Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

March 12, 2014

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

Putin’s promise to restore Russian self-respect, for example, which had been shattered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the bitter loss of superpower status, has centered on bullying Europe. He is intent on cowing the continent into submissively accepting Russia’s sphere of “privileged interest” in all the “near abroad” states of the former Soviet Union.

He did this when he flexed his military muscle in Georgia in 2008, and also when he manipulated oil and gas prices and supplies in Ukraine in 2009. By invading Crimea to parade his power on the world stage, Putin has now convinced many people that Russia is back.

The success of the Sochi Olympics — a predicted disaster that emerged as a logistical success (and also gave Russia its highest count of gold medals) — may have fed Putin’s hallucinatory views of his own might and the need to bring “lawless” Ukraine to its knees. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted perceptively: “He lives in different reality.”

Indeed, on the pretext of humanitarian intervention to defend “oppressed” Russian-speakers in Crimea, Putin’s shadowy troops without insignia roam the region. They are blocking Ukrainian military installations, though there is no evidence of any abuse from the Ukrainians.

This is the key to understanding the Russian mind: We are a hypothetical culture. Ruled by despots for most of our history, we are used to living in fiction rather than reality.

The enduring myth of a caring and benevolent czar — be it Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Joseph Stalin — who punishes his subjects for their own good and the good of the nation, helps explain the current Russian support for Putin and his actions in Ukraine. Putin’s approval rating now stands at almost 70 percent.

To withstand constant oppression, the Russian people have learned to justify it. The easiest approach is to accept the Kremlin stance that the state, whether czarist or Soviet, always comes first. Individual hard work and international competition in gross domestic product numbers or quality of life are far less significant than the belief that the government is seeking to secure Russia as a glorious nation that is both feared and respected.

Putin’s indiscriminate jailing of those who speak out against the Kremlin control, his clamping down on any remnants of free press in Russia and his promotion of a dictatorship of order over transparent laws are declared necessary given the grandiosity of his agenda.

It is for Russia’s greater glory that many people seem ready to accept individual debasement. With us, progress is rarely considered a means of improving daily lives. It is more about helping the state prove itself superior to everyone else.

This is why so many Muscovites support Putin’s “Ukrainian policy”  — despite the pending international sanctions against the Kremlin elite and the Russian economy’s current nose dive. Consider, since the start of the Crimean crisis, that the ruble has fallen more than 2 percent against the dollar

Not that Russia didn’t try to escape its ruler’s despotic formulas, particularly in the 20th century, with the help of Karl Marx’s Western and rational dialectic materialism. The problem was that Russia was a feudal serfdom just decades before the Bolsheviks announced egalitarianism in 1917. So while the Soviet Union speedily forged ahead in hopes of creating a utopia of equality and social justice, the modern Russian character it formed became a schizophrenic combination of despotic state power, hasty industrialization and hostility toward the West.

That hostility often drove the Soviet achievements. Bettering the human condition was a worthy communist cause — but did it have to come with a body count? Stalin’s militant modernization was often too busy setting up an “us versus them” mentality, proving that Soviet factories, mining industries, armies, even military parades were the best. Yet most of these achievements were obsolete in a matter of decades, and there was little diversification of Russia’s traditional military-industrial complex.

Putin’s current bellicose stance is no different. He validates his power with a show of force. As before, everything is the West’s fault. The United States, according to Putin, is insidiously engaged in double standards — Kosovo’s independence from Serbia was fine to the Americans, but Crimea’s is suddenly not okay.

Apart from taking the Crimean peninsula, the Kremlin seems only to want to destabilize its southern neighbor. Not to conquer it (for now). Stirring trouble within Ukraine — pitting its Western region against the East — will make it less desirable for European Union acceptance. So Putin is ensuring that Ukraine remains in the Kremlin’s orbit.

But let’s say that Putin goes beyond Crimea (some of his propagandists have already drawn a roadmap for war) toward the eastern cities of Lugansk or Donetsk. Today these cities say they want Russian help because they worry their heavy (and shabbily run) industries would be unable to compete if Kiev turns fully Western. It is easier for them to deal with the Russian markets that lack strict Western procedures and regulations.

But give them time. In a few years, the Ukrainian East will likely come to resent the Kremlin’s pressing hand.

Yet if Putin’s actions turn Russia into an international pariah — with foreign visas banned and consumer trade in jeopardy — being part of free and law-abiding Europe would become greatly appealing, even to the die-hard Putin patriots. These heavy industry executives will waste no time finally learning transparency and competition.

Of course, the Potemkin village phenomenon in Russian life did not really start with Potemkin. Long before Catherine, Peter the Great had built St. Petersburg on the marshes of the Finish bay. He sacrificed countless lives to this grandiose project to showcase Russia as a first-rate European nation.

He managed to open, however, only a small window into Europe. St. Petersburg, with its French-Italianate architecture and Dutch-Venetian canals, has remained just a façade of Western civilization.

It is somehow fitting that Putin is a native of this city.

Looking back, one wonders how Potemkin might have changed Russian history if, instead of devising fake villages 250 years ago, he gave Russians a lesson in order and exactitude. He should have made those poor Crimean serfs paint and repair their real houses — instead of creating fake facades to please an empress.


PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during his visit to a financial crime monitoring center in Moscow, March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Portrait of Catherine the Great by Johann-Baptist von Lampi the Older. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Kurhaus resort garden in Wiesbaden, October 15, 2007. REUTERS/Bernd Kammerer/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside an Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

PHOTO (INSERT 4): Prince Grigory Potemkin. WIKIPEDIA/Commons


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What a load of racist bs!

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive

People write such pieces so as not to show that Russia is invading one country after another and nobody even blinks. Hitler and Stalin were also the laughing stock among journalists and people said they are delusional.

In fact what is happening is a new appeasement. Western world lives in delusions, just like after the first world war, that a major global conflict is never going to happen. It’s simply not true and we should not be taking Russia’s steps lightly at all. A new shocking Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement is definitely possible at one point or another.

Ronald Reagan must be turning in his grave. He would order to bomb Russia and the whole conflict would be over in under one week.

Posted by Radek.kow1 | Report as abusive

great article. “Crimea” is a history unto itself.
Certainly no one would argue it turned into a “St Petersburg”…let alone a “Potemkin Village.”

That region is a “from the ground up war zone.”
This is not the place where one lays grandiose claims to power…but is best left alone by all parties concerned.

I don’t blame President Putin for what has happened on the ground. There is nothing but separatism “in the East.” I do think how “Crimea” fits into the post World War II reality of Europe…let alone North America…is really hard to figure out here.

Posted by lkofenglish | Report as abusive

First of all Bob Costas should never have borrowed Mr Putin’s Botox injectables during the Olympics ( Bobby, you should have known better !!!) ( ever notice Vlad doesn’t AGE ?). Secondly, would somebody PLEASE steal away Mr Putin’s testosterone PILLS or under arm goo and give them to President Obama.!!! Talk about one needing to LOOSE a pair while the other need’s to GROW a pair !!!!

Posted by Pangaea7 | Report as abusive

“Hitler and Stalin were also the laughing stock among journalists and people said they are delusional.”

Agree, Putin must not be taken lightly.

A huge difference, though, between Putin on the one hand and Stalin or Hitler on the other: both Stalin and Hitler had an ideology. Putin has none. He sells a nationalistic ideology to the russian people because he knows that is what will sell well in this post-superpower era, but his only intent is to safeguard the interests of those who put him in power: the owners of Gazprom and other russian industries.

Posted by M.CH | Report as abusive

It is a bit naive to assume that Putin is the servant of the oligarchs. One would have to assume that he is, in fact, an oligarch himself. He may be delusional. He is not stupid. The oligarchs and Putin are one and the same.

It may suit Putin’s purpose to protest that he is just another servant of the people of Russia. But he is the Boss. And as every fan of the Sopranos knows all too well, the Boss takes his cut of every deal.

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

Regardless of the psychopathology of Putin, the challenge for the West remains to figure out how to counter his aggression with measures that cost him and the Russian people more than they cost Europeans and Americans.

Boycotting Russian gas hurts us more than them. Selling American natural gas to Europe – helps us hurts him.

Planting missiles in Poland and aiming them at Moscow helps us and hurts him.

Arming Israel and turning them loose on the Syrian and Iranian friends of Putin helps us and hurts him.

Invading Venezuala and then flooding the world with cheap competition to Russian energy — helps us, hurts him.

Invading Cuba and then trading it back to Russia for the Ukraine helps us and hurts him.

Sending arms and money to the Chechen rebels and asking them to target government leaders in Russia–now there is a Machiavellian move worthy of an American President.

The rule of sanctions is pretty simple. Hurt the Russians and help ourselves. That is what a sanction should do..

Posted by JeffHB | Report as abusive

She’s a shill pushing the “Putin is delusional” line.

The West has made its malign intentions toward Russia abundantly clear.

Posted by f00 | Report as abusive

I can just see Nina Khrushcheva as a queen: “Catherine gave you boards, but I will give you whips! Get up, you lazy 47 percenters! Get up! Paint and repair those houses! I don’t care if you’re dying, I don’t care if you’re sick! Get up and clean those f***ing houses or you’re done for!”

Mitt Romney would love her.

Incidentally, I read on another website that the German publication Die Welt had stated that the German gov was upset that Merkel’s words were interpreted in the way they have been interpreted – they say that she probably actually meant something like, “Putin has a completely different perspective on this matter”… but after her words were interpreted in a certain way, reporter after reporter just echoed the same interpretation without even bothering to see if there was anything substantive to it. Just like teenagers in a ‘popular kids’ club who are really itching to spread rumors about ‘the wierd kids’ over there in Russia, and be in the same little ‘in group’ with the same little twittering of ‘in gossip’. Sad.

Posted by LisaAgnesG | Report as abusive

“…Ronald Reagan must be turning in his grave. He would order to bomb Russia and the whole conflict would be over in under one week…”

No he wouldn’t. The whole conflict would be over real quick as well as the rest of the world. JFK and Krushchev didn’t go that far, realizing the outcome and the there are much more powerfull nukes avail now days. So, I don’t think Reagan could do squat if he was still around…
By the way the author of the article is a grandaugher of the former USSR leader Nikita Krushchev, living in the US. Isn’t it ironic? :)

Posted by Hoseph | Report as abusive

“…Hurt the Russians and help ourselves. That is what a sanction should do..” That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last 70 years. Apparently it doesn’t work as well as we hoped, huh…

Posted by Hoseph | Report as abusive

It is unfortunate that Russia seems to want to compete in a geopolitical game against the west that undermines its ability to compete in global trade. I was surprised to learn, e.g., that the rocket motors used by NASA in our ATLAS space missile are Russian. Of course, now that Putin threatens Ukrainian sovereignty, Elon Musk can go before Congress and say his company’s Dragon rocket should replace United Launch’s ATLAS for national security reasons and so he did. It’s likely Russia rocket engine manufacturer will lose this market as a result. This will probably begin happening to a lot of Russian businesses as the US and EU seek to find low cost ( to us ) sanctions. Of course, Russia business will never become it integrated with the the rest of the developed world and will remain the perpetual outsider.

Posted by sangell | Report as abusive

Following the author style, one could say that reaching to the deep historical roots of the russian psyche is a way of avoiding simple explanation: “My own granddaddy created this mess when, while being drunk he got an idea of giving Crimea to the Ukraine”.

But more seriously the author falls into its own delusions and simplifications bordering on propaganda: “But let’s say that Putin goes beyond Crimea toward the eastern cities of Lugansk or Donetsk. Today these cities say they want Russian help because they worry their heavy (and shabbily run) industries would be unable to compete if Kiev turns fully Western…But give them time. In a few years, the Ukrainian East will likely come to resent the Kremlin’s pressing hand.”

This is so delusional that it sounds ridiculous. First, lot’s of people there feel Russian by strong cultural and human ties so it is not jobs only. They have been antagonized by the radicals in Kieve whose first law was to repel Russian as an official language. Second, regarding the jobs, the Western alternative is plain and simple: close everything as soon as possible. This is known from other similar places in Eastern Europe where even after 20 ys they have not recovered and are being depopulated by massive emigration. No wonder then eastern regions of Ukraine want to Russia where things are changing at a slower place.

Presentation of analogy with Kosovo as Kremlin propaganda tastelest since in fact Kosovo has made a very bad precedent. The case of Crimea could be seen as positive in the end: an overwhelming majority of people will get what they want and without any loss of life.

In the end much better parable to explain Russian mind and behavior is a big bear: Do not come close to my territory or I will strike you. All big bears of this world have the same attitude: US, Russia and China. Russians want to keep NATO at a distance from their heartland and that is quite understandable.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Nice piece.

Posted by bigturkey | Report as abusive

The russians are more dilusional than even the US citizens who think they are free and have liberty and justice. It’s hilarious what all people do under tyranical governments and fake patriots. But hey, their blissful if you know what I mean.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“Hurt the Russians and help ourselves. That’s what sanctions are supposed to accomplish”

The implication is that at present, without the benefit of sanctions, the US is incurring an opportunity cost.

The sad truth is that there is no way we can impose sanctions on Russia that will not impose some costs on us. The same applies to Europe, but to a much more painful extent.

Posted by gacorrea | Report as abusive

[…] Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin has used his acts of aggression to build public support. Yet the focus should be on whether the Russian people want renewed confrontation — or even […]

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[…] The rising powers want to extend their territory or correct perceived historic wrongs. They challenge the status quo — as China is doing in its neighboring seas. The declining powers, meanwhile, want to prevent territorial erosion and avoid diplomatic humiliations. Countries like Russia today or Austria-Hungary in 1914 clash with the dominant powers presiding over what seems to them a natural and inevitable decline. The United States and Europe see no reason why Russia should object to the enlargement of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But to Russia this looks like territorial aggression and encirclement by hostile forces. […]

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