The papers were first spotted swirling in the eddies of a boat harbour on the sprawling compound of the former Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, on the outskirts of Kiev. Intrigued, the protesters-turned-security guards who had taken over the grounds found a raft and began fishing the documents out of the water. Later, they recruited a diver to retrieve sunken nylon bags of files from the riverbed.
What they found were the waterlogged secrets of a government that nobody was supposed to lay eyes on, dumped by the president and his associates in the panicked last hours of his tenure, before he fled in a helicopter to eastern Ukraine.
The documents, which are still being dried out, along with others from the lavish home of the prosecutor general, are being posted on the Internet in Cyrillic for all to see. Together, they provide an increasingly detailed portrait of the final desperate weeks, days and hours of members of a besieged inner circle trying desperately to maintain their grip on a government they had plundered to an extent that shocked even corruption-weary Ukrainians.
They reveal details both mundane and alarming, showing in one instance how the private zoo, golf course and other luxuries on the president’s estate were paid for, and detailing in another plans – never carried out – to mobilize the army to clear protesters from the capital.
Some were merely curious: From the river emerged the soggy titles to two Mercedes cars in the name of the woman suspected of being the mistress of the president, Lyubov Polezhay, a sister of the presidential cook.
The papers, some charred from a hurried attempt to burn them, depict back-room efforts to control the domestic media and behind-the-scenes efforts of the government to find support both in Washington and Moscow. They seem to show that Mr. Yanukovych financed his opulent lifestyle by dipping into the profits of a coal trading enterprise.
In the final months, the documents show, Mr. Yanukovych’s government reached out to a former deputy director of Russia’s military intelligence service in planning the crackdown on protesters. Years earlier, they show, the government paid U.S. legal advisers for opinions that would justify to the West the prosecution of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and the president’s chief political opponent.
It had been known that the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom had compiled a largely sympathetic report in 2012 on the government’s prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko, even though most impartial observers say it was politically motivated.
Over the weekend, however, street fighters found documents related to this prestigious U.S. law firm’s work in an unexpected spot: on the tiled floor of the sauna in an opulent residence of the deposed prosecutor general, Viktor Pshonka.
For local journalists, who have been busy organizing the documents and posting them online, the troves have been an embarrassment of riches.
“What they didn’t manage to burn they threw in the water,” said Serhi Scherbyna, the editor of The Insider, an online investigative journalism website, who said he found irrefutable proof linking the coal trading enterprise that won about $1.5-billion in government contracts last year to the company that managed the presidential estate, its private golf course and zoo.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “I’ve lost so much of my health trying to prove this connection. As a journalist, I felt satisfied. I could finally prove the theories I had put forward. As a man, I felt I had been lied to. I was holding in my hand proof. It was the feeling of a scientist who has proven his theory with evidence.”
By Tuesday, journalists had photographed all of the approximately 20,000 soggy pages and posted them on a WikiLeaks-like website, Yanukovychleaks.org.
Elsewhere, the paper trail left by fleeing officials pointed to a role for a Russian military adviser, a former deputy head of the GRU military intelligence service, in the plan to secure the government district of the capital and to clear Independence Square of the protesters who had built formidable barricades there during a three-month occupation. The security forces had two plans, called Operation Boomerang and Operation Wave, according to the papers, released to local media by a member of Parliament.
Any role for even a former Russian security official in advising on the location of snipers, the arming of police with lethal ammunition and the issuing of rules of engagement to defend the government buildings is extraordinarily sensitive here after scores of street fighters armed mostly with clubs died in fighting with police officers last week.
Among the more curious documents to turn up here was a letter translated into Russian from Gregory B. Craig, President Barack Obama’s former White House counsel and a lawyer at Skadden working on the report on the Tymoshenko case, to Paul J. Manafort, a Republican political operative who had advised Mr. Yanukovych going back to 2007. It was found in a box of papers in the sauna. In the letter dated Aug. 24, 2012, Craig was asking for Mr. Manafort’s assistance in obtaining from the Ukrainian government documents for the report that Skadden was preparing on the prosecution of Ms. Tymoshenko. The report concluded that the prosecution was procedurally flawed but not politically motivated, as it is widely believed to have been.
Much work lies ahead in studying the papers, said the nongovernmental groups and reporters here who have set about doing so.
The papers in the sauna, for example, included an early draft of Skadden’s report that had been annotated by Ukrainian government officials, who appeared to be pushing the Americans for a more sympathetic interpretation of the case; careful study is needed to determine how much the law firm yielded to these demands in the final report, said Mustafa Nayiem, an investigative journalist with the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Skadden said that the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice had retained its lawyers and that “Skadden agreed to write this report on the express condition that the law firm would be totally independent.”