Potemkin’s Villages

I was thinking the other day about whitewashing, prompted naturally by a lesson on Tom Sawyer.  On the vocabulary quiz I gave my students afterwards, I asked them to make sure include both the literal and figurative meaning of “to whitewash,” i.e., to cover up flaws, but not to fix.  Then I was thinking about a Russian version of this word.  I laughed to myself for a bit, deciding on “sequin-washing” – hiding gaping flaws with a glamorous cover.  This can be seen in insignificant literal cases, such as plastering low-quality clothes with sequins and glitter, or figuratively, as the dazzling tricentennial anniversary of St. Petersburg (check out the informative article “Bronze Horseman, White Knight,” which can be found on JSTOR academic journal website if you have student access, which all UVM current students and recent grads do).  Or Putin’s song-and-dance (really just song) at the fundraiser for an unknown charity, which later turned out to be a big scam (see this New Yorker article).  A few days ago, my Czech friend and I were chatting in her office.  She’s in a position like mine, teaching her native language abroad to increase interest in her country/language/culture.  This is her second year in Khanty-Mansiysk.  She tells me about this office, which looks quite nice: large Czech and Russian flags standing harmoniously in the corner, a bookshelf full of Czech literature and textbooks, a slim, streamlined computer, and a printer/copier/fax machine.  Elegantly framed maps and photos hang on the wall.  Also, of course, there is the obligatory чайник (electric teakettle) and delicate cups and saucers.

Then I learn the story.  The office was completely barren up until the day the Czech delegation arrived – all the influential, important [and, lest I forget to mention, wealthy] representatives, emissaries, ambassadors, and investors from the Czech Republic came to learn about Khanty-Mansiysk, Yugra State University, and what the region was doing for spreading Czech culture.  Her office was instantly fleshed out with the flags, the maps, the photos, and the computer, to show how well the professor is treated and how grateful they are for her.  The catch?  The computer is broken, the teakettle is broken, the printer only has a few pages to use (waste papers, with writing on the back) and is an old, impractical model – she cannot copy any material from her Czech textbook because it doesn’t accept anything that thick.  The flags and wall hangings were brought in solely to show to the delegation.  Her office phone only calls the people in the rooms right next to her.

I jokingly told her about my “sequinwashing” theory.  We chuckled, but then she enlightened me with the real Russian term for this: Потёмкинские Деревни (Potemkin’s Villages) (Russian Wiki article here: http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Потёмкинские_деревни).  Originally, when the Tsar traveled by train through Siberia, all he saw where the front of houses.  Allegedly, Prince Potemkin, in order to improve his standing with Empress Catherine the Great, fixed the area around the train so that the parts of the village looked well-maintained, full of attractive homes [that were in fact decrepit in the back].  Sometimes even, it was merely a façade – only a wall with nothing behind it; a Hollywood sitcom set.  This “idyllic village” front was hastily constructed to cover up all the problems behind it.  This is said to be just a myth, but its metaphorical significance continues to be relevant.

Instead of trying to fix problems, they are only covered with something flashy and distracting.  Then you just wait until it collapses, find another short-term fix, and keep on keepin’ on.  I guess.

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