Dictator chic

Posing in the jacuzzi: Ukrainians make a joke of the deposed president’s luxury lifestyle.

The ex-Ukrainian president has fled Kiev and droves of ordinary citizens have been exploring the ‘bling’ residences where he and his cronies lived. Why are dictators’ dwellings so excessive?

  • Why are we talking about dictators and kleptocrats?

    In Ukraine an arrest warrant has been issued for the deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych who disappeared earlier this week. He may not have been found yet, but Ukrainians have gained access to the 127-hectare private estate that he called home. As soon as news got out that the compound was no longer under heavy guard, thousands started making the 15 km trip from the capital, Kiev, to see where he has been living. They were both awed and disgusted by the luxury they saw.

  • What did they discover?

    They found what have become the recognisable features of the extravagant lifestyles that such kleptocrat’s lead: swimming pools, jacuzzis, a shooting range, stables for the horses and numerous expensive antiques. Connoisseurs of the interior style that has been dubbed ‘presidential bling’ might, however, be disappointed by Yanukovych’s relatively modest use of gilt. When American soldiers entered some of Saddam Hussein’s palaces after the invasion of Iraq in 2004, they found a gold toilet, complete with a gold toilet brush and gold-leaf toilet paper.

  • Surely it doesn’t get more ostentatious than that?

    Actually, it does. When Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, rebels found a collection of golden weapons, including a handgun encrusted with jewels. In a similar show of opulence, Turkmenistan’s dictator Saparmurat Niyazov made a golden monument of himself which rotated 360 degrees so that it could always face the sun.

  • Are there any other common features?

    Kleptocrats also love having their own private zoos. Yanukovych’s palace had ostriches and deer in the grounds, as well as a £70,000 statue of a wild boar. Yet he was again outdone by Gaddafi, who had a fully stocked private menagerie complete with keepers just for the private enjoyment of his family. His son Saadi kept nine lions.

  • Don’t these dictators ever worry about being overthrown?

    They usually build their palaces within a quick dash of an airport or other escape route. When Romanians overthrew dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, they found a vast web of tunnels leading from his headquarters to two different airports. In the 1970s, Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko had a luxurious £100m palace near his home village of Gbadolite, deep in the jungle. As the palace was impractical to reach, he had a private airport built with a runway large enough to land concorde.

  • Why do these people need such extravagant palaces?

    Kleptocrats do not tend to be modest people and grand, richly decorated palaces are seen as symbols of their power and status. Saddam Hussein had a total of 81 residences built throughout Iraq, and the complex near his home town of Tikrit included separate palaces for both his mother and brother.

  • What else has been discovered?

    Sometimes the oddest features are the most human. When Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine was ousted in 2011, rebels found a copy of the Brad Pitt film ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ among stuffed jaguars and expensive artefacts. Other tastes are more bizarre. Gaddafi had a teapot and teacups fairground ride in his back garden while behind Yanukovych’s palace a huge galleon was found moored on an artificial lake.

  • What happens to these palaces once their residents have gone?

    As most have been constructed in a hurry, they soon fall apart. Many are looted and destroyed by a vengeful populace. Mobutu’s jungle palace has been almost entirely stripped and there is not much left of Saddam’s luxury homes. The fate of Yanukovych’s palace is still unclear, but Ukraine might follow Libya’s example, where Gaddafi’s main compound has been turned into an amusement park.

You Decide

  1. Should the palaces of overthrown autocrats and dictators be preserved as museums or destroyed?


  1. Research the dictators mentioned in this briefing. Who do you think was the worst and why?

Word Watch

The leaders and members of corrupt governments whose primary purpose is to take money from the population.
A retired supersonic passenger plane that could reach speeds of 2,172 km per hour. Despite its speed advantage, its running costs eventually made it uneconomical to use, as larger and slower planes were much cheaper. The two major airlines using concorde were British Airways and Air France.

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