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.