Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


crimea-fireworks-painting

Fireworks during visit of Catherine II of Russia in Crimea. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The Imperial Tradition Dies Hard in Potemkin’s, Umm, Putin’s Russia

• November 26, 2013 • 5:27 PM

Fireworks during visit of Catherine II of Russia in Crimea. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

When entertaining dignitaries, cover-ups are always in vogue.

There’s a story that when Catherine the Great’s one-time lover Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin wanted to show his monarch the glories of her not-yet-so-glorious lands in Ukraine, he built façades along the tour route and populated the path with jolly, well-dressed peasants. These “Potemkin villages” were torn down each night and reconstructed along the next portion of the tour route, in this case the Dneiper River, so that everything the queen and her entourage saw looked pleasant and prosperous.

Exterior of a Suzdal house

Your seams are showing: Two facades don’t quite meet perfectly at the corner of this dwelling.

This is a story, not an established fact. While sprucing up the outskirts of the kingdom almost certainly did occur before Catherine’s trip, modern historians argue that the wholesale fakery of legend is itself not true. But since beauty is, after all, truth, this tale’s lovely summation of hubris, ambition, and obsequiousness in one believable package has made it a standard tale to explain Imperial Russia (and beyond).

Modern Russia, meanwhile, seems beset with a pox of Potemkins—Potemkin capitalism, Potemkin democracy, Potemkin modernization. These coinages all aim to deflate the puffery of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The subtext is that Putin himself is a sort of imperial reincarnation, a widely discussed idea that I suspect is in no way insulting to Putin or many modern Russians. As Nina Khrushcheva opined in The Moscow Timesin a piece titled “The Imperial Putin”—“The sad truth is that in Russia history does indeed repeat itself — but in a twist on Karl Marx’s dictum, as tragedy and farce at once.”

And so we come to the modern Potemkin villages, born this time not in fable but fact. As Russian media (h/t BBC Newshas reported, after apparent prompting from acting Governor Svetlana Orlova, authorities in Suzdal laid painted tarps over the city’s more decrepit structures to make them presentable before a conference welcomed a tide of local government administrators and its guest of honor, Putin. Suzdal is a historic place—it even made the UNESCO World Heritage List—so a little decrepitude in the name of atmosphere might pass muster, but widespread blight is another matter.

Cat on banner

Among the static scenes presented on the Suzdal facades was a resting cat.

The banners included painted siding, birch trees, clean and unbroken windows, green plants on the ledges, even a cat. In a post loaded with photos, blogger Natalia Novozhilova asked (thank Google Translate for the Yakov Smirnoff-y phrasing): “Why is not depicted in the windows of happy faces Suzdal?” One reason for the lack of happy faces is that the “king,” as she snarkily termed Putin (another blog used the word “emperor”), did not deign to make his expected November 8 appearance at the conference.

His majesty did not request the Orlova villages, just as her majesty before didn’t request the Potemkin variety. English-language RIA Novosti quoted a regional official who said Suzdal officials couldn’t do more than drape the buildings because they couldn’t find the absentee owners on short notice. Besides, she added, probably with a patriotic edge, Leningrad put up façades on burned-out buildings during its heroic 900-day siege by the Nazis. Talk about wrapping yourself in the flag.

The desire to put a best face forward to dignitaries—even if that face is a mask—isn’t in any way unique to Russia. Folks in Northern Ireland’s County Fermanagh had their knickers in a knot over very similar, if even more professional, banners—at a reported £300,000 they better be nicer—that upgraded derelict shops before this June’s G8 summit. (Putin attended that meeting. Just sayin’.) The United States kicked out our ruling monarchs centuries ago, and so here the Potemkin impulse is more egalitarian: in a few blighted areas, cheerful façades, both plastic and applique, have replaced plywood on vacant buildings. “If you’re just driving by, just trying to get a feel for the neighborhood, you probably won’t notice,” explained Wall Street Journal reporter Conor Dougherty in a classic explanation of the Potemkin effect.

Russia, nonetheless, has a Potemkin problem. At Global Voices Online, blogger Daniil Tereschenko’s account of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to a Potemkin-ized hospital was followed by commenters recounting similar stories from universities, factories, and even a frozen fountain. “It was the same when he visited the [Moscow State University] Journalism School,” wrote “salome_lou.” “I didn’t recognize our main lecture hall, it was redone down to the carpeting, and later everything was taken away.”

But since beauty is truth, perhaps these over-eager bureaucratic aestheticians could call these cover-ups “art.” It works for Christo….

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.