Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, including the Scarlet Leaf Review. Last fall his book-length travel narrative on Iran (Descendants of Cyrus: Travels Through Everyday Iran) was published by Potomac Books, a commercial branch of the University of Nebraska Press.
Letter from Sicily
We know the story all too well. It has been repeated so often it has become a leitmotif of human history: a conquering army overcomes a rival, and in the aftermath a once-thriving civilization is reduced to rubble and ashes. A defeated population is slaughtered or enslaved, its cities are looted, its temples and monuments razed. A page is torn from the human story, to be pieced back together by those who follow. When the Macedonian Alexander the Great seized Persepolis in 330 B.C., the capital of the Persian Empire was torched and looted in a matter of days. Historians claim that it took a team of over 3,000 camels, mules, and other pack animals to carry off all the loot, which included 2,500 tons of gold and silver. They also agree that it was largely in retaliation for the Persians’ burning of the Athens 150 years earlier, so a callous scorekeeper might write off the mayhem as a tit-for-tat. After the Ottoman sultan Mehmet I conquered the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453, his troops were allowed to wreak havoc on the city for three days, in keeping with the custom of the time. Many of the inhabitants were butchered, half of the houses were destroyed, and its many churches stripped of their valuables. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque and the city itself was given a new name—Istanbul, or “full of Islam.” Less than a century later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Aztec ruler Montezuma confronted the advancing armies of Hernando Cortez. Aided by the Tlaxcalans, one of Montezuma’s rivals, Cortes laid waste to one Aztec city after another until he had Montezuma cornered in the city of Tenochititlan. After an eight-month siege, Tenochititlan surrendered. Cortes’ forces ravaged the city and swapped the statues of the Aztec gods for Christian icons. But it didn’t always have to be that way, and it always wasn’t. For over 200 years Sicily prospered under Arab rule. It was governed with a spirit of tolerance and acceptance of the island’s many faiths and ethnicities—Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Saracens from North Africa, Italian tribesmen. It became a fantastically wealthy trading center, known for its spirit of decadence and indulgence. But the Arabs had also turned the island’s patchwork of villages into well-ordered towns and cities, introduced an irrigation system that boosted agricultural production, and established local markets to stimulate intra-island trade. Then the French Normans, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, landed on Siciliy’s western coast in 1061, led by Robert Guiscard and Roger Bosso, Robert’s younger brother. From a conqueror’s point of view, Robert and Roger couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. Despite its prosperity, discontent on the island was rife, with regional warlords itching for a rebellion against the rulers in Palermo. The brothers exploited the fray, making deals with leaders of the local fiefs that involved swapping control of land for military support. Bit by bit, Robert and Roger gained control of more and more of Sicily, so that by 1072 they were able to seize the capital Palermo itself. Here is where the story takes an unexpected turn. In the wake of the conquest, none of Sicily’s mosques were burned. Christian icons never replaced the Islamic symbols of daily life. The Arabic language was not banned. None of the non-Christian population fell to Crusaders’ swords. Instead, the brothers recognized the achievements of the longtime Arab rulers and advanced knowledge they had brought to the island and chose to build on them. Eventually both Robert and Roger passed into history. Roger’s son Simon enjoyed a brief reign as he island’s ruler, but control of Sicily was then handed to Roger II, and under his reign the island reached a level of wealth, power, and influence it hasn’t seen in the near thousand years since. Roger II has often been described as a “product of the Mediterranean.” Both his character and consciousness were shaped by the many influences of the region. He was born in multicultural, multi-religious Calabria in 1095, where mosques stood casually alongside churches. His early teachers were Greek and Muslim scholars. He was fond of discussing medicine, philosophy, and mathematics, learned Arabic early in life and spoke it fluently. In a nod to Sicily’s Arab legacy his regal cloak carried the date of his regency in the Islamic year—528. Once Roger II became the ruler of Sicily he choose not to upset its delicate applecart but continue driving it forward. Almost a thousand years before the term “multicultural” had become the buzzword of the modern era, Roger II put it into practice in the upper echelon of his government. Muslim calligraphers recorded state business in beautifully cursive Arabic. Local bishops represented the churches of England, France, and Italy. French became the official language of the court, but royal decrees were written in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, depending on the community most affected by their content. His commander-in-chief was George of Antioch, a Syrian Christian whose first language was Greek. Under George the Sicilian fleet came to rule the Mediterranean. Other notables included the Arab geographerMuhammad al-Idrisi, and Nilus Doxopatrius, an historian of Greek ancestry. Rather than impose a common code of justice, under Roger the people faced tribunals that applied the laws of their various religions. His approach to governance had a continent-wide payoff: many of the textbooks used in the fledgling universities that had begun to appear all over Europe were translations of scholarly documents that had been compiled in Sicily. The cultural mélange of the island was evident in every aspect of daily life. Coins were inscribed with the Islamic year. Arabic-speaking Christians often sported Muslim attire. The blend of talents and ideas brought the island a level of development that rivaled nearby Andalusia. Before the arrival of the Normans, the Arabs had brought cotton, sugar cane, citrus fruits, and dates to Sicily, and Roger refined these innovations, developing profitable industries in the production and export of textiles, sugar, wheat, cheese, and, following successful raids on the Byzantine Empire, the fabric that had become the craze of the Mediterranean—silk. It can’t be denied that geography helped. Sicily’s location in the center of the Mediterranean made it a convenient crossroads for the passage of goods but also ideas, and Roger turned away no one who could contribute to the island’s prosperity. On his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Spanish-Muslim geographer Ibn Jubeir wrote: [Palermo] is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside. The streets and the highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty . . . It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba . . . A permanent stream of water from springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this brilliance. The multicultural character of the island is most clearly represented in a funerary stone for a woman known only as Anna, mother of a priest who went by the name of Grisandus. The inscription is written in Arabic, Latin, Greek, and a fusion of Hebrew and Arabic called Judeo-Arabic, which was designed for Sicily’s Sephardic Jews. The date of death is also given special treatment. It was recorded in agreement with the Byzantine, Gregorian, and Islamic calendars. By the time of his death, Roger had succeeded in uniting all the Norman conquests in Italy into one kingdom with a strong centralized government. Regrettably, like so many good things in life, it was not to last. By 1170, anti-Muslim pogroms began to drive many of the Muslims off the island. Around the year 1200 a “Latinization” effort began to flatten the island’s multicultural character. A wave of conversions made Catholicism the dominant religion. By the middle of the century Islam had all but disappeared from Sicily. That could have been the end of the story of Sicily, or at least the island’s cultural kaleidoscope, but it wasn’t—because the Normans were builders, and Roger II, particularly, took a fancy to the aesthetic sensibilities of not only the Arab rulers he supplanted but his archrivals, the Byzantines centered in Constantinople. Almost a thousand years later, the edifices the Normans left behind stand as monuments to the principle of fusion. Today it is a buzzword associated with faddish cuisine, but in historical terms it means recognizing rather than erasing the aesthetic values of those who had gone before. In architectural terms it sets Sicily apart from the rest of Italy, and even defines the term Sicilian. In 1131, a year after Roger II was crowned the island’s king, his man of the sea George of Antioch threw up the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, or Admiral’s Bridge, over the Oreto River, east of Palermo’s center. Legend has it that Archangel Michael appeared before Roger at the site and assisted in his conquest of the island. Whatever its origins, the bridge’s austere lines mark it as Norman, though the same geometric simplicity offers a nod to Arab design. A few years later Roger reclaimed the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, or St. John of the Hermits, a sixth-century church that later had been turned into a mosque. With magnanimity in victory, Roger paid due diligence to the island’s former rulers, rebuilding the entire complex with echoes of Arab design, particularly in the exterior garden, a common feature of Islamic architecture. Of course there is more. In the center of Palermo, the Church of San Cataldo, on the Piazza Bellini, rose from the foundation of a former church—or mosque, depending on the time period—but both Arab and Byzantine influence is clear. The overall structure is plain to the point of stark (Norman), but geometric designs (Arab) and red domes (Byzantine) defer to influences from the east and add a touch of panache. Looming over St. John of the Hermits is the massive Palazzo dei Normanni, which served as the Norman kings’ command center after they ousted the Arab rulers. It was built on the site of Arab fortress, but the many gardens that connect the mishmash of buildings and arcades were the creation of Arab horticulturists, to preserve a central feature that came in handy in the searing Sicilian summers. Just down the street, the hulking Cathedral of Palermo displays no Islamic influence, and naturally so, but Roger II recruited artisans from Constantinople to create the decorative mosaics splashed across its interior. It is a bit ironic that one of the most prominent examples of Arab-Norman fusion lies far outside Palermo. It is the cathedral of Monreale, perched at the high point in the town of the same name, and the only reason to visit. But the trip is an essential part of the journey, for the bus from the Piazza Palatina traverses the green and undulating Sicilian countryside as tinier villages pass and the road rises toward the town. The final stop avoids the small plaza in the front of the church. It is on Monreale’s main street, a few hundred meters from the massive stone hulk, which is a good thing. It means a final trek of several hundred meters to cover the rest of the distance, and satisfaction delayed is satisfaction better satisfied. Monreale would not be Monreale, and Monreale would not be Sicilian if it weren’t for a legend about the cathedral’s origins. This one claims that William II was out hunting near Monreale when he happened to doze off under a tree. As he dreamt the Virgin Mary instructed him to build a church on the site. Awakened, William found enough gold beneath the tree to fund Monreale’s construction. History is every myth’s spoiler, and Monreale would also not be Sicilian were it not for a more factual account. In that telling, when the Arabs seized the island in 831 the bishop of Palermo was driven from the city. Choosing to stay close to home, he found shelter in a tiny village that offered a commanding view of his former town. There he built a small church to keep the flame of the Christian faith burning, and it became the foundation of the cathedral once the Normans returned and returned Sicily to Christian rule. Like so much Norman architecture, Monreale’s exterior is stark and severe, as if hiding the many layers of beauty within. There, Arab-inspired geometric patterns swirl across the marble floor, the entire plan a combination of Eastern and Western designs. Looming above are biblical stories recreated in mosaics that were the work of Venetian (read, Byzantine) craftsmen. The disorientation continues in the adjoining cloisters. The courtyard is lined with 108 pairs of columns, decorated in mosaic patterns. Like snowflakes, no two are the same, and each is crowned with a capital in classical floral design. Visitors wander around the cathedral in hushed, or awed, or simply confused, silence. Is this East or West? A European church or a Damascene mansion? Neither, and both. Instead of sending a Christian or Islamic message, what the cathedral stands for is clear—that true beauty is not the sole product of any people or part of the world but the mingling of many. Each had a hand in the final creation, and each has earned a share of its effect. By the time William I and William II, the heirs of Roger II, completed the Al Zisa Palace, the Normans had been thoroughly bitten by the Arab bug. Al Zisa—meaning the “wonderful” or “splendid”—was intended to serve as a hunting retreat for the Williams whenever they heard the call of the Sicilian countryside. Today the site is almost due south of Palermo central and well within the boundary of the city proper, so any aura of idyllic bliss is long gone. Traffic circles around the large park spread out in the front of the palace. A long rectangular pool, lined with seasonal fountains, serves as a reminder of the Arab origin of the entire complex. To step beyond the walls surrounding the palace is to leave behind the chaotic traffic of modern Palermo, the conservative Catholicism of the rest of Italy, and even the multicultural character of medieval Palermo. The Al Zisa is wholly, thoroughly, and unequivocally Eastern. Doorways topped with pointed arches divide room from room. Decorative wall niches house oil lamps and ornamental vases. The walls are doubly thick to guard against the searing heat of summer and damp chill of the Sicilian winter. Many of the ceilings are decorated with murqanas—a feature of many Islamic buildings in which a ceiling is divided into carved geometric patterns that create a honeycomb effect. But for any medieval Sicilian the most valuable feature of Al Zisa would have been its air-conditioning system. To beat the summer heat, Al Zisa was designed to face northeast, to allow the sea breezes to pass across a large pool laid out before the palace’s reception hall. There a network of ducts and channels carried the fresher, cooler air to the upper levels. A good night sleep in a Sicilian summer became, quite literally, a delight of kings. Arab, Greek, and Roman, Norman and Byzantine—Sicily dances over and defies categorization. The celebration of the mélange is arguably the Capella Palatina, the creation of Roger II as an addition to his Norman Palace. Tucked away on the second floor, visitors find their way to the entrance by keeping an eye out for discreetly placed directional signs. But once there, the chapel is presented as quintessentially Norman. The arches and doors echo North Africa. Inside, Italian artisans designed the floor, though the mosaics that fill the walls are classic Byzantine. Higher up, the wooden ceiling is carved in murqanas surrounded with eight-pointed stars, another nod to Arab influence, while the inscriptions are written in Arabic, Greek and Latin. But lest anyone forget this is a Christian chapel, a massive mosaic of Jesus Christ, the Pantokrator, fills the dome. Back in the fifth century B.C., a Sicilian cook who went by the name of Mithecus traveled to Greece, and when he returned he wrote what is believed to be the world’s first cookbook. Little did he know that in the centuries to come the island he left would become a culinary crossroads, where all the refined tastes of the Mediterranean would have a hand in creating one of the world’s most complex cuisines. On the western end of the island the immigrant Greeks would fancy dishes packed with pistachios, olives, and broad beans to complement the tried and true staples of fish and vegetables. Around Tripani, to the west, the North African Berbers favored recipes founded on couscous. After the opening of the New World the Spanish would add corn, sweet peppers, and tomatoes to the ever expanding stock of ingredients to be found in Sicilian cooking. During their two centuries of rule, the Arabs played the role of head chef in the development of Sicilian cuisine, adding citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, and blood oranges, the durum wheat that became the prime ingredient in pasta, and almonds for marzipan desserts (credited to the nuns at the Convent of Eloise). And let us not forget sugar cane and vanilla, without which we wouldn’t have confetti—nutty, chewy almond clusters—fennel and pine nuts, raisins, dates, and chickpeas, artichokes and sesame seeds, cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg. All were all ferried to Sicily by the Saracens of North Africa. Once the appetite for architecture is satisfied, there is no better way to savor the multicultural flavor of Sicily than to dip into Sicilian cuisine. Thin-crust pizza? Sicily’s crust is thick and often topped with spinach, anchovies, artichokes, and smoked scamorza. Risotto alla Milanese (arborio rice seasoned with saffron and grated parmesan)?
A tough find beyond the Lombardy region.
Vegetable lasagna? “No, no lasagna. Lasagna is found mainly from the north,” a waiter patiently informed me one evening, and by “north” he meant the rest of Italy. So what is Sicilian cuisine? The best way to find out was to trek to Palermo’s Kalsa district, like the Vucciria, Ballaro, and Capo, a onetime Arab market where the pencil-thin main street is lined with stalls by day and restaurant terraces at night. From early morning till afternoon the town folk pick through the freshest of fresh vegetables and fruits, stacks of cheeses (smoky pravola, saffron-flavored piacenteria, conestrata), spice bins filled with fennel and oregano, garlic and sea salt, basil, thyme, and red pepper, and piles of pasta in shapes and textures too many to count. Then night falls, and the Kalsa—like the Vucciria, Ballaro, and Capo—becomes one of Palermo’s premier dining halls. The stall owners packed up, the restaurateurs take over. Catches of the day are spread on beds of ice in glass cases. All glisten under the glow of flickering fluorescent lights—seabass and salmon, filets of tuna, perhaps cod, halibut, and shrimp, the odd swordfish, seabream, and squid, and on a lucky day a few squiggles of octopus. Red-and-white-checked tablecloths are spread over wobbly, wooden tables, shielded by sun-faded awnings. Soon the tablecloths are stained with olive oil and sprinkled with breadcrumbs, courtesy of the parade of guests. Palermo’s markets cater to the culinary connoisseur, not the impressionable. No Sicilian meal would begin without an antipasto, so on the way I pop into a corner kiosk for an arancini, a kneaded ball of creamy risotto, breaded and deep-fried, and laced with tomatoes, vegetables, and diced meat. Deeper in the Kalsa, the tables have begun to fill and the punters have hit the streets waving menus, but for attention they can’t compete with the aromas that waft from the kitchens. If smells were sounds the Kalsa would be a cacophony. There is the strong and the soothing, the playful and the piquant, the sharp and the sweet, but here in the Kalsa all intertwine like the architectural mélange of the Capella Palatina. At nine o’clock, dinner in the Kalsa becomes a game of musical chairs, with too few tables for too many diners. I grab one of the last, and my dinner begins with maccu, a thick soup chuck full of fava beans, onions, and tomatoes that is said to date from Roman times. For a hint of North African I add a dash of fennel and a drizzle of olive oil. A crucial decision looms: for the next course, pasta con le sarde (spaghetti tossed with sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and saffron) or pasta alla Norma, from Catania (penne mixed with tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, basil, and a sprinkle of salted ricotta). It is a tossup. I toss a coin. The winner: pasta alla Norma. It is washed down with a glass of Catarratto bianco (okay, two). Next comes pesce spada alla ghiotta (swordfish cooked with tomatoes, olives, and capers), and to finish, a slice of cassata Siciliana—sponge cake layered with ricotta and slathered with pistachio marzipan. But this is a Sicilian dinner, so I’m not truly finished until the finishing touch arrives: a splash of Vecchio Romana, the local brandy, smooth with a hint of fruit but not so sweet as to challenge the sponge cake. It is late, and the waiters have begun to sweep the crumbs off the tables. Another moment of choice: I ask myself—which better represents the full flavor of multicultural Sicily, the church tours or my Kalsa feast? Another tossup. I toss another coin. It spins, twirls, gyrates in the air, then lands on its side, wobbles a moment, tips left, then right, but stays upright.
The Good Life, Ukrainian Style
Tennis anyone? Horseback riding? A round of golf? Try your luck at the shooting range, or out on the hunting grounds? Aim clear of the private zoo, with its collection of peacocks, yaks, ostriches, deer, antelope, pheasants, and wild boar. For the motoring minded there is a lineup of antique cars to ogle, 27 in all, valued at more than $1 million. At the end of a busy day a spa awaits to offer massages (Thai, Swedish, or facial, with designated rooms for each), a tanning room if nagging clouds have obscured the Slavic sun, and a fully functional gym to tone muscles left untried. Dinner awaits in either of two formal dining rooms or a restaurant housed in a Spanish warship afloat on a manmade lake. Before bedtime, nightcaps are poured into crystal glasses in the wood-paneled bar. Were these the delights on offer at a five-star resort on the Black Sea coast? No, they awaited guests of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych at Mezhyhiriya, site of his country home until he fled to Russia on February 21, 2014, following a flurry of nationwide protests. Until then he could lay claim to the dacha of all dachas, funded through the proven combination of political savvy, ritual payoffs, exploitation of bureaucratic loopholes, and ability to pull the strings of power so that the Ukrainian state would become a puppet in the service of his personal needs, and tastes. Mezhyhiriya is a land of low rolling hills and woodland along the Dnipro River. As expected, its history is as knotty as the rest of Ukraine. Mezhyhiriya got its start as the site of a monastery built in 1786, but the next year it was burned to the ground, allegedly on the order of Catherine the Great. One hundred years later it was resurrected as a convent, but its lease on life was cut short in 1923, when the Bolsheviks ordered it closed following the Russian Revolution. For a few years Mezhyhiriya served as a school for ceramics production, and then a retreat for Communist Party bosses until Nazi officer Erich Koch chose it as his home during the German occupation of World War II. How Yanukovych came to acquire Mezhyhiriya is something of a case study in the mechanisms of Ukrainian corruption. He came of age in the hardscrabble province of Donetsk in the post-Soviet 1990s, when organized crime was the primary industry in the region. In his teens he did jail time for robbery and assault, but worked hard enough on polishing his image to become the governor of Donetsk in 1997. Five years later he was appointed prime minister by president Leonid Kuchma and was given one of the buildings at Mezhyhiriya that had been lying idle in the Fund for State Property for his exclusive use. Yanukovych had quickly learned the tricks of Ukraine’s political trade. The following year he was able to rent another building through a state charity based in Donetsk, under the condition it would be used for “the promotion of national and international programs aimed at improving socioeconomic status.” He paid 80 cents a year in rent. Old habits die hard, and no harder than in countries long governed by the backdoor rules of cronyism, prestige, and financial leverage. He cozied up to big business interests, including billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, founder of the System Capital Management Group, a conglomerate involved in mining, energy, banking, insurance, telecommunications, and real estate. Government positions from the police department and taxation to diplomatic posts and heads of government agencies were filled with “friends of Yanukovych,” mainly from the Donetsk region. In 2004, Yanukovych saw an opportunity to run for the presidency but was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko in a closely contested race that ended in a runoff. Six years later he tried again and this time defeated professed reformer and prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, and he was savvy enough to wrap himself in a reformist cloak. Shortly after taking power he stated: “Bureaucracy and corruption are today hiding behind democratic slogans in Ukraine. . . . because a small handful of people who have been plundering the country for 20 years, from which the whole society, the whole state and our image in the world have been suffering.” The masquerade didn’t last. A year later Yanukovych found himself dutifully following the autocrat’s playbook. Rival Timoshenko was thrown in jail on trumped up charges of corruption. Yanukovych sought to see Russian declared an official language, rejected NATO membership in favor of Ukraine becoming a neutral, nonaligned state, and appeased Vladimir Putin by pushing for an agreement on the status of Russia’s Black Sea fleet at the port of Sebastopol—a move that arguably emboldened Putin to seize the entire Crimea four years later. But Yanukovych had overplayed his hand. Ukrainians had had enough. Near the end of 2013 protestors filled central Kiev and came onto the streets in other cities. They, too, had been hardened in the realities of Ukrainian politics, having faced down security forces in another uprising in 2004. Yanukovych saw the writing on the wall. In February 2014 he fled Kiev for the eastern city of Kharkiv, and from there hopped over the border for safe haven in Russia after a warrant was issued for his arrest. The charge—the mass murder of protestors. The Orange Revolution of 2014 ended Yanukovych’s plans for control of the Ukrainian government, and his hold on Mezhyhiriya. Yushchenko and Timoshenko became president and prime minister. Yanukovych was shown the exit and evicted from Mezhyhiriya. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the next prime minister, estimated that within two years of Yanukovych’s time in office $2 billion in bribes were paid to officials across the government spectrum—senior judges, members of parliament, the election commission, international organizations, and anyone else who could benefit from, and offer benefits to, the Yanukovych regime. And during his hold on power government funds worth $70 billion were spirited out of the country. Yanukovych’s net worth today is estimated at $12 billion, yet in his entire career as a government functionary his salary never topped $2,000 a month. I had read a great deal about Mezhyhiriya in both the mainstream and tabloid press, but reading is first cousin to hearsay, while seeing is believing. So one cold, cloudy December day in Kiev I decided to head out to the suburbs to see it for myself. I took the M3 metro line to its terminal station and there hopped on the 902 bus for the last leg of the trip. Earlier I had read that a spanking-new highway had been built to link Mezhyhiriya to Kiev so the president could rush to his country retreat untrammeled by local traffic. But the road from the M3 metro to the gates of Mezhyhiriya would have passed for standard issue just about anywhere in Ukraine. Once it leaves the Heroiv Dnipro metro station it passes through Kiev suburbia, lined with the customary cordon of shopping complexes, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants. As it approaches Mezhyhiriya the townhouses become spacious villas girdled with walls and fences, and the cars in their driveways rise in price and resale value. This is hardly Yanukovych’s world—far from it, and far below it—but it does represent the expanding upper class that benefits from contacts with oligarchs and the nouveau riche who feed from the trough of politicians like Yanukovych. Soon enough the bus reached its end point—a tiny parking lot across from a large sign that announced, in English, “Mezhyhiriya National Park.” But no English was spoken at the tiny ticket kiosk at the entrance gate. A tinier plastic window slid open and the woman on the other side snapped at me when I tried to ask about the widely advertised guided tour. I paid for my ticket, she pointed toward the gate, and the window slid shut. There was no one to punch my ticket so I walked on through. A pair of security guards in olive drab fatigues with wool stocking caps pulled over their heads stomped their feet to ward off the winter chill. One recognized the word “excursion” and waved vaguely beyond a stand of trees and in the direction of I knew not what. I wandered deeper into the grounds, crossed over a bridge that spanned one of Yanukovych’s many manmade ponds. The bridge and the pond and the rolling greenery evoked an Asian garden, even in December, but the marble busts perched on pedestals tried to mimic the architectural glory of Versailles, Peterhof, and Schonbrunn. They served as a rude transition from commoner’s Kiev, with its crowded, rumbling metro and irregular bus service, and the make-believe world of the oligarch class. Yet aside from the stone heads and odd security guard, the grounds were empty. Further ahead a plume of colored balloons floated in the breeze at the entrance to a bland, squat building that turned out to be the Mezhyhiriya souvenir shop. I popped in, more to get warm than with any hope of getting reliable information about the tours. Cotton linen shirts and blouses embroidered with geometric peasant patterns hung on the walls. Hand-carved wooden knickknacks were piled in plastic bins. It wasn’t so much a shop as a shrine to rural Ukrainian culture, as most souvenir shops are in Ukraine these days. Ever since the Russian invasion of 2014 half of Ukraine has become a flea market peddling resurgent nationalism wrapped in the homespun symbolism of the heartland. It stirs the memory of a time, illusory it may be, before complex geopolitics made the world, well—more complicated. The clerk was immersed in his smartphone and hardly noticed me enter. Were tours running? The sign at the entrance gate said they were conducted daily at two o’clock. I raised two fingers. He held up a printed sign the size of a piece of paper and pointed to a phone number. I tried it. A voice answered, and I asked about a tour, or “excursion.” There was a grumbled reply, and the line went dead. The clerk had returned to his smartphone game. I got his attention, pointed to my own phone, and shrugged. He put his game on pause and tried a different number. There was an answer. He babbled to someone on the other end, cut off, and then led me out the door. “Five,” he said, extending as many fingers. I shrugged. “Five,” he said again. “Five,” and this time pointed around the corner of the building. “Five!” he repeated, and then returned to his cave of warmth and the distraction of his video game. I did as I was told, took two right turns but found nothing but a locked glass door and large adjoining window filled with a paper mache mockup of Viktor Yanukovych. I waited, beat my feet together. A guard or two strolled along the footpath, and a woman with two children bundled into bright, puffy parkas the color of gumballs. I felt like a fool, standing idle in the December chill, but after a few minutes the door rattled open and a man appeared wrapped in a flag—not the blue and yellow banner of modern Ukraine but one comprised of two black and red stripes and embroidered with the tryub, a slender, aquiline trident that appears on T-shirts and coffee mugs, soldier’s graves and flower arrangements, and has become independent Ukraine’s national symbol. The flag itself evoked a whiff of déjà vu—it had been the standard of the Ukrainian Liberation Army in its struggle against the Nazi occupation in World War II. Throughout the former Soviet Union history is a stain that continues to bleed through the fabric of the present day. The man draped in red and black was Petro Oliynyk. Petro was from the western city of Lviv, which languished under Polish rule for almost 600 years before the carve-up of eastern Europe in the aftermath of World War I pass it to the control of the Soviet Union. Petro had run a grocery store in Lviv but came to Kiev in 2014 to join the Orange Revolution that eventually toppled Yanukovych, and afterward found a second career as the guardian, host, and tour guide of the former president’s country digs. “Health club,” Petro smirked, snapping on the lights in the separate chambers designated for massage, suntan, and facial treatments, but he saved the best for last. Another light popped on in room where the walls were caked from floor to ceiling in sparkling white. “Salt,” Petro said. He inhaled deeply. “For the lungs.” His grin spread wider. The scent was thick enough to taste. I licked my finger and rubbed it along the wall, touched it to my tongue—a taste test. It passed. “One person,” Petro chirped, and then he was on the move again, jangling an immense ring of keys that hinted at even more spectacles to come. Petro led me to an underground passage that led from the gift shop entrance to the “Honka,” named for the Finnish company specializing in the construction of log buildings that built the “club house,” the modest name it acquired during Yanukovych’s salad days. We emerged into another underground reception room. Petro again jangled his keys and opened the gateway to a greenhouse-like corridor outfitted with tropical plants and bird cages. “Cockatoo,” Petro chirped, pointing at a cage where a ball of bright orange and pink feathers fluttered inside. Again the keys jangled. We entered another reception room. A dark-wood-paneled bar stocked with premier liqueurs awaited guests in a small room to the left. Yanukovych’s tastes were definitely national budget-sized. The bar featured bottles of Cristal, a liqueur favored by 19th-century Russian tsars. Petro tapped the surface of a circular glass table in the center of the room. It was at least an inch thick, with decorative frosted trim wrapped around its circumference. “Crystal—French,” Petro snipped. It was time to enter the main house. An elevator awaited. The former president of Ukraine was not going to waste precious state time climbing stairs. Yanukovych’s summer-home elevator was double-doored, both French crystal, decorated in frosted designs. Petro and I were now traveling within the summer cottage as the former president would have. We reached the first floor. More keys jangled. Petro flipped a light switch. A billiard table—the necessary fixture of any British aristocrat worthy of the name –filled the middle of a large drawing room. Petro flicked his finger at on the surface of a window that overlooked the Dnipro. A ping rang through the room. “Crystal,” Petro added—without the ping. He pointed to a trio of mosaic panels stretched across the back wall. They were Mediterranean in style—Greek, ancient or modern, maybe Italian, or Roman. Whatever their intent, they evoked a classical age. Petro tapped the crusty glass baubles dangling from a light fixture. “Swarovski,” he said, and again—“All for one person.” And after the necessary pause: “Super crazy!” The keys rattled again. Petro flung open a door made of hand-carved cherrywood, priced at $64,000 per panel, according to Mezhyhiriya’s own accounting. What awaited? A dining room that sat two dozen. Once again, crystal glass windows offered a crystal-clear view of the Dnipro. “Crocodile,” Petro said, pointing to the leathery skin stretched out on the tabletop. But the reptile skin wasn’t the highlight. Petro pointed at the floor. For the first time I noticed it—a mix of hardwoods that formed swirling patterns that drew from the interior designs of ancient Greece and Rome. “Parquet,” Petro said. “All Ukrainian wood.” I rubbed a finger across the surface, the margins where the various woods and patterns met. It was marble smooth, the entire surface untroubled by the slightest change in material or design. Only master craftsmen could have accomplished the feat. Petro’s keys rattled once more. He led me into Mezhyhiriya’s private cinema. A TV screen the size of the billiard table filled one wall, but this was would have been by obscured by the silver screen that descended, when needed, from its resting port above. Fifteen or 20 leather recliners awaited the president’s favored audience. Upfront, stage right and left, were a pair of overly oversized leather thrones that were intended to magnify the stature of anyone they received but in truth did the opposite, made them seem small and inconsequential. I wondered if Yanukovych reserved these for guests he wanted to humble or himself. My guess is the latter. Petro and I rode the crystal elevator up another floor. Another dining room awaited, larger than the one below. Another giant TV screen filled the far wall. In every room we passed there had been at least one TV screen, sometimes two, or even three, all two meters wide, all high definition, all Sony. I asked Petro how many TV screens filled Mezhyhiriya. “Twenty-two,” he replied. Here the floor was even more multicolored, or multi-shaded, than the one below, and even more dazzlingly intricate. Complex patterns were expressed in swirls and curves of brown, beige, yellow, and amber. But enough of the floor—Petro ran his hand along the top of a chair. “Silk,” he said. I ran my finger along the chair. It was soft and as smooth at the parquet floor, the silk tightly spun, without as much as a ripple for the threads of gold brocade. “One person?” I threw at Petro. “Super crazy,” he replied. The thicket of keys rattled again. A door swung open. Petro—host, guide, footman exemplar—offered me entrance with a sweeping gesture of his hand. Beyond the threshold was the Honka’s holy of holies: Mezhyhiriya’s master bedroom gazes out over the Dnipro beyond a balcony separated from the main chamber by floor-to-ceiling panes of crystal. It was as big as a New York apartment. The cherrywood headboard stood high against the wall like an Orthodox altarpiece. A yellow silk bedcover, putting-green smooth, stretched out below. At the back of the room, undivided from the sleeping area, was Yanukovych’s toilette. Petro pointed to the faucets. “No gold,” he said, dispelling a myth of Mezhyhiriya. Yanukovych’s golf clubs may have been golden but his water taps, which few would see, were merely gold plated. But the floor of the shower, of walled-in glass, was real, genuine mosaic. The household lift sped us down to the first floor and Mezhyhiriya’s showpiece—the grand salon, three stories high. A white Steinway limited-edition piano stood in the bay window, a replica of the original that John Lennon had given to Yoko Ono. Petro was quick with the numbers: “Only twenty-five made.” The salon was several rooms in one, 18th-century style, with separate seating areas for conversation, games, musical entertainment, and since the 21st century—television. Another cinema-size screen took pride of place above a circle of leather couches. The walls glowed warm reddish brown, matching the carved ceiling, the curved double staircase, and the balcony overlooking the entire room below. “Cherrywood,” Petro stated, “all cherrywood,” his hand drawing a sweeping arc, taking it all in. Petro’s tour was wrapping up. He fished for the last of his keys and unlocked the door that would return me to the grounds, and ultimately everyday Ukraine—the December chill and grey clouds scudding across the sky, the crowded metro, the vendors offering sausage rolls and half-liter cans of beer. The annual profit from one of these stalls would have paid for a single Swarovski bauble at Mezhyhiriya. It was a bit of a walk back to the entrance gate, enough time, if I dawdled, to tally some of the costs of Mezhyhiriya. The price for the wooden staircases—$200,000; paneling for the winter garden—$328,000; the cover for a neoclassical column and flight of steps— $430,000. Almost $1 million was spent on imported fittings. Each chandelier cost the Ukrainian budget $100,000. Yanukovych spent $800 in state funds to treat his fish, $14,500 for tablecloths. But all this pales in comparison to the $42 million spent on light fixtures. Yanukovych also had a dreadful fear of being prisoned. To foil possible schemers he constructed greenhouses to produce the produce of 20 different climates, to satisfy his diverse culinary tastes. The final tab for Mezhyhiriya came in at anywhere between $80 and $100 million, all of which, to be expected, was foisted onto the Ukrainian state. An age-old saying says that “clothes make the man.” Let’s take this a step further and argue that one’s house is the “clothing” in which one wraps oneself, and is therefore a projection of self one imagines themselves to be, like most clothing. Seen that way, what did Mezhyhiriya say about Yanukovych? What kind of man was he? Man of the Ukrainian people? Greek or Roman dignitary? British or French aristocrat? Oligarch? All of these in a kind of wannabe manner, but in the end none of them, except in a wannabe manner? I nodded goodbye to the remaining guards at the entrance, still stomping their feet to fend off the now late-afternoon chill. As for Yanukovych, and other megalomaniacs like him, the only explanation came from Petro, who had seen his life up close and yet had a commoner’s distance to make an informed judgment: “Super crazy!”