private quarters, offering a window into the incalculable luxury Ukraine’s leader enjoyed. “France has the Versailles castle, and I would like this to be like that,” says Julia Mykytenko, 18, a language student who is one of the activists currently living in the house — sleeping in the antique carved beds and showering with solid-gold bathroom fittings — in order to safeguard it from looters. As she guided me through the marble hallways and up a series of intricately carved staircases, she said, “Many of us think this should remain as a museum of corruption.”

As a museum, the house is hard to beat. A vast crystal chandelier (one of many) hangs over a hangar-sized living room, where a white Steinway baby grand overlooks overlooking the gardens. Amid the mountain of documents uncovered in the house were certificates of authenticity for silver daggers and a solid-gold Smith & Wesson .38-cal. handgun, encrusted with 5.1-carat white diamonds. A large bar is stocked with fine French wines. And the mansion’s 3-D cinema has Surround-sound, massage chairs, and a small collection of Hollywood hits on DVD, including Shawshank Redemption and Alice in Wonderland.

Such discoveries of leaders’ spectacular opulence are hardly unique in recent history; in fact, they’ve become sadly familiar. When Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in Iraq in 2003, palaces and mansions revealed similar splashes of gold and marble, with similarly vast jewelry collection and (weirdly) private zoos. Ditto after the collapse of the dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

But Ukrainians say they want to preserve, rather than destroy. While Moammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli was burnt to the ground, and Saddam’s palaces were heavily looted, Ukraine’s young activists have painstakingly catalogued every item, as though they were taking inventory in a supermarket. Unlike the enraged burning and looting after the Arab revolutions, Ukrainian activists seem determined to preserve the past as a cautionary tale for future leaders.

In the grand lobby of Yanukovych’s mansion, next to full-sized knights in silver armor, Mykytenko and her friends have placed valuable items behind a cordon of Scotch tape. They include a huge carved elephant tusk, and a gold Bible case inlaid with enamel. “There were other people guarding this place who drank a lot of the wine, so we had to get them out,” Mykytenko says, adding that she had “culture shock” when she first entered the house. “I’d been in the Hermitage Museum [in St. Petersburg, Russia] where I couldn’t touch anything. Here, I could touch everything.”

Yet despite the determination of the young activists to preserve Yanukovych’s property, its fate is uncertain. Much of the documents and items are needed for evidence in corruption trials being brought against Yanukovych and major figures in his government. On Friday, military prosecutors and government officials arrived to tour the grounds, and to discuss how to beef up the security and whether to close the area to the public. One prosecutor entered the house to snap photos on his iPhone. “Unbelievable,” he said. “People don’t have money for operations for their kids, and our president lived this way. It is too much.”

Still, the activists guarding the mansion say they remain uncertain over what Ukraine’s new leaders should do with the property. “There are two opinions,” says Arthur Pereverziev, 24, who works an interpreter at the state-run TV channel, and at a rental-car agency, when he is not guarding the house and sleeping inside it. “Some of us think the items should be sold, and the money should go to compensating the victims of Maidan,” or Independence Square, where snipers killed about 80 protesters in last month’s bloody climax of the uprising. Pale and lean, Pereverziev was dressed in full combat fatigues, but says he has no military training; like many young activists, he acquired his uniform from the self-proclaimed self-defense units in Kiev’s Independence Square during the demonstrations.

If prosecutors opt to close the area to the public, there are likely to be many disappointed Ukrainians.

Two weeks after Yanukovych’s downfall, the area has assumed an almost festive air. On the road leading up to the gates, enterprising Ukrainians have set up food stalls selling drinks and barbecue sausages. You can even rent mountain bikes, in order to cycle around the acres of land. It is worth the ride. On one part of the grounds, Yanukovych had placed an ancient Greek temple, whose provenance is unknown. And in another, there is a small chapel, with old, stained glass windows and carved wooden pews.


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