Friday, April 29, 2016

Potemkin Villages Assume New Content in Age of Putin

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 29 – At least since Prince Grigory Potemkin came up with the idea of a portal and beautiful village that could be moved in advance of the travels of his tsarina, Catherine the Great, in 1787, Russian officials have been cleaning up their villages and towns or covering up their shortcomings as best they could.

            That process is continuing to this day, but as “Novaya gazeta” commentator Boris Bronshteyn notes, it has been transformed in the age of Vladimir Putin, with today’s regional officials more concerned less about making their home towns look prosperous than about ensuring that there is no sign of civic discontent (

            In one sense, this reflects the fact that unlike in Soviet times, most stores even outside of Moscow aren’t empty, and in contrast to tsarist ones, poverty does not invariably follow regional lines. But in another, it reflects what the current occupant of the Kremlin is most concerned about: not the well-being of the population but its political passivity.

            Bronshteyn recalls his first experience with a leadership visit, that of Nikita Khrushchev to Kazan where the journalist was a student in 1964.  At that time, the Tatarstan leadership did everything it could to make the republic capital look flourishing, including stocking the stores with goods that were rarely seen on their shelves at other times.

            But now, he says, regional and local officials have other concerns when they learn the president is coming for a visit. Yes, they clean up the streets and make sure that there are no obvious potholes along Putin’s route. But they worry far more about ensuring that he doesn’t see any demonstrators that could call into question the image of a peaceful city or town.

            Sometimes that requires the arrest of potential demonstrators. Other times, it is enough for the officials to disperse them far enough from the presidential route.  But at others, things are more difficult: some officials even want to make protests as was the case in Ioshkar-Ola – and in that case, republic officials go to great lengths to prevent such things from happening.

            There, a KPRF deputy wanted to complain about the republic head, Leonid Markelov. To prevent that from happening, police stopped her car and told her that they had “anonymous reports” that terrorists were using her vehicle to bring a bomb to attack Putin. The police then took their time in examining the car, and by the time they were finished, Putin was gone.

            Of course, no bombs were found; and after spending three hours in the Mari El capital, “Putin thanked everyone for their hospitality.”  “We are in Ioshkar-Ola, which means ‘Red City’ in Russian, that is, beautiful,” the president said, largely because he wasn’t exposed to complaints about corruption or any other problems there.

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