Blogs > CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog > Crimea: Power on Display

Mar 18, 2014 3:27 pm

Crimea: Power on Display

tags: Russia, Putin, Ukraine, Crimea, Hooper

“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of our people,” President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Tuesday, in announcing his country’s decision to annex the region. His speech, in the Grand Kremlin Palace, was met with boisterous applause and tears of joy. Such a piece of elaborate political theater – like the referendum held across the peninsula last Sunday – illustrates the propensity for history to repeat itself in a region that has always been regarded as one of symbolic as well as strategic value. Throughout the centuries, Russian leaders have used the Crimea as a stage from which to send messages of greatness both to their own people and to the world, orchestrating elaborate pageants cast as victories of enlightenment values over poverty, ignorance, or outright barbarism. These “scenarios of power” have frequently involved a hefty element of artifice – and the decision of a whopping 97% of Crimean voters to endorse union with Russia is no exception. (Apparently even an enthusiastic number of “dead souls” stepped straight out of the pages of a Nikolai Gogol novel to head for the polls, with over 123% of the population of the city of Sevastopol voting to secede from Ukraine, at least according to Euromaidan.)

In the past, however, political leaders invested considerable effort into luring their audiences into believing in the bright appearances paraded before them.  Putin, in contrast, seems far less concerned about the question of belief, signaling his disregard for the opinions of incredulous observers, particularly those from overseas, at every turn. Desirous for voters in Crimea to produce a resounding verdict of support for Russia this past weekend, he did not appear overly discomfited about littering the path towards such a display of overwhelming “togetherness” with tell-tale signs of the heavy-handed “staging process” involved in its manufacture. And sadly, upwards of 70% of his domestic audience did not seem to care either, embracing current events with a burst of patriotism. Even the great reformer Mikhail Gorbachev has spoken out in favor of annexation, describing it not as a top-down takeover, but as a bottom-up, democratic movement in which “the people of Crimea” have sought to correct an egregious Soviet-era mistake. 

A Fresh Conquest

The place of Crimea as a center of modern Russian symbolic politics arguably began with Catherine the Great, who made it a defining ambition of her reign to win her sprawling but largely landlocked realm a major port along the Black Sea. After years of war with the Ottoman Empire, the Russian army – under the leadership of one of Catherine’s most legendary lovers, Prince Grigory Potemkin – annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783. Left in charge of the Empire’s newest prize possession, Potemkin founded the Imperial Black Sea Fleet in the city of Sevastopol – the same fleet whose bases in the region have been such a source of contention between Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks.  He also did his best to develop the formerly Tatar territory, building roads and cities, planting vineyards, and, according to historian Robert Massie, importing everything from cattle to silkworms to mulberries to melon seeds. Four years later, Potemkin persuaded Catherine, then 58, to embark on a grand, months-long tour of her conquered lands, which the two of them both proudly referred to as “New Russia.” It was quite an elaborate event. The Empress left St. Petersburg in January, to travel with her court in giant horse-drawn sleighs over the snow to Kiev, from where, in the spring, she set sail down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea.  She and her entourage occupied seven galley ships, followed every day by 80 smaller vessels carrying some 3000 service personnel, including “doctors apothecaries, musicians, cooks, engineers, hairdressers, silver polishers, washerwomen” and a host of other functionaries.

Potemkin meticulously plotted out the route, eager to impress not only the Tsarina but also her international entourage, which included Emperor Joseph II of Austria, travelling incognito under the name of “Count Falkenstein.” So anxious was the Governor General to convey an impression of happiness and prosperity that, legend has it, he lined Catherine’s route with what became known as “Potemkin villages” – brightly painted pasteboard facades of neat peasant dwellings, in front of which his own soldiers would masquerade in “native” clothing, dancing and singing and bowing their heads as the glorious regatta passed by. However artificial the spectacle might have been, Catherine was delighted. Her letters back to the capitol boasted: “It is no exaggeration to say that everything is being built and planted here in the best way possible.”

Historians today are divided about the true extent of Potemkin’s theatrics. But at the time, rumors of these fake villages provided rich fodder for the Governor’s rivals, and in later years, they blossomed into a popular theme of European literary imagination. In 1856, German writer Luise Muehlbach, a woman with a penchant for writing multi-volume historical novels (and this in the day when you still had to dip your pen into an inkwell every five words), published an account of Joseph II and His Court (a mere 12 volumes) in which she cast the Austrian Emperor as a noble and progressive leader, growing increasingly frustrated with Catherine’s disregard for the welfare of her subjects, as well as with her voracious appetites for territory and power. One cannot but feel sorry for Muehlbach’s version of the European ruler, trapped on a boat with a greedy, gullible woman and all the while seeing through the labyrinthine fictions that surrounded her:

“All the pomp and splendor which Potemkin had conjured from the ashes of a conquered country could not deceive Joseph. Behind the stately edifices which had sprung up like the palaces of Aladdin, he saw the ruins of a desolated land; in the midst of the cheering multitudes, whom Potemkin had assembled together to do homage to Catherine, he saw the grim-visaged Tatars whose eyes were glowing with deadly hatred of her who had either murdered or driven into exile 50 thousand of their race.”

Concealing the Cost of Victory

Over a century later, and the Crimea again played host to a coalition of global leaders, with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill flying to Yalta to meet up with Josef Stalin for the second “Big Three” conference of World War Two in February 1945. By then, the tide of war had turned. The Red Army was only 40 miles from Berlin, and the rest of the world found itself heavily indebted to the USSR for bearing the brunt of the fight against Adolf Hitler. (Four out of every five German soldiers who died in WWII did so on the Eastern Front.) The Kremlin thus appeared to be in the driver’s seat, in discussions to determine the shape of post-war Europe. As future Secretary of State James Byrnes remarked, “It was not a question of what we could let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.”

 Yet the Soviet Union was not as strong as it appeared. The country was in ruins, with Stalin, even then, determined to keep his Western Allies from understanding the full extent of Soviet devastation. The Crimea itself had been occupied by Nazis for almost three years, liberated just months before the Big Three meeting, and the entire Tatar population, almost 200,000 people, had been subsequently loaded into cattle cars and deported, amid accusations of Nazi collaboration. Some 45% of them died.

 Overall, by the time of the conference, the Soviets had lost at least 20 million citizens, and across the country, people were starving. There was no food, no undamaged housing, almost no residential electricity or running water. Five-year-olds worked in factories to keep the war effort going.  Amid such a shattered landscape, Stalin’s invitation to host a 700-plus member Allied delegation generated consternation among the NKVD officers in charge of projecting an image of Soviet hospitality and pride. Historian Rick Atkinson describes the efforts involved to get Yalta ready:

“Thousands of Red Army soldiers filled bomb craters, refurbished gutted houses, and shoveled manure from nineteenth-century palaces that the Germans had used to stable their horses. 1500 rail coaches ran from Moscow, a four-day journey, bringing carpets, window glass, and even brass doorknobs, which the absconding enemy had sawed off and carried away. Chefs, waiters, chambermaids, maîtres d’s, linens, beds, curtains, dishes, and silverware were gathered from [Moscow hotels] for duty at Yalta. Each night a Russian convoy swept across the Crimea, rooting through farmhouses, boarding rooms and schools for shaving mirrors, washbowls, coat hangers, clocks, and paintings. Swarms of plasterers, plumbers, painters, electricians, and glazers worked around the clock. 500 Romanian prisoners-of-war planted shrubs and semitropical flowers in riotous profusion.”

Intelligence officials listened in to guest conversations to make adjustments. One Soviet officer recollected that, after Churchill airily wished for a lemon slice in his gin-and-tonic one evening, the entire behind-the-scenes Soviet support staff was mobilized to scour the razed surroundings, somehow producing a little lemon tree, laden with fruit, by the time the next day’s pre-dinner drinks were poured. (Other accounts claim it was Churchill’s daughter, who requested lemon on her caviar.)

Despite such astonishing feats, the Soviets simply didn’t have enough hotel rooms, lavatories, or bedbug-free beds to completely avoid Western complaints. The missives relayed then (“Regret necessity for 19 full colonels sleeping one room” by the British delegation, for example), echo the tweets of reporters upset with their accommodations at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games this past January (“Will trade two working lightbulbs for one doorknob. Serious offer.”) Sochi is, of course, not exactly in Crimea – it’s about a 17-hour circuitous drive to another picturesque beach location down the Black Sea coast, though much less far over water, as the crow flies. But the 2014 Games arguably also belong among these examples of power on display 

We Could See Crimea From Our House in Sochi

$51 billion dollars – the heftiest Games price tag in history – was spent to build up Sochi and win the world’s good will (oops!) by projecting Russian athletic accomplishment, a spirit of welcome, and a beautiful, weirdly imaginative version of the country’s history. In this rendition, a nation comprised solely of dancing aristocrats in ballgowns, including a love-struck Natasha and Pierre from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, rather seamlessly morphed into a nation of dancing workers in overalls, racing around with ladders, smiling, and building machines in unison. In the words of one Guardian reporter blogging the ceremony live: “I’ve got absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but it’s very pleasant.” The end of the Soviet Union seemed to be captured by a little girl letting go of a red balloon. 

Now, Olympic Games ceremonies do not require and have never received any measure of historical accuracy. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and when we hosted the Summer Games in 1996, our Opening Ceremonies involved a lot of John Deere product placement, with trucks and cheerleaders wheeling through the stadium as a medley of different genres of Southern music played in the background. (The truly memorable moment came when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame.)  It’s just notable how in all such instances, any mention of war, slavery, or violent transformation seems to end up on the cutting-room floor.

And this year, of course, there was the story of the Olympic Rings. Can we just digress briefly onto that issue? First, in the Opening Ceremonies, one of five snowflakes actually, embarrassingly, failed to open into a Ring. Then came reports that ORT, the state-run Russian television station broadcasting the Games to the host-country audience, had shown all the snowflakes functioning perfectly, due to an extremely prompt switch from live broadcast coverage to dress-rehearsal video. Wow. Really? Having worked in television for several years before graduate school, I can assure you that producers don’t generally have rehearsal footage perfectly queued up to seamlessly cover for any live snafu unless they’ve been given pretty precise directives well in advance. As in “you will show the Russian people a perfect Opening Ceremony so that they can take pride in their country, no matter what.” Amid the hullaballoo about Soviet-style censorship (and the old Socialist Realist adage that ‘tis better to show the world not as it is, but as it should be), ORT executives claimed that their sleight-of-hand was a harmless “open secret,” done out of respect for all that the Rings represented to the world. Finally, in a very witty move, dancers in the Closing Ceremonies imitated the earlier malfunction, forming themselves into Rings, but for one group, which huddled into a small, snowflake-like clump – until amid audience laughter, the performers re-assembled in perfect formation. Great to show Russia’s ability to laugh at itself, great to show it doesn’t keep negative information from its own people – a master stroke of PR. But imagine the secret meetings, not to mention secret rehearsals, that must have been held, to get the joke agreed upon, choreographed, and practiced, all while the Games were already underway. Secret snowflake damage-control brainstorming sessions must have been going on within hours of the initial faux-pas.

 Potemkin Villages of the 21st Century: Success or Failure?

 This weekend we witnessed a far less humorous moment of image management back in the Crimea, as citizens there voted on a referendum about whether to join together with the Russian Federation. Given Crimea’s 58% ethnic Russian population, such a proposition – legal or no – seemed destined to garner majority support, if only by a narrow margin. And therein, at least for me, lies the rub. In my opinion, the Kremlin could have recused the thousands of troops it sent out from its naval bases to blockade Ukrainian military installations and occupy the region’s communication and transportation centers. Putin could have called in more international monitors, offered to meet with Tatar leaders, and talked up tolerance and popular sovereignty. And Russia still would have won the referendum, and in a vote that would not have been so easy for world leaders to dismiss.

But for some reason, a closer vote conducted in a more legitimate fashion was not what Kremlin leaders were after. Instead, they preferred to generate a more overwhelming, if also more manufactured, show of popular enthusiasm for Russian union that will forever cast the legitimacy of Sunday’s outcome in doubt. Russian soldiers oversaw the voting, for which more ballots were printed than number of people alive in Crimea and from which many dissenting groups abstained. The two lone ballot questions did not even include “no” as an option. In the ten days or so leading up to the rushed plebiscite, Ukrainian television channels in Crimea were taken off the air and replaced with Russian ones.  Local reporters were forbidden to refer to the situation surrounding them as an “occupation.” A number of less compliant journalists were attacked, detained, and had their equipment confiscated or destroyed.


Pro-Russian authorities in Crimea marketed the voters’ choice as one between Nazi fascism and freedom, the former inevitable with continued alliance to Kiev and the latter attainable only via the Kremlin.  According to The Daily Beast, billboards for the referendum showed “two maps of Crimea, one painted in bright Russian colors, the other darker and enveloped by a Swastika.” Another successful bit of Imperial stagecraft – and in the same historic tropes of Enlightenment righteousness locked in battle against dark brutality.  Yet now, the technology of the 21st century has made the sordid realities behind at least this particular display of orchestrated “unanimity” much harder to hide. The question is, however, whether the appearance of artifice – in particular the state-directed manipulation of media – really makes much of a difference. For demagogic politics and the whipping up of mass patriotism, the spectacle of national greatness seems to matter far more than the integrity of the processes that underlie it.  Caught up in the emotions of collective jubilation, or of anger at a shared (albeit possibly exaggerated, or even invented) enemy, many citizens – in all countries –show a marked unwillingness in today’s world to look behind the scenes.



comments powered by Disqus