Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin Nation

MOSCOW – “Image is everything” might be a viable credo if you are the house of Gucci or a catwalk model, but it is definitely not appropriate as a national strategy. Yet “Putinism,” the ruling ideology of the Russia that Vladimir Putin has forged during his ten years in power, is all about image – the image of a reconstituted great power restored to the world stage.

The problem is that, unlike the rail thin catwalk model who starves herself half to death to stay slim, the image of Russia that Putin seeks to project is completely imaginary. The Russian economy is a shambles, and Russia’s mighty military had to exert itself to its fullest to vanquish tiny Georgia in 2008.

Of course, Russia’s rulers have usually preferred myth to reality. After all, it was during the reign of Catherine the Great that the “Potemkin village” was invented, whereby the squalor of the lives of Catherine’s serfs was hidden behind cheerfully painted housing façades as the Empress toured her country.

In today’s Russia, the overriding myth is that Putin has presided over a rapidly modernizing country. Here the cheerful façade is composed of Russia’s miniature president, Dmitri Medvedev, whose job – like that of the American First Lady – is to keep up appearances. And the appearance that needs the most maintenance is that of a modern and civilized Russia.