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See-Through Make-Believe: President Dmitry Medvedev Is Using the Internet to Overturn Russia's Time-Honored Potemkin-Village Tradition

Efforts by local officials in Lytkarino to give their city the semblance of modernity sparked outrage from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday. In a nationally televised comment, the Russian president criticized local leaders for erecting a "Potemkin village" ahead of his visit. President Medvedev was in Lytkarino, a town situated ten kilometers southeast of Moscow, to discuss the social situation of ordinary workers, as well as the development of vocational education. He told students at the city's vocational college that Potemkin villages are "of no use to anyone," and a constant source of irritation for ordinary people.

During a ride through Lytkarino, president Medvedev ordered for his car to be stopped so he could check out bloggers' complaints against local officials. "I was literally deluged with complaints that a Potemkin village was being created here for my visit," Medvedev told Mayor Yevgeny Seryogin, who heads this city of 52,000 people. On Ukhtomskaya Street, where the presidential motorcade made a surprise stop, president Medvedev noticed that dilapidated Soviet-era apartment buildings had been carefully enclosed with freshly painted fences. Mayor Seryogin said the buildings were slated for demolition.

Not wholly satisfied with the mayor's explanation, president Medvedev decided to ask the local residents who had gathered near his motorcade. "People wrote me saying that ahead of my visit, everything here was fenced off and [only] one part of the road has been repaired. Was that the case?" the president asked the local residents. Residents not only confirmed the words of the president, but also said that the local officials only try to solve some of the city's numerous problems when top government officials are visiting. The locals also claimed that many buildings have been wrapped with construction mesh ahead of the president's visit in an effort to imitate repair work. A fence around a school had been urgently touched with paint, but only on the side of the road through which the presidential motorcade was to pass, RIA Novosti reported.

At a recent meeting with the heads of several municipalities nationwide, president Medvedev promised that he would make regular spur-of-the-moment inspections of residential neighborhoods all over the country. He said at the time that he receives many complaints from people who claim that the local authorities fix the apartment blocks that he is scheduled to visit during regional trips, while ignoring other neighborhoods. "It would be better for Lytkarino to become a major industrial center than to paint fences and prepare for the president's visit," Medvedev told students at a vocational college on Wednesday. "You've erected fences all over instead of doing something useful. I'm strictly against covering up old buildings with fences."

Medvedev, an avid Internet user, had received most of the complaints through bloggers, who published comments saying that the local authorities in Lytkarino wrapped nets around the perimeters of dilapidated buildings to give the impression that they are under construction. "The whole Internet has exploded [with complaints]," Boris Gromov, the Moscow regional governor who accompanied the president, said. "People are saying that they [local authorities] don't do a damn thing." While assailing local officials, Medvedev acknowledged that a visit by high-ups is a good occasion to put a city or a village in order. However, such efforts should not take the form of Potemkin villages, he said.

A Potemkin village, according to a Russian legend, is named after Grigory Potemkin, a minister in Empress Catherine the Great's court, who allegedly had elaborate fake villages built in order to impress the Empress on her tours of Ukraine and the Crimea in the 18th century. But whatever the truth, the legend has assumed a life of its own, crystallizing into a tradition widely practiced by local officials for generations. The tradition has occupied a special place in post-Soviet Russia, as local officials jealously cling to their positions by creating false impressions of peace and prosperity in regions that are actually experiencing turmoil and sometimes poverty. Though the practice is widespread, few top Russian officials have openly criticized it before president Medvedev.

Moscow's leading tabloid, Moskovsky Komsomolets, last month detailed some episodes where overzealous local officials tried to hoodwink top officials from Moscow. During his landmark visit to the disputed Kuril Islands in November, president Medvedev toured the local facilities, including a newly-built kindergarten named Alena. "A better life will come here, like in central Russia," Medvedev told journalists at the new kindergarten, Interfax reported. But after the president's departure, local residents discovered that the 110-place kindergarten was a complete sham and in a bad state of disrepair: it had been plastered and patched up specifically for the president's visit, the paper said. In September 2010, Dmitry Medvedev visited a market in Saratov where food products had unusually low price tags. The president told the local Governor Pavel Ipatov that he was very pleased with the prices, which were "five times lower than in Moscow." However, bloggers later informed the president that the prices were false and that local officials had taken care that the few grocery stores "with real price tags" along the president's path were closed.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has also had his Potemkin moments, the latest being the case of a doctor from Ivanovo who told Putin during a call-in show in December that the administration of an Ivanovo hospital had created a Potemkin village for his November 9 visit. The doctor, Ivan Khrenov, said the hospital had faked a display for Putin's visit by installing gleaming equipment borrowed from other hospitals, dressing up staff as patients and forcing nurses to lie about their salaries. The region's top health official, Irina Atroshenko, later released a statement describing Khrenov as "insane" and denying that he had any connection to the hospital. Two years earlier, during a visit to Smolensk in October 2008, the prime minister was impressed by the large quantity of milk the local dairy cows produced. However, it turned out that the cows, which were milked in front of Putin and TV cameras, have been "reserved" un-milked for a few days in preparation for the prime minister's visit. Milkmaids who revealed the "secrets" to a reporter said the ruse caused harm not only the animals, but also to the locals, who had to consume milk and dairy products of dubious quality.

The image of president Medvedev as an advocate of change ­ underscored by the events in Lytkarino on Wednesday ­ has sparked excitement in some national newspapers. Some have praised the way the tech-savvy president has been able to harness the unbridled power of the Internet to scuttle dubious plans by local officials. "The citizens of Lytkarino have succeeded yesterday in alerting the president through the Internet not only about fire safety, but also about the tricks of the local authorities," the Kommersant daily wrote on Thursday. "Authorities in Lytkarino seem to have forgotten that over the past month, the president has been making surprise checks on the state of municipal services in each city, and has been doing so using the Internet."

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