Presidential bling, Ukraine style: Peter York on Viktor Yanukovych's mansion

Lots of gold, lots of marble, and a lot of toys you could never play with: Yanukovych’s fantasy world put the Ukrainian President firmly at the heart of a grand tradition

Peter York
Sunday 23 February 2014 20:34
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An exterior view of the main building in the residence of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
An exterior view of the main building in the residence of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych

Dictatorship has its perks, as Sunday’s People’s Tour of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential lodgings near Kiev showed.

The main one is being able to rob your country blind. You put your hand in the till because there isn't much governance - and certainly no Margaret Hodge - around to stop you. You go from being an insurgent, an exile, a soldier, a whatever - ducking and diving - to the existence of a de facto billionaire when you take office.

A very nouveau one. You haven't learnt the knocked back discretion of the Brit toffs or the Euro chateau people. You go for top-of-the-range Knightsbridge bling, The Great Classic Dictator Style. You follow the rules as described in my epic volume of architectural history Dictators' Homes. That's just what Mr Yanukovych has done.

People were astonished, first, at the acres, the mini-park that surrounded the place. Rule no 1 in Dictators' Homes is Big It Up, make sure everything is seriously over-scale. (“It's so big, Charlie” as they said in Citizen Kane). The house itself is in some sort of woody, vernacular, retro Edwardian style, just 10 times bigger than usual, as if you'd taken a By-pass Variegated Semi and pumped it up. Some reports say it cost £300 million to build.

Rule 2, is Go Repro, and clearly this new place looks like something built by a British coal baron in 1900. Dictators like the old look because there's more opportunity to show off. Modern Movement buildings look far too much like prisons or barracks to men who know them well.

Other reports say Mr. Yanukovych's place is somewhere between Ceausescu's palace and Michael Jackson's Never-land. That's par for the Dictator course too, because dictators, like flaky pop stars, install things they can never really use - in Yanukovych's case a full-size replica Spanish galleon, a petting zoo, and an ultra-bling sauna in the 19th-century Palace style. There are also huge over-stocked garages with vintage hyper-cars - branded bling that you can show off by parking them out front (Rule 8, involve Known Luxury Brands).

Pictures of Yanukovych's dream interior show all the things I expected, starting with Go For Gold (Rule 5), meaning anything that could possibly be gilded will be.

And there's all that glass. (Rule 6, Get More Glass). There are chandeliers and mirrors everywhere. And lots of heavy over-cut crystal drinking glasses in the shinily panelled bar. They're the diamonds of interior decoration; everything that doesn't glitter should sparkle. Or shine. The floors are marble - the shiny new hotel kind of course. Marble that looks like fake marble, with elaborate inlays of other exuberant marbles. Why cover any surface with wood or laminate when it could be marble? (Rule 9, Make It Marble).

A luxurious bar is found on Victor Yanukovych’s presidential lodgings

People are already saying that it's all quite astonishingly vulgar. It is vulgar, to educated Western European bien-pensant taste 2014, but not remotely surprising to me at least, because I've seen hundreds of pictures of this style. It's the style of many global plutocrats and of hyper-criminals too. The Scarface look.

When “the People” broke into the Gaddafi compound in 2011 and we started to see the pictures, my darling friends were similarly horrified and astonished at those breaches of taste and decorum. “ You're not going to believe this!” they said. But there it all was: oversized; golden; glassy; marbly and dodgy. And quite idiotically outdated in obeying Thorsten Veblen's rules of for conspicuous consumption as laid down in his 1899 classic sociology text, “ Theory of the Leisure Class”, in which he shows how aristocrats and plutocrats can demonstrate their absolute disengagement from working or worrying about anything at all. The Marie-Antoinette rules.

It's idiotic for a hard-scrabble working politician in a poor rough country who can never have had the time to play with many of those toys. And now he'll never see them again. But if he's parked enough dodgy money in enough dodgy places he may just attempt to build a replica in some part of suburban Berkshire that is forever Kiev.

Peter York's ‘Dictators' Homes: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colourful Despots' is published by Atlantic Books


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