Over the years, my press pass has afforded me the opportunity to join, as a kind of participant/observer, in the sacking of various interior ministries, newly liberated prisons and the odd presidential palace.
I've seen mansions of the once-mighty fall, and get quickly looted, gutted, torched, bombed. I will confess there is something undeniably mesmerizing about watching the proles breach the walls and get their first gawk inside the surreal inner sanctums and badly decorated Xanadus of a Moammar Gaddafi or a Saddam Hussein or his witless sons and skeevy family members.
These past few days in Kiev have provided something new.
A few observations:
To begin with, I have never experienced a more orderly and polite mob than the one that surged through the gates at ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's vast compound.
I have seen more unruly gangs at Epcot Center.
Within a few hours of his rushed departure by helicopter late Friday, the so-called self-defense militias from Independence Square had secured the buildings on the 500-acre estate, and the first visitors — media, revolutionary types and ordinary citizens alike — began to arrive.
A man wearing what appeared to be a wolverine on his head, brandishing a baseball bat spiked with nails, greeted the crowds like invited guests to an afternoon tea.
The people gawked, they gaped, they stared, but nobody touched a thing.
The militiamen asked the people, please, to keep off the grass, and the people did.
I saw a young teacher stoop to police the cigarette butts carelessly discarded by others on the brick walkway to the ostrich farm. Blue trash bags, not hated security ministers, were hung from lamp posts.
Another thing that impressed me, at least at first. Yanukovych might have been an unpopular autocrat, but the man had decent taste.
Or perhaps his girlfriend did. (It was quickly discovered that she appeared to have shared the residence).
The Yanukovych chalet was huge, but handsome, the detailed woodwork and carved banisters a tad heavy, but finely crafted. His furnishings — or what was left of his furnishings, since he crated up much of his stuff when he fled — was well matched and appropriate to the decor.
Surprisingly, at least to me, there wasn't too much gold.
Other observations: He employed excellent gardeners. It was spooky. You could still see the stroke marks left by rakes on the lawns. There were fresh wood chips, new mulch. The more delicate specimen plants — and there were 500 acres here — were swaddled in green coats to protect them from winter's deep freeze.
The man planted fully mature pine and birch trees.
The property is vast, situated on rolling forested hills on the Dnieper River, and the deeper you ventured, the more Yanukovych revealed himself.
The former president of Ukraine kept not only ostriches, but exotic fowl from Burma, plus a petting zoo. He maintained a nine-hole golf course, with tricky water hazards. There were CCTV cameras everywhere. A greenhouse, orchards, cows and strangely clean, freshly scrubbed pigs. Who knew?
Sections of the estate reminded me of Marie Antoinette's idealized peasant village at Versailles.
The property harbored its own electric generating station, clinic, cellular tower, helipad and hangars, dock, gas station, mechanic's shops. I counted five spacious guest homes. There were probably more.
Yanukovych was in the middle of building a museum to house his rare car collection, which numbers dozens of Russian classics, military jeeps and a few Harley Davidson motorcycles. One of the militiamen, who spoke with one of Yanukovych's mechanics, said the ousted president rarely visited his automobiles.
A golf course, classic cars, exotic birds. Okay, sure. What plutocrat wouldn't if he could?
Then you reach the ersatz Spanish galleon built upon a barge in his riverside harbor. The militiamen have covered the table inside its dining hall with bottles of booze, and visitors and I snap photos of fine cognacs and rare Bordeaux wines.
And this brings us to a lesson I've learned. Once the people have entered your bedroom, taken photos of your toilet, petted your ostriches and found your liquor cabinet?
You're probably not coming back.