It was long known that Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine's newly toppled president, had a fairly nice crib. Customs documents revealed a while ago that the wood panelling alone on the palace's staircases cost around $200,000. But what no one could have expected was just how nice a crib it was.
-Patrick Kingsley, "When rebels toured the palace: how does Ukraine's presidential compound measure up?"
On the morning of Saturday, February 22, 2014, Kiev residents awoke to shocking news: Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovych had resigned and fled the country for neighboring Russia. Thousands of citizens who'd spent that winter protesting government corruption in Kiev's Independence Square responded, as if under the spell of a siren call, by marching 23 kilometers to storm the former leader's private residence "Honka". What they found within the Mezhyhirya Residence's gilded gates shocked them even more, and the throngs of average people wandering the 340-acre estate incredulously ogled opulent grounds and absurdly luxurious facilities laid out before their eyes. From the fallen leader's vintage car collection to the the galleon ship turned into a restaurant to columns from Roman times, visitors had to pinch themselves to make sure they weren't dreaming.
Yanukovych's security staff abandoned their posts as soon as the crowd arrived but unlike raids of other leaders' palatial estates, national security and volunteers kept looters and vandals from destroying the Mezhyhirya Residence. Later in 2014, the grounds were returned to state ownership and made into a public park, serving as a "monument to the excessive luxury of unchecked power". Nowadays, Ukrainians continue to visit the park in droves, partly out of curiosity but mostly for wedding photo shoots, bike rides, and picnic lunches.
Curiously enough, the history of the land where the Mezhyhirya Residence stands goes back further than ousted president Yanukovych. The site dates to 988 AD when a regal monastery overlooking the Dnieper River served as an important spiritual center. The Mezhyhirya monastery was destroyed and rebuilt many times until the Socialist government demolished it for good in 1935. Since then, the land acted as a state-run residence for political and military leaders. When Yanukovych became Ukraine's Prime Minister in 2002, he quietly began purchasing sections of the property, eventually transferring the entire compound from state ownership to private ownership. (There were other shady and controversial things Yanukovych did, such as "borrowing" art from public museums to hang on Honka's walls and burning official documents before fleeing.)
Travel tips: To get to the site from central Kiev, there is no direct public transportation available. It's best to take an Uber for just $6 and a 25-minute trip, something I learned after waiting 1.5 hours for a regularly-scheduled bus that never came then taking a taxi that charged me 4x that without shame. (Moral of story: In Ukraine, only use Uber because taxi drivers aren't trustworthy and buses are packed and unreliable.) Once at the site, entrance is about $4. The grounds are huge and perfect for hiking, bike rides, or tours via golf cart. Unfortunately, the main residence was closed and a sign in Ukrainian taped to the door included a phone number; a lady selling snacks told me I had to call for a tour. Not having phone service or the patience to stumble through another painful conversation with someone who didn't speak English, I didn't bother trying to get inside. Booking a visit through a tour guide company may be the best option to fully experience the Mezhyhirya Residence with the least amount of hassle. Either way, be prepared for an onslaught of cliché photo shoots by brides and grooms.