BBC Culture

Viktor Yanukovych’s house: the taste of despots

  • Par for the golf course

    Ukrainians continue to tour the opulent Mezhyhirya estate of their ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kiev on 21 February. With its marble-lined mansions, a golf course and a petting zoo, the residence in the village Novi Petrivtsi has been seen as a palace of corruption and greed. Yet according to writer Peter York, the author of Dictators’ Homes: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colourful Despots, it is not unusual. “The truth is, it’s exactly what I’d expect,” he says. “Inside, it was absolutely par for the course, which is chain hotels. The Kiev Sheraton circa 1975: put up a breezeblock and metal frame and slather it with as many cheap chandeliers and veneered panelling that you possibly can.” (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

  • Nouveau riche

    While writing his book – which covered the homes of politicians like Josip Broz Tito, Nicolae Ceaușescu and Manuel Noriega – York saw the serious side to all the bling. “Along the way, researching it, I began to understand some really horrible things about the financing and support of dictatorship,” he says. “They’re often people who have come very rapidly from nowhere, so they don’t have fancy taste.” (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

  • Shipshape

    Careful to point out that he is not comparing Yanukovych to those dictators, York nevertheless finds many similarities with their approach to decor. Yet he was surprised by one element of Yanukovych’s estate: a Spanish galleon. “There was a touch of the Neverland about that,” says York. The Ukrainian residence has been compared to Michael Jackson’s Californian ranch. (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

  • Golden rules

    Yanukovych’s lodgings did fit at least three of York’s golden rules: “First – make everything much too big. Second – go for repro, for an imagined, vulgarised, fake antique style because people think that is posh and classical. Third – have as much gold as you possibly can.” (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

  • On another scale

    For size, the Ukrainian estate can’t compete with Bucharest’s 'Palace of the People' (pictured). Built by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and spanning 3.77million square feet, it is the world's second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon. “A large part of old Bucharest was demolished to accommodate this illiterate building,” says York. Around 9,000 homes were torn down to make way for it. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Basket case

    “For sheer ugliness and weirdness, you couldn’t beat Saddam Hussein,” says York. “He bought art with strange sado-masochistic overtones, and had doors made out of multi-coloured marble in the shape of eagles.” In this image, US Army soldiers play basketball in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in the toppled Iraqi dictator's hometown of Tikrit in 2003. The resort-like series of palaces used to be a favourite place for Saddam, featuring an artificial lake and an indoor swimming pool. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Sweet dreams

    York has another contender for strangest decor. “In terms of sheer OTT fantasy, it’s hard to beat Imelda Marcos and her bedroom," he says about the widow of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. "I think she must have watched a lot of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood movies, and tried to realise them,” he says. “Everything in those movies was always over-scaled and suggestive – dreamy, rather than real. So you look at this bedroom and you think: ‘How very uncomfortable to live there’ – because nothing has proper ergonomics, and it’s all done for effect – to show that she’s a wonderful lady who loves beauty.” (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Building an image

    In Imelda Marcos's hometown of Tacloban City, the presidential holiday home at the Santo Niño shrine has been turned into a museum. “The houses of these people are themselves a form of propaganda,” says York. “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that architecture is ‘frozen music’; this is frozen rhetoric. They’re bigging up their owners, making them look very powerful, grand and rich. But the main thing is to turn an ordinary person into a god, with godlike characteristics.” (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)