Foreign Policy Blogs

It Takes a (Potemkin) Village

Still standing, Moscow's last Potemkin village

Still standing, Moscow’s last Potemkin village

That heavily weighted word, propaganda, has surfaced again in connection with Russia, this time in a law forbidding “propaganda on behalf of homosexuality.” A storm of international protest against the law caused Russian President Vladimir Putin this week to publicly reassure the rest of the world that “people of all sexual preferences” would be welcome at the coming Winter Olympics at Sochi.  They would be made to feel “comfortable” in Sochi, he said.

Officially, Russia wants to create an enclave, limited in space and time, where the world sees and experiences a degree of tolerance that Russia is otherwise unwilling to provide its own citizens.

This fits a well-known pattern of behavior repeatedly manifested in Russian history. When Empress Catherine invited foreign ambassadors in the late eighteenth century to visit a Russian province, phony villages were constructed by her lover, Prince Gregory Potemkin, to give the impression that this newly conquered area was prosperous and content. “Potemkin village” came to stand for this effort to mask Russian reality when foreigners or dignitaries came to call.

In the twentieth century, under Soviet communism, Russia’s leaders continued to engage in an effort to strictly limit what foreigners could see in Russia, trying instead to focus attention on “model” collective farms and factories that Soviet leaders wanted the world to regard as typical. They even built a permanent theme park in the center of Moscow — an Exhibit of the People’s Economic Achievements — to project this version of “reality.”

Russia today is not nearly the monolithic political and social structure that it was under communism. But as a former head of the Russian KGB, Putin knows a great deal about propaganda and, from his upbringing in the Soviet Communist Party, he knows a great deal about controlling the message. By creating an Olympic Village at Sochi that will be sealed off and secure from the rest of Russian society, Putin is preparing to display a tolerant Russia to the world, while away from view, the law against homosexual “propaganda” can be enforced in whatever way Putin pleases. This resembles nothing so much as a twenty-first century Potemkin village, now festooned with Olympic flags.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy