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

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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