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What's with dictators and bad taste?

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An ornamental horse stands outside Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's countryside residence.

ANDREW LUBIMOV / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

An ornamental horse stands outside Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's countryside residence.

WASHINGTON -- Let's ruminate about dictators and their stuff. Specifically, the things they leave behind when they flee, die, are ousted or captured.

We have been seeing pictures of the huge palace and gardens of Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled after Ukrainians revolted under his repressive leadership. While the political situation is intense, we're all fascinated by Yanukovych's zoo, cages of rare pheasants with iridescent red tails and his pirate ship dining room, The Galleon.

What is it about dictators and bad taste?

You will, of course, remember Imelda Marcos and her amazing collection of shoes reputed to have numbered 3,000 pairs. She also had a lot of dresses with poufy sleeves. When she and her dictator husband were forced to leave the Philippines in 1986, she left behind 1,220 pairs of shoes. If she had worn a different pair every day for three years, she still couldn't have worn them all.

(Sadly for fashionistas, many of the shoes and dresses have been damaged by termites, floods and neglect while stored in the Philippines. It happens.)

Then there was Saddam Hussein, whose many garish palaces in Iraq were filled with great treasures and great quantities of junk. Just about every U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq has a picture of himself/herself sitting on one of his plastic thrones. Or one of his many toilets.

Saddam also was known for owning rare animals; his sons kept a 20-year-old Siberian tiger and a blind brown bear.

Alas for Saddam, all that stuff did him no good in the end. He was found in a dirty hole with a filthy beard and a makeshift toilet.

Zimbabwe's tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has one of the most nightmarish bedrooms ever seen outside of the Poconos. It is immense, filled with a crystal chandelier, red velvet upholstered furniture and enormous oil paintings framed in gilt surrounding a bed on a platform. He also has a sitting room done entirely in gold, for which the phrase "ostentatiously, hideously ornate" was coined. Mugabe, 90, compares himself to both Jesus, who had no possessions, and Hitler, another dictator who loved stuff.

Tiny Romania's short dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had a 12-storey palace with 1,100 rooms in Bucharest, which made him and his small wife seem even more minuscule. It is decorated in pink and white marble with handmade decorations and carpets and lace curtains. It is now the Palace of Parliament, and tourists flock there.

Ceausescu, a communist, caused food shortages in his country by exporting its agricultural products so he could build his sumptuous digs, where he once hosted Richard Nixon. While Ceausescu lived stunningly well, under him the Romanian standard of living plummeted to one of the worst in Europe.

Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's palace featured many large bathtubs and huge indoor tiled pools, including one with floating plastic inner tubes. Fittingly, perhaps, he was found hiding in a large drainage pipe. Soon thereafter, he was killed by rebels.

Back to Yanukovych. Not only did he have a sensational house full of chandeliers and expensive furniture, he had stables, a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, a shooting range and his own private marina. On beautifully manicured grounds with great views of the Dneiper River, he kept pens of goats and rare pigs.

What is it with dictators and their need to collect exotic animals?

Yanukovych should not be singled out among politicians for living well, although Ukrainians are stupefied at just how well he lived. (He claimed his generous friends "invested" in his house.) Actually, many politicians do well, but usually after leaving office. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife are worth millions, which they have earned from books and speeches. Of course, they also tried to take some of the White House furniture when his term expired, saying they had been given many pieces by generous friends.

It's interesting how many of the mighty and powerful insist they come to do good and end up doing so very, very well.

 

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.

 

A UKRAINIAN DIVORCE

A Ukrainian split is looking more realistic but we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking it's an easy solution, Joshua Keating concludes at wfp.to/comment.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 A8

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