- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
When he hastily fled Kiev on Saturday, Feb. 22, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left behind a monument to corruption: his lavish Kiev mansion filled with a private zoo, a Spanish galleon, and a collection of rare cars. Photographs of his private home, hidden behind imposing gates, were beamed around the world, a vindication of the claims levied by anti-government protesters that they had been doing battle with a fundamentally corrupt regime.
But the most damaging artifacts found at Mezhyhirya, the mansion, were not the peacocks but a huge trove of documents found at the bottom of a nearby reservoir. Since protesters took over the mansion on Saturday, divers have extracted thousands of papers documenting shady money transfers, huge outlays on Yanukovych’s personal security, and receipts for extravagant purchases — such as a $16,000 set of six forks.
A group of Ukrainian investigative journalists are now working to preserve these documents, which constitute crucial archival evidence of the period leading up to last weekend’s revolution. More than a dozen journalists, both from the country’s top newspapers and international outlets, have now taken up residence in the palace, where they have joined forces to salvage, organize, and publish the documents on a website called YanukovychLeaks.org.
According to Natalie Sedletska, a journalist with Radio Free Europe who is working on the files, the stash now includes some 200 folders, each containing 200 to 600 documents, putting the total somewhere above 40,000 pages. The journalists who first examined the documents "immediately understood that this was incredibly important to get these [documents], if we wanted to prove that Yanyukovych was corrupt," Sedletska told Foreign Policy.
Archivists and librarians advised the journalists to dry the wet documents by putting plain sheets paper on top of them and later provided heaters to expedite the process. Additional investigative journalists were called in as reinforcements to sort the material.
But some of the journalists who came to the mansion tried to make off with documents and score a quick story. "Some journalists came to try to find something catchy and go back to their editorial offices," Sedletska said. But most, she said, kept the greater good in mind and took it upon themselves to salvage and archive the documents.
After beginning to pick through the material, the journalists have developed what Sedletska called an "algorithm" to wade through the trove, taking an hour to look through each folder, picking out the most important documents, and arranging them all to dry. By Tuesday, Feb. 27, all the documents had dried, but the group has since stumbled on many more papers — "bags of documents" in Sedletska’s formulation — lying around the residence, some of them partially burned.
Among other things, the newly discovered documents include information about Yanukovych’s security detail. According to Sedletskha, newly discovered documents show that he used as many as "600 people working as security to guard Yanukovych getting from point A to point B." Many in Ukraine knew Yanukovych felt constantly threatened, she said, but not that he was quite so afraid.
Until they complete uploading the entire trove to the Internet, the journalists working on the documents have agreed to hold off writing stories based on the material. More than a dozen journalists are filing and documenting the papers. At first they photographed the documents, then they moved to digitally scanning them using equipment brought by volunteers. "We are looking forward to writing stories," Sedletska said. "But we agreed among us that we have to scan everything, put it online, and then we can start writing stories," she added.
The team plans to tag the documents to make them searchable on the website. Among the tags: Mezhyhirya, Cash, Luxury.
Expecting that law enforcement will eventually seize the documents, Sedletska said that "it’s a race" to get them all online, a job that has the journalists working day and night. "This has to go to law enforcement, so the guilty will be punished. It is incredibly important to save this for history."