22 Feb 2014

Plump pigs and a private zoo: a very revolutionary day out

Every day in Ukraine is dramatically different, but this has been one to remember in a way that no one expected.

It began in the middle of the night with the open-cask coffin of 22-year-old Alexander (an architecture student gunned down by riot police two days ago) being carried through a packed and solid Maidan (Kiev’s protest camp), the faces of the crowd etched with anger.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

As dawn broke in Kiev, something extraordinary was happening. The Berkut – the dreaded riot police, held responsible for much of the killing – had simply melted away, vanished into thin air. Their barricades had been dismantled and the demonstrators were free to reclaim the city.

The presidential office compound, the seat of Ukraine’s government, was deserted. A small troupe of balaclava wearing demonstrators wielding baseball bats now stood guard, where the day before there had been hundreds of security forces.

The protesters, their faces smudged with dirt and fatigue, were smiling like split watermelons and busy taking revolutionary selfies.

We moved on to the parliament building. Again this had been heavily guarded by the riot police. This was the place the demonstrators had vowed to storm if the president did not yield to their demands. But there was no need: instead of storming it, they just had to stroll into it.

The parliament was now also in the hands of Maidan. A self-proclaimed guard with a dead fox flung over his helmet and an iPhone pinned to his ear, was calling his girlfriend to deliver the good news.

Here too, there was nothing but order and self-discipline. There was no hint of drunkenness or even irrational exuberance today. This has been in a large part a very disciplined revolution, with traffic wardens, street sweeping details and eat what you want buffets set up set up along the barricades.

Perhaps the Orange revolution of 2004 has morphed into the Boy Scout revolution of 2014.

A day out at the zoo

The most jaw-dropping part of our day was, however, still to come. Word spread that the private presidential compound on the outskirts of Kiev was now open to visitors, courtesy of the revolution. We headed down there and came across what looked remarkably like a swelling Saturday family outing. And yes, they were going to the zoo but it happened to be the president’s private zoo that had, until today, been kept a very well-guarded secret, together with all the other opulence of Villa Yanukovych. I have never seen anything like it.


The crowd that gathered to size the high security walls of the presidential compound, only completed four years ago at a cost of what must have been many millions, had no idea what awaited them on the other side. The supersized mansion built in a style that could best be described as Swiss chalet brutalism, occupied a position on top of the hill overlooking acres of parkland and a lake.

There are many other houses, ornamental lakes, marble statues, deer and antelope cast in bronze, enough duck islands to bring tears to a backbenchers’ eyes. But the thing that really got me, and everyone else, was the private zoo.

Now we’ve all heard about dictators and their private zoos. But I’ve never actually seen one. And let’s not forget that President Yanukovych wasn’t exactly a dictator: he was democratically elected in 2010. But there is a very good reason why he wanted no one in his country to see how he and his animals lived.

The trouble with private zoos is the animals don’t get to see that many people. And so, the ostriches, the peacocks, the prize-winning perfectly-pink plump pigs and the private flock of sheep, were somewhat startled to find so many ordinary people, gaping at them.

Everyone around us had the same reaction, which is, sadly, not fit for print.

It is the combination of this week’s killings and one man’s opulence that will make it impossible for President Yanukovych to come back to this city in anything other than handcuffs. He can now run away, perhaps try to create a secessionist republic in eastern Ukraine, or live in retirement in Sochi, assuming Vladimir Putin wants him. But there can be no future for him in this city, other than behind bars.

One of the visitors to the presidential zoo, cuddled one of the lambs with utmost care. The lamb’s owner can expect rougher treatment.

As we left the compound, the line of the curious had grown and now stretched for miles. Some of them marching with the Ukrainian flag straight from Independence Square, their reddened eyes gleaming grim determination. Others taking their children for a family outing no one will ever forget.

But I think it’s fair to say that the gilded gates have been shut on President Yanukovych.

Follow @mattfrei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei