In the summer of 1787, determined to show foreign ambassadors the might of Russian power in the newly-subjugated Ukraine, Catherine the Great organised a boat trip down the Dneiper past modern-day Kiev.
Her trusted field marshal, and her lover at the time, Prince Gregory Potemkin, organised a series of mobile villages to appear as soon as the imperial barge, stuffed with foreign dignitaries, came into view.
When the riverbank came within earshot the villagers would break into a spontaneous, sycophantic chorus of praise for the empress, giving the perplexed foreigners the impression that not only had Russia pacified Ukraine, it had also managed to win over the local peasantry – no mean feat in the 18th century.
As soon as the imperial barge turned the corner, the villagers would dismantle the buildings, only to reconstruct them overnight further downstream, with a view to performing precisely the same deception the following day.
This continued each day for over two weeks. The foreign dignitaries then reported back to Berlin, Paris and London on the marvel of the Russian conquest and pacification of Ukraine.
Thus was born the “Potemkin village” approach to economic and political progress.
The World Cup is another Potemkin village. In the coming weeks, we will see lots of wonderful stadiums, great displays of Russia’s progress and examples of the strides Russia is making as it tries to become the country it has always wanted to be: an equal to the West.
And because the West has always threatened Russia, invading under both Napoleon and Hitler, you really can’t blame the Russians can you?
Many years ago, just as communism was collapsing, I decided to go to Russia and learn Russian. Having had a long fascination with the country and its history, I grabbed the opportunity to spend four months living in rural Russia with a family, immersed in the language and culture.
It was a bit like going to the Russian Gaeltacht, bean an tí and all.
Outside Moscow, a different Russia presented itself, a combination of bragging and insecurity. Living with a Russian family, as their world collapsed around us, cheered by the West, I began to understand the Russians a little better.
In late-night conversations about the West, I began to understand the Potemkin village syndrome. One part of Russia is afraid of the West. They envy the West and they want to ape our manners, affectations and values. A cursory glance at the motivations of leaders, from Peter the Great to Mikhail Gorbachev, attests to this condition.
The other part, represented by Russian giants such as Pushkin and later Solzhenitsyn, sees the West as a enemy intent on destroying the soul of Mother Russia. This iteration is a countervailing force in Russian thinking about the West.
This world-view was expressed forcefully in my former Russian home, the village of Stari Ruza about 100 miles west of Moscow.
Living in a country that is collapsing is quite terrifying. The big political news is made in Moscow, scribbled by correspondents and carried on the international newswires, but the reality is, the first thing to run out when the system breaks down is food. Initially, this is regarded as an aberration, but when a week or two passes, panic sets in.
During this period, the West cheer-led the destruction of the Soviet Union. In the chaotic years that followed, Russians were humiliated, impoverished and degraded. In the worst affected families, daughters became prostitutes and parents died early, and all watched their country looted. The IMF looked on.
The Yeltsin years were a catastrophe for Russia, and many remember this. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, brought stability. For all his many faults, he stopped the chaos, the dishonour and the mortification of Russia.
Quite why westerners are perplexed by Putin’s popularity is itself perplexing.In the eyes of many in Russia, the West has always been an aggressor – and still is.
As they told me over and over again years ago, Russia has never attacked the West. It has gained territory only after it itself has been attacked, fought off its aggressors, and in victory extended its borders to make sure that the next western attackers had farther to travel before they got to the heart of Russia.
Russians see their country as surrounded by Nato bases, in the Baltics, Poland and Turkey.
As for the Ukrainian revolution, in the eyes of my Russian friends the democratically-elected president was deposed violently in an EU-sponsored coup d’etat. Is it any surprise, they conclude, that Russia drew a line in the sand in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. What would London and the British military have done if Russia orchestrated a nationalist coup in Scotland? they demand.
Sought to destabilise
Equally in the Middle East, the Russians blame an initially western-sponsored rebellion, encouraged by the US and Britain, in Syria. Emboldened by the so-called Arab Spring, Russians argue, the West sought to destabilise Syria and this action – not the later Russian support of Assad – led to the Syrian war.
They see Iran differently from us too. In their view, Russian support of Iran is a counterweight to American support of Saudi Arabia.
Last month Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was given the full Potemkin treatment in Moscow, just in case the Russians might need a new friend in the region in the future. Contrast this Kremlin diplomacy with the current “diplotainment” of the White House. Sometimes, you can’t help concluding that geo-politically, the Russians are playing chess, while the Americans are playing Monopoly.
I am not suggesting that Putin is an angel; clearly he is not. In almost two decades in power he has perfected the arts of having opponents murdered, suppressing minority rights and quashing political opposition.
But as we sit down to enjoy the World Cup, it’s not a bad idea to imagine what the world looks like when seen from a Potemkin village