Three months in Ukraine: the Mezhyhirya residence
The Ukraine crisis has been covered in Delayed Gratification with photo features, essays and analysis. For issue #14, we interviewed Natalie Sedletska, a journalist and member of the Yanukovych Leaks team, who entered ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya residence after he fled the country.
We also listed some of the bizarre and extravagant items found in Yanukovych’s former country retreat. They included solid gold loaves of bread, a portrait of Viktor in the nude and a receipt for a $12m cash bribe.
Natalie Sedletska: “I was in Prague on 22nd February and more and more news kept reaching me from Kiev. I had already decided that I had to fly to Ukraine the next day and then I heard that activists and journalists had found Yanukovych’s documents in the reservoir by his compound in Mezhyhirya and I realised I had to leave straight away.
I’d heard rumours of the president’s wealth and excessive lifestyle but it was almost impossible to get any evidence. We knew tiny details, like that Yanukovych owned an $80,000 lamp, but everything was top secret. Discovering these documents and getting into his residence was like finding treasure. Sometimes we just had to share information we read with each other – ‘Look at this spoon that costs €8,000!’, ‘How can a plate cost €10,000?’, ‘That chandelier costs €8 million!’. We couldn’t believe these things existed. Why would anybody need a bronze statue of a pig?
I arrived early on Sunday morning and joined a team of journalists I’ve known for a long time – they had already retrieved the documents from the water. There aren’t many investigative journalists in Ukraine because it can be dangerous and the media is mostly owned by politicians and oligarchs. I would end up staying seven days, working around 20 hours a day. We had to work hard because we were desperate to learn as much as possible and we feared that prosecutors would come, take the documents from us and say it was evidence in a criminal trial. When they did come, after seven days, they were really nice and let us finish our job first.
We devised a system for salvaging the documents. Firstly we had to separate them because they were stuck together. Then we put them in a room with professional heaters donated by academics from the National Library. After a day they could be scanned, and to ensure they survived we then put them in the sauna. We didn’t use guest rooms; instead we slept on sofas and in sleeping bags, and Maidan protesters donated food.
It has been wonderful for our project to be recognised by journalists and activists worldwide. It felt like a prize for all our work over the years; we’d fought hard for every piece of paper we uploaded. It was just incredible.”
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