If you've been following the news about Ukraine's ex-president Viktor Yanukovich, who has been found guilty of treason five years after he was overthrown, you might be interested to hear about his excessive contribution to the dirty deeds of Moneyland.

Read the opening to Oliver Bullough's groundbreaking book, Moneyland, below. 

Follow @oliverbullough on Twitter



Yanukovich

 

ALADDIN'S CAVE

When the French rebelled in July 1789 they seized the Bastille, a prison that was a symbol of their rulers’ brutality. When the Ukrainians rebelled in 2014, they seized Mezhyhirya, the president’s palace, which was a symbol of their rulers’ greed. The palace’s expansive grounds included water gardens, a golf course, a nouveau-Greek temple, a marble horse painted with a Tuscan landscape, an ostrich collection, an enclosure for shooting wild boar, as well as the five-storey log cabin where the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovich, had indulged his tastes for the over-blown and the vulgar.

Everyone had known that Viktor Yanukovich was corrupt, but they had never seen the extent of his wealth before. At a time when ordinary Ukrainians’ wealth had been stagnant for years, he had accumulated a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as had his closest friends. He had more money than he could ever have needed, more treasures than he had rooms for.

All heads of state have palaces, but normally those palaces belong to the government, not to the individual. In the rare cases – Donald Trump, say – where the palaces are private property, they tend to have been acquired before the politician entered office. Yanukovich, however, had built his palace while living off a state salary, and that is why the protesters flocked to see his vast log cabin. They marvelled at the edifice of the main building, the fountains, the waterfalls, the statues, the exotic pheasants. It was a temple of tastelessness, a cathedral of kitsch, the epitome of excess. Enterprising locals rented bikes to visitors. The site was so large that there was no other way to see the whole place without suffering from exhaustion, and it took the revolutionaries days to explore all of its corners. The garages were an Aladdin’s cave of golden goods, some of them maybe priceless. The revolutionaries called the curators of Kiev’s National Art Museum to take everything away before it got damaged, to preserve it for the nation, to put it on display.

There were piles of gold-painted candlesticks, walls full of portraits of the president. There were statues of Greek gods, and an intricate oriental pagoda carved from an elephant’s tusk. There were icons, dozens of icons, antique rifles and swords, and axes. There was a certificate declaring Yanukovich to be ‘hunter of the year’, and documents announcing that a star had been named in his honour, and another for his wife. Some of the objects were displayed alongside the business cards of the officials who had presented them to the president. They had been tribute to a ruler: down payments to ensure the givers remained in Yanukovich’s favour, and thus that they could continue to run the scams that made them rich. Ukraine is perhaps the only country on Earth that, after being looted for years by a greed-drunk thug, would put the fruits of his and his cronies’ execrable taste on display as immersive conceptual art: objets trouvés that just happened to have been found in the president’s garage. None of the people queuing alongside me to enter the museum seemed sure whether to be proud or ashamed of that fact.

Inside the museum there was an ancient tome, displayed in a vitrine, with a sign declaring it to have been a present from the tax ministry. It was a copy of the Apostol, the first book ever printed in Ukraine, of which perhaps only 100 copies still exist. Why had the tax ministry decided that this was an appropriate gift for the president? How could the ministry afford it? Why was the tax ministry giving a present like this to the president anyway? Who paid for it? No one knew.

In among a pile of trashy ceramics was an exquisite Picasso vase, provenance unknown. Among the modern icons there was at least one from the fourteenth century, with the flat perspective that has inspired Orthodox devotion for a millennium. On display tables, by a portrait of Yanukovich executed in amber, and another one picked out in the seeds of Ukrainian cereal crops, were nineteenth-century Russian landscapes worth millions of dollars. A cabinet housed a steel hammer and sickle, which had once been a present to Joseph Stalin from the Ukrainian Communist Party. How did it get into Yanukovich’s garage? Perhaps the president had had nowhere else to put it?

The crowd carried me through room after room after room; one was full of paintings of women, mostly with no clothes on, standing around in the open air surrounded by fully clothed men. By the end, I lacked the energy to remark on the flayed crocodile stuck to a wall, or to wonder at display cabinets containing 11 rifles, 4 swords, 12 pistols and a spear. Normally, it is my feet that fail first in a museum. This time, it was my brain.

The public kept coming, though, and the queue at the gate stretched all the way down the road for days. The people waiting looked jolly, edging slowly forward to vanish behind the museum’s pebble-dashed pediment. When they emerged again, they looked ashen. By the final door was a book for comments. Someone had written: ‘How much can one man need? Horror. I feel nauseous.’

And this was only the start. Those post-revolutionary days were lawless in the best way, in that no one in uniform stopped you indulging your curiosity, and I exploited the situation by invading as many of the old elite’s hidden haunts as I could. One trip took me to Sukholuchya, in the heart of a forest outside Kiev. The sun beat down, casting mirages on to the tarmac, as the road dived deeper into the trees. Anton, my driving companion, who ran his own IT company before joining the revolution, stopped the car at a gate, stepped off the road into the undergrowth, rustled around and held up what he’d found. ‘The key to paradise,’ he said, with a lop-sided smile. He unlocked the gate, got back behind the wheel and drove through.

To the right was the glittering surface of the Kiev reservoir, where the dammed waters of the Dnieper river swell into an inland sea dotted with reed-beds. Then came a narrow causeway over a pond by a small boathouse, with a dock. Ducks fussed around wooden houses on little floating islands. Finally, Anton pulled up at a turning circle in front of a two-storey log mansion. This was where Yanukovich came with old friends and new girlfriends when he wanted to relax.

Anton came here with his daughter in the first few hours after the president fled his capital in February 2014. He drove down that immaculate road to the gate, where he told the policemen he was from the revolution. They gave him the key, let him pass. He pulled up in front of the mansion and marvelled at it, and at its grounds, dotted with mature trees. There was a chapel and an open-sided summerhouse housing a barbecue. The ground sloped gently down to a marina, for yachts. The staff came out to ask Anton what he was doing at the president’s hunting lodge. He told them the revolution had taken over, the hunting lodge belonged to the people.