Piecing together the remains of Ukraine

Viktor Yanukovich’s enormous estate, now open to the public, does not have the fabled golden toilet, but thousands of shredded documents speak volumes to the journalists who are working to decipher them

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

At the former headquarters of Ukraine’s Communist Party in Kiev, Vladimir Lenin has been dealt a heavy dose of his own medicine. The Russian revolutionary’s books lie in red heaps around the central courtyard, strewn among discarded banners, leaflets and membership cards for the Komsomol youth movement, and his face gazes over the flotsam of Ukraine’s uprising from portraits leaning wonkily against the walls. Two boys playing in the courtyard linger over a stone bust of him, pat his cold, bald head, then run inside to where their mothers are piecing together pages of their nation’s history.

In the basement about 30 volunteers sit around two large tables and painstakingly stick tiny strips of paper on to coloured card. When a card is full it is added to a growing pile in the corner of the room and, later, scanned into a computer. A program then tries to decipher which strips fit together, to form an image of how these documents looked before they were shredded.

Reams of shredded paper were found at homes and offices belonging to Viktor Yanukovich and his associates after they fled violent protests in Kiev, in late February, as were volumes of intact files that provide lurid confirmation of the corruption and venality of his regime.

“I didn’t have the courage to go to the barricades during the protests, so this is my way to lend a hand,” says Viktoria, who is the mother of one of the boys who were playing outside, as she takes a short break from gluing the strips of paper.

“The work is boring and tiring but very important for Ukraine. If we find useful documents they will hopefully be used to make sure no one tries to run the country like this in future,” says the translator from Kiev, who is volunteering here with a friend for the second time. “It will give an example to our kids. This will be in their school textbooks. And my son will know that his family played a small part in Ukraine’s history.”

A revolution that claimed more than 100 lives brought a western-backed government to power and prompted Moscow to take Crimea from Ukraine, as this country of 46 million people, pulled between the EU and Russia, sparked the worst east-west crisis since the cold war.

Protesters overran the headquarters of Yanukovich’s Regions Party and of the communists who often sided with him, and just hours after he and his entourage fled Kiev, on the night of February 21st, activists walked into Mezhyhirya, his 140-hectare estate outside the city, and threw it open to the public.

Some were disappointed to find that Yanukovich’s solid-gold toilet was just a fable, unless it accompanied him on his flight into Russian exile, but they were nonetheless appalled by the extravagance of this private country playground about two-thirds the size of Monaco.

That first weekend thousands of people wandered the estate beside the River Dnieper, strolled through its woods and across its golf course, and perused its collection of rare cars and boats, the helipad and golf course, its private zoo, faux-ancient ruins and replica galleon on a lake.

Accustomed to an average national monthly salary of less than €300, Yanukovich’s uninvited guests peered into room after room laden with exotic wood, marble and crystal chandeliers, and could not imagine the cost of an estate that they dubbed Ukrainian Disneyland.


Hard evidence
Inside, other newcomers were already starting to work that out. Journalists from Kiev were among the first to arrive at the abandoned retreat, and went looking for hard evidence of the huge corruption they associated with Yanukovich and his cronies.

They spotted charred documents floating in the lake, and called in divers, who retrieved them and other files that had already sunk, along with several boxes of ammunition.

Then they dried the papers wherever they could, including in the fugitive leader’s sauna, photographed and scanned them, and uploaded the results to a website, YanukovychLeaks.org.

“We were investigating his residence and its role in other corrupt schemes for many years under censorship,” says Natalie Sedletska, a journalist with Radio Liberty and a member of the YanukovychLeaks team. “And now Ukrainians were freely walking with their kids through it. I was so glad to see this.”

As the fortresses of Yanukovich’s empire fell, and reporters and activists gained access to long-hidden troves of information about Ukraine’s hidden political and business worlds, so a picture emerged of a secretive regime that was every bit as criminal as its critics had claimed.

Some of the spending on Mezhyhirya was mind-boggling: more than €30 million on light fittings and almost €1.7 million for “wooden items for the dining and tea room”. Other discoveries, including a report on a search for a missing kangaroo, were simply bizarre. Sedletska calls the documents “a great gift to journalists who for a long hard time were fighting for each piece of information. And now we have it all.”

The homes of Yanukovich’s fugitive allies were also opened up for public inspection, instantly becoming monuments to huge graft and appalling taste. One of the most recent to be raided was the apartment of former energy minister Eduard Stavytsky, where investigators found 42kg of gold bars, the equivalent of €3.5 million in cash, and a lavish collection of Swiss watches.

Journalists and prosecutors began following paper trails that they hope will reveal which politicians and businessmen stole what and with whom, and may even help Ukraine to recoup some of the money it desperately needs to avert bankruptcy.

Corruption has long blighted the country, but Yanukovich is accused of plumbing new depths during his four-year rule. “The state treasury has been robbed and is empty,” the interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told parliament. “Thirty-seven billion dollars [€27 billion] of credits received have disappeared in an unknown direction . . . and the sum of $70 billion [€51 billion] was paid out of Ukraine’s financial system into offshore accounts.”

Much of that money went, unhindered, to banks and companies in the European Union. For a long time “lawyers and anti-corruption activists were filing reports to EU countries about corrupt money that was laundered through western banks. There was almost no reaction,” says Sedletska. “And then, when Ukrainians gave their lives to overcome the regime and did it all by themselves, the west started to impose sanctions and freeze accounts.”


Surveillance system
Ensconced in the Mezhyhirya guest villa, Sedletska and other journalists also found material that confirmed the extent of Yanukovich’s surveillance system, including lists containing the personal details of opposition politicians, activists and reporters, including some of those studying the files.

The documents could reveal who was responsible for abducting and attacking several prominent critics of Yanukovich as the uprising gained momentum. Over the years Yanukovich turned the screw on his country’s news outlets, but he failed to stifle them in the way his ally Vladimir Putin has done in Russia.

Now Ukrainian media are dissecting the remains of Yanukovich’s regime while challenging the nation’s new leaders to uphold the principles they espoused during the revolution. “There are some good signs from the government but also some bad ones. It is too early to say, ‘Okay. Let them work, everything will be fine,’ ” says Denys Bigus, the journalist who runs the document-restoration project in Kiev’s old Communist Party headquarters.

“After a revolution, everything can’t be normal straight away. The best thing about all this is that more Ukrainians are becoming real citizens; they are interested in politics and how the country is run,” he says, with a nod to the growing band of volunteers who come to help him.

“Changing the country is not really the work of government and parliament. It’s up to the people themselves, and it’s a job that takes a long time, like sticking thousands of shredded files on pieces of card.”

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