Over the past few weeks Vladimir Putin has been busy in many heroic roles. First Putin the conservation warrior joined naturalists chasing a gray whale across the North Pacific, and fired a skin-sampling harpoon into it with a crossbow. Next the fearless leader dropped a water bomb from a firefighting plane, scoring a direct hit on a forest fire near Moscow. Then Putin, green man of the people, test-drove a new fuel-efficient Lada across a new trans-Siberian road. Finally, he met with a panel of Western experts for a frank debate on Russia’s problems, and they agreed he was doing a great job.
Well—that’s the official version, as told by Russian television. The reality was a little different. Putin’s Lada was in fact escorted by at least a hundred foreign-made security vehicles and police cars, an ambulance—and two spare Ladas. The Valdai discussion forum was the usual carefully orchestrated collection of Kremlin-approved Russia experts who were duly dosed with propaganda and filmed apparently nodding agreement with Putin. The whale, however, was real and Putin did hit it with the dart É on the fourth attempt.
Political theater is not new, or uniquely Russian. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance, has been outed riding a chauffeured SUV to the subway he takes to work each day. But in Russia, the gap between façade and reality yawns larger. Bloomberg takes one SUV, not a convoy. Indeed the pretty façade has been an organizing principle of Russian life for centuries. Prince Grigory Potemkin put his name to the phenomenon when he put up the façades of pretty villages along Catherine the Great’s route through the newly conquered lands of Ukraine and Crimea in 1787. As late as 1980, the Soviet propaganda machine convinced the world that it would soon overtake America economically and militarily even as its industry was crumbling.
The fact that Potemkinism is still alive and well is not just farcical: it’s dangerous. Putin’s hundred-car drive provided Internet viewers with a few belly laughs. But it’s less funny when, for instance, it recently emerged that managers at the Sukhoi aircraft plant supplied fake diplomas to 40 engineers, to show that the factory had achieved “modernization.” Or when a study by the business daily Vedomosti revealed that although the number of state-run media reports on anti-corruption cases rose sharply in the wake of a high-profile Kremlin campaign, the numbers of court cases rose by a slim margin, and the numbers of defendants jailed actually fell.
Russia’s elite believe that by spending billions on glossy projects like an international skiing center for the 2014 Sochi Olympics or on a new “innovation city” at Skolkovo near Moscow makes up for lack of progress on the rest of the sclerotic economy. Indeed, a recent report published by Russia’s Economic Development Ministry calls for using “Soviet methods” of propaganda to convince foreigners to invest in Russia. Out in the real world, Russia’s economy shrunk by 8 percent last year, and oil and gas production has fallen to Soviet levels thanks to a lack of investment in new fields.
It’s important to remember that Potemkin put up his villages to make an imperial achievement—conquest of a vast swath of the Ottoman Empire—seem even greater. Today’s Russia is papering over the reality of demographic decline, industrial stagnation, and the reality of a country falling behind the developed world in almost every field except the begetting of cash for oil and metals. At the same time, the Kremlin has systematically dismantled the institutions that could challenge the official version of reality, from the free press to parliamentary opposition to independent governors, prosecutors, and courts. The only window on reality left is the Russian Internet, known as Runet—where most of the material punching holes in official lies appears. But fewer than 25 percent of Russians use Runet regularly, and instances of crazy nationalist conspiracy theories far outnumber those of honest reporting.
Twenty-first-century Potemkinism is a worrying sign of how modern Russia is coming to resemble the we-pretend-to-work-you-pretend-to-pay-us days of the Brezhnev stagnation. As that period showed, if a government comes to believe its own lies, it can’t recognize rot in the society and the economy, which eventually leads to collapse. Putin may be a great shot, and who knows, the Lada (a marque that dates from Soviet days) may be the car of the future. But right now Russia’s leaders are not ruling with both hands on reality.