KIEV, Ukraine -- An eerie calm and a light mist shrouded President Viktor Yanukovych's sprawling residential compound just outside the capital Saturday morning as street fighters from the center of Kiev made their way inside, gingerly passing a wrought-iron gate and cautioning one another about booby traps and snipers.
They found none of either but discovered instead a world surely just as surreal as the charred wasteland of barricades and debris on the occupied central plaza that has been their home for months. It was a vista of bizarre and whimsical attractions on a grand scale, a panorama of waste and inexplicable taste.
They saw about a half-dozen large residences of various styles, a private zoo with rare breeds of goats, a coop for pheasants from Asia, a golf course, a garage filled with classic cars and a private restaurant in the form of a pirate ship, with the name "Galleon" on the stern.
One man in the small band of anti-government militants that took control of the compound, called the 31st Lviv Hundred, hung a Ukrainian flag on a lamp post. A few dozen others walked about, seemingly dazed by what was happening. Some raised their clubs, pipes and bats into the air and yelled, "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Glory to its heroes!"
Whether it was the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, the breaching of the presidential palace gates is a milestone of a revolution. But Kiev on Saturday was unusual in one sense. There was no sacking. The opposition unit that took control of the president's complex, called Mezhigorye, kept it intact, at least for now. On Saturday, the president fled, and the presidential guard melted away. But members of the Lviv-based "hundred," who had repeatedly confronted Yanukovych's security forces on the streets, posted guards around his residential compound and prevented looting even as swarms of gawking Kiev residents strolled through its grounds.
The reason, the street fighters said, was to preserve evidence of the ousted leader's lavish lifestyle for his prosecution. One of the Lviv militants walked onto a gazebo ringed with plaster urns, removed his green military helmet and gazed out at the park and the Dnieper River.
Another pair, wearing fetid, soot-smeared clothing from the square and carrying baseball bats, walked into an outbuilding, sat in chairs with plush blue and gold upholstery, pulled large yellow drinking glasses from a cabinet and began to photograph one another on their cellphones as if raising toasts.
"We hoped for this but didn't expect it," said one, Roman Dakus. He said he had been in Kiev at Independence Square, or Maidan as it is known here, off and on for three months. "It was very, very difficult to stay on the square in the cold at night. But we warmed one another with our hearts and our souls.
"People really changed their mindset because of these events," Dakus added, "Before, people thought, 'Nothing really depends on me.' They preferred to say that and to think like that. But after this situation, they think differently. They believe in their struggle when they are all together."
Within a short time, a crowd gathered outside the gates. The street fighters threw them open, and Ukrainians, who were arriving by the thousands by early afternoon, flowed into the compound. "What a nightmare," one man said in disgust, looking at the dining room of Yanukovych's pirate ship, moored on the river bank, all oak and brass trim.
The complex was once a modest government site that Yanukovych turned into a private residence and then expanded, saying acquaintances had built or paid for many amenities. Previous Ukrainian presidents had not lived at the residence.
The street fighters decided not to open the buildings, saying they would wait for prosecutors and experts on valuable art to arrive and assess their contents.
Autocrats seem to have a propensity for private zoos, and Yanukovych's palace complex contained multiple enclosures for exotic animals. Rare pheasants with magnificent, iridescent red tails scratched about in their cages, nervous from the crowds walking past and snapping pictures. The labels on the cages identified them as "Diamond pheasant" and "Japanese long-tailed pheasant."
Other cages held dogs, and there were pens for goats and what appeared to be rare breeds of pigs.
The street fighters also found a heap of ash from burned documents, and used a raft to fish others from where they had been thrown into the river, laying them out carefully to dry.
The complex extended well over a mile along the river and was immaculately landscaped with hedges, lawns and birch trees, and a golf course of graceful swales, sand traps and pools of crystalline water.
Even as the crowds grew, there was no sign of looting. By evening, a vast traffic jam formed on the highway from the capital, and crowds walked along the road's shoulder to see the open palace. The grounds filled with Ukrainian citizens, awed by what they saw. "I've never seen luxury like this," said one man.
Speaking of Yanukovych, Ihor Knyazov, a cook, said: "He couldn't stand up and tell the people, 'I give up.' So he just ran away, the coward."
"It's beautiful here," Svetlana Gorbenkova, a realtor, said as she walked about. "It's so peaceful. But why all this for just one person? This was all stolen from us. It's obvious now how much he stole. Why didn't he give anything to the people? When he was running for president, one of his slogans was, 'I will listen to every one of you.' But he didn't listen to any of us."