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% 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 road map 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 Gulf of Finland. 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.© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014.