Whose palace? The opulence and intrigue of 4 mega-mansions

4 February 2021

On 18 January, the day after he was arrested by officials at a Moscow airport, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny released his latest anti-corruption video exposé. It depicted a luxury palace on the Black Sea — alleged to belong to none other than the Russian President. Blueprints and statements from contractors of the estate a mere 39 times the size of Monaco reveal that it includes an underground ice hockey rink, intriguingly-named “mud warehouses,” and plenty of neo-Versailles bling. Perhaps most noteworthy is the mysterious room labelled “aqua disco”, which is now both the title of a viral hit and an anti-government chant. The video has helped to spark a new wave of opposition protests across Russia, reaching 20 million YouTube views within 24 hours of its release, and more than 106 million views at the time of writing.

But luxurious palaces across the former Soviet Union have long represented far more than just a leader’s residence. They are symbols of power, wealth, and corruption, and hold an essential position in the national narrative — and beyond their own very special kind of opulence, many of them are rich in intrigue. While the mysterious Black Sea palace remains off limits, we’ve rounded up four more mega-mansions that are worth knowing about across the New East.

Mezhyhirya Residence

Kyiv, Ukraine

Of course, a grandiose residence with the glossy sheen of alleged corruption is a must-have for a whole swathe of leaders. Viktor Yanukovych, former president of Ukraine, enjoyed the rolling grounds and extravagant decor of his own Mezhyhirya residence from 2002 until the Maidan Revolution of 2014. He then fled to Russia, and the mansion was seized by protesters and turned over to the state. Volunteers discovered files full of documents, later published online, exposing the scale of Yanukovych’s corruption.

Inside Yanukovych’s former residence. Image: Raphaël Vinot /Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

But the mansion’s extravagantly-decorated interior was no less incriminating as to Yanukovych’s misdeeds (as well as, arguably, criminally poor taste). Inside the residence were assorted gifts from highly-powered friends and associates: the most famous of which being a dazzling 2kg golden loaf of bread. Other rooms were full of tropical birds, while ostriches roamed the grounds. And while there is no dedicated disco room for guests, there is a boxing ring, decorated with stone murals of fighting gladiators.

Now open to the public as a museum and park, the palace remains much as it was during Yanukovych’s residence. It stands as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against corruption.

Chess Palace

Elista, Russia

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, former president of Kalmykia, built his Chess Palace to host the 1998 Chess Olympiad and the suburb around it for the chess champions to live in. Far more minimal than many of the lavish structures on this list, the five-storey glass structure is reminiscent of a yurt: perhaps a nod to the Kalmyk people’s nomadic past. While you might expect a city devoted to chess to thrive, the homes remain mostly empty, the streets disappearing into the bleak surrounding steppe. The palace itself, perhaps once grand, is now home to two oversized chess sets and a few eerie classrooms.

Ilyumzhinov — who served as head of the World Chess Federation, FIDE, as recently as 2018 — has long been notorious for his eccentric behaviour. He claimed that aliens abducted him in 1997 and he made chess a compulsory subject in schools. Although president of one Russia’s poorest regions, he would also drive around the republic in luxury cars, claiming that “a wealthy president is a safeguard against corruption”.

The exterior of the Chess Palace, otherwise known as the chess museum, in Elista. Image: Alexxx1979/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

Yet while the palace itself is dark and drab, it is at least true testament to the idea that poor design should be no barrier to claiming staggering costs for construction and refurbishments. Despite attracting criticism for diverting funds from food and healthcare, much of how the palace was financed still raises grim questions. In 1998, journalist Larisa Yudina was found dead near Chess City after questioning how this extravagant project had found funding.

Palace of Happiness

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Not every post-Soviet mega-mansion is a kleptocratic status symbol. Some, like the Palace of Happiness in Ashgabat, instead follow the tradition of the large public structures built in Soviet era. These “palaces,” — with names such as “Palace of Youth,” “Palace of Culture,” and “Palace of Matrimony,” were in many ways the atheist state’s answers to religious buildings. Although grand, their design and use were not associated with the riches of a single figure, but for the glorious proletariat, with Soviet ideology and culture at its heart.

Many of these Soviet-era wedding palaces are still in use — and a few have even been built more recently. They include the eleven-story, star-and-cube-topped Wedding Palace (or Palace of Happiness) in Ashgabat. This enormous star-shaped construction is more than just a wedding venue: inside are shops, photography studios and even a wedding car decoration service.

The Palace of Happiness in Ashgabat. Image: Kalpak Travel/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

Outside, the palace’s decor is another addition to the deserted, white marble desert of an Ashgabat skyline already dotted with glittering dictatorial vanity projects. Completed in 2011, the palace was overseen by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, whose other architectural triumphs include a statue of a Turkmen shepherd dog raised on a pedestal resplendent with an LED screen, the falcon-shaped Ashgabat International Airport, and the city’s dental hospital, which is shaped as a giant molar. The Wedding Palace itself is best described as “gilded”, with a 00s twist on traditional opulence thanks to the ever-tasteful star-cube topper, which changes colour at night.

Mikhailovsky Castle

St Petersburg, Russia

Paul I, son of Catherine the Great, was convinced that he was at risk of assassination. Feeling unsafe in the grand Winter Palace, he built the fortified Mikhailovsky Castle instead. Unfortunately, it was built too quickly to protect effectively against cold and damp, leading to reports of ice forming on the walls — and, even though the palace included a moat and drawbridge, Paul I spent only 40 days in the castle before being strangled in his bedroom. Now, the castle’s amalgamation of Gothic and renaissance decor is an opulent tribute to the sumptuous style of interior decoration that can only be described as, “I can see why the starving masses may have had a problem with this”. If you can’t travel to St Petersburg yourself, you can also take a virtual tour around its marble-clad interior, which is now a museum.

Inside Mikhailovsky Castle. Image: A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons under a FAL licence

Unsurprisingly, paranormal activity has been a recurring theme in discussion of the Mikhailovsky Castle since long before its inhabitant’s untimely end. According to one legend, the palace was named after Michael the Archangel, who appeared to a construction site guard. Following Paul I’s death, when the palace became the Engineer’s school, students spooked each other, describing haunting moans and mysterious lights. One story told of a ghoulish figure stalking the corridors with a candle in its hand.