Inevitable Curse of the Potemkin Villages
As usual, ‘Leader’ had the last word
When Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova protested on live TV carrying a placard saying, ‘Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here’, she was calling the bluff of an authoritarian state attempting to sanitize and massage the narrative, as they always do.
A standard feature of propaganda in such regimes is to either degrade international/ independent reportage or to simply block access to uncontrollable formats (e.g., they have banned Instagram, Facebook, BBC), whilst weaponising social media with handy and aggressive trolls to spread disinformation, hate and stir the faultlines in society.
In a throwback to Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984, expressions like ‘thought-police’, ‘thought-crime’, ‘2+2 = 5’ etc. make so much sense, as falsities become the truth and violence is equivalent to peace! It is often an uneven battle for ‘the truth’ as the masses remain galvanised by the narrative dished out and parroted by the largely beholden or intimidated media channels.
Creatively curated ‘enemies’ are gaslighted and posited for public consumption and any questioning of the official narrative automatically tantamount to ‘anti-national’, ‘on the payrolls of…’ etc. Linear binaries replace nuance (not to say that the media in the so-called free world is completely kosher, either).
Ironically, regimes of intolerant authoritarians across the globe have birthed an English expression, ‘Potemkin Villages’, which oddly enough has a Russian/ Crimean/ Ukrainian origin.
Legend has it that Russian military leader and statesman Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski, was at one time a personal favourite of the last reigning Empress, Catherine the Great. To ensure the ambitious Princeling always remained on the right side of the Empresses favour, he is believed to have organised a propogandist ruse during a visit by the Empress on her barge, along the Dnieper River in Crimea, then under Prince Potemkin.
In a throwback to practice that has since been institutionalised, apparently Prince Potemkin had painted cheerful facades of prosperous villages along the shores (assembled and then quickly reassembled overnight ahead of her review, after she had passed through the same).
One of Potemkin’s major tasks in those times was to subjugate the local unrest and bring in Russian settlers – the surreal objective of ‘mobile villages’ – to suggest normalcy, acceptance and popular preferences towards the expansionist contours of the Russian Empire (apparently 520,000 sq km were added in her reign).
Eerily, the subliminal context of the ensuing Russian endeavours in the Russia-Ukraine war, where the usurpation of those very lands that Potemkin had ‘dressed up’ for Catherine the Great, owing to its ‘intractable Russian connect’, dates to the propaganda initiatives in 1787.
Today, the term Potemkin village is any literal or figurative construction/ deception intended to deceive the onlooker into thinking all is well when the reality is starkly otherwise. The term can be used metaphorically, as the misleading attempts at reassurance by the UK government on testing during Covid times was slammed as a ‘Potemkin testing regime’. Or the lawsuit against Exxon’s contentiously published data on climate regulation costs which alleged, ‘Through its fraudulent scheme, Exxon in effect erected a Potemkin village to create the illusion that it had fully considered the risks of future climate change regulation and had factored those risks into its business operations’.
But the expression takes a more physical form in authoritarian states, where ‘leaders’ try to distract, falsify and paint a conveniently untrue narrative. Strongman Stalin had incredulously described the desperate situation in Ukraine during the Soviet famine of 1932 as a ‘garden in full bloom’, just as the Theresienstadt concentration camp (enroute to Auschwitz-Birkenau) in Nazi Germany was decked up as ‘Paradise Ghetto’ for the Red Cross, concealing the shameful reality behind the façade.
In modern times, non-democratic and illiberal regimes like North Korea have the Kijong-dong village (Peace Village) that does a rather unconvincing job of glossing over the reality. ‘Potemkin tactics’ like overtly dressing up areas or pre-decided routes to cover up the grinding poverty or squalors behind the painted walls, facades and structures is commonplace in/during events in China, Venezuela, Turkmenistan etc. - now, shades of this dangerous chimera have started thriving in participative democracies as well.
Conceptually, Potemkin villages over a time beset, breed and institutionalise a stifling environment where the critical access of the specialists, experts and contrarian view holders to the ‘leader’, is sadly denied. Implicitly, the ‘leader’ knows it all. This can be fatal over time, even as initially the assertive or decisive actions of ‘Leader’ may trigger the throes of communal nationalism, jingoism and pride - but the harsh reality of the Frankensteinian monster unleashed, dawns only after a long time, after extracting a painful price.
Potemkin’s spirit was on full display recently when Vladimir Putin mocked his key staff member, Sergei Naryshkin, as he unreluctantly stammered his acquiescence towards ‘restoration of peace in Ukraine’ – clearly, the only ‘leader’ in Kremlin was in no mood to entertain contrarian opinions, even from an expert.
That Putin is fundamentally no military man with any military experience but only a spymaster, hence with very limited appreciation and understanding of the Militaristic wherewithal and imperatives, in an operation, is becoming increasingly clear as the Russian military has got visibly bogged down in the Ukrainian quagmire, much to Putin’s surprise and displeasure. But who can ‘bell the cat’ in Potemkinesque times? Truly, no one.
As the former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev alluded to the ‘Potemkin military’, about which he rationalized, ‘The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So, they reported lies to him instead’.
But as usual, ‘Leader’ had the last word on a significant matter that required much debate, deliberation and opining by the experts, which was not to be, and Russia will pay debilitating consequences in the long term (even if the artificially mesmerised majority does not realise it today).
The dangers of Potemkin villages lurk in all democracies, and forewarning signs of the same are the normalised sense of hyper-nationalism, majoritarian, enfeeblement of opposition, distractions from real issues, positing of emotional matters ad nauseam, crony capitalism, denialism of contrarian views, the troll industry, rewriting and reimagining history in the garb of restoring pride, echo-chambering the media, blaming the past for all ills, even gaslighting and dog whistling parts of the existing constitutional-civilisational tenets – all of this was true for Vladimir Putin and his journey in Ukraine.
If persisted with, Potemkin villages render democracies only in name, as irony dies a thousand deaths with the official nomenclature for North Korea i.e., the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! Any signs of emerging Potemkin villages must be called out, as history is instructive about the consequences that invariably follow when such facades are constructed on the national scene and embed themselves in the popular consciousness and partisan politics.