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Grigory Pasko: The Modern Potemkin Village

In search of a modern-day Potemkin village OR How Putin went to the countryside… By Grigory Pasko, journalist The man whom I hired to drive me around Samara turned out to be a policeman. He told me the following story. Vladimir Putin visited Samara Oblast for the first time in the year 2000. This was in September. Putin was supposedly shown a village with a potato field. But it turns out, according to the policeman, that the potatoes had been specially planted just for the important guest’s visit. They built a special concrete helipad in the middle of the field. And they also specially built an asphalt road, so that Putin could be driven to the potato field. When the guests left, the road and the helipad remained. But the potatoes were dug back out immediately.

“You actually saw all this yourself?”, I asked the policeman.

“An acquaintance of mine was standing there in the cordon”, he replied.

Because this story sure smelled like it had been made up, I decided to find out for myself. The fact is that Putin really did visit Samara Oblast in September 2000. They say that Putin asked governor Titov where his dacha was located. Titov replied that it wasn’t far from Samara – about 150 kilometers away. And offered to take Putin there to show him around. Besides, the governor added, there was a museum dedicated to the famous Russian painter Ilya Repin there. Putin took him up on his offer. And so it was that we set out for this village – I and my new Samaran acquaintance, the former boxer Sasha, and the current police senior lieutenant Vadim, who, it turns out, had been born in the village of Shiryayevo (where the Repin museum was) and whose father still lives there to this day. Needless to say, none of us actually believed in this tall tale about the potatoes. But it was perfectly within the realm of possibility that a whole road could have been built for the president of the country in one night. Especially because roads are much less expensive than any other “Potemkin village” project, which Russia’s history is so rich in.

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Photo of protected areas along the Samara Bend in the Volga by Grigory Pasko

At the very same time that we were driving to the village, Putin was meeting Angela Merkel and Jose Manuel Barroso at the “Volga crag” within the framework of the Russia-EU summit (the hamlet of Usolie, where their meeting took place, is not far at all from Shiryayevo), and they were getting ready to eat ukha [a traditional Russian fish soup that foreign guests to the Volga region are often treated to—Trans.] in the «Burlaks’ retreat» restaurant. Our drive took us through a picturesque region along the banks of the Volga. Somewhere in these parts, 163 years ago, the 26-year-old Ilya Repin had made the sketches for what would become what is probably his most famous painting – “Burlaks on the Volga”, also known as “The Volga Boatmen”. [Translator’s note: “Burlaks” were serfs living along the banks of the Volga who hauled boats upstream – a job generally reserved for draft horses and mules in other countries.]

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“Burlaks on the Volga” by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

The road to Shiryayevo was actually good – it had been built 60 years ago by German prisoners of war. There were many mine shafts visible along the road – limestone used to be mined here back in the old days. Soon we arrived in Shiryayevo. After the levee came an asphalt road leading to the artist’s museum. “This is the road I was telling you about,” said Vadim. “The one they built just for Putin’s visit. My father told me this; he actually got to see Putin then.”

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Photo of the smoothly paved “Putin road” into Shiryayevo by Grigory Pasko

The director of the art museum of Samara, Anneta Bass, recalled that during the time of the president’s visit, everything was “very democratic, and the president’s security even told the people who had clustered together in expectation of Putin to act naturally.” When Putin walked into the museum, his first question was if everything here was real. (Freud would have had a field day with this question: if you yourself aren’t all real, then you distrust everything else, too). When we walked into the administrative wing of the museum, the first thing that caught my eye was a photograph of Putin writing a comment in the museum’s guest book. Hanging in a separate frame was his actual comment: “With a sense of satisfaction, pride and gratitude for your work in preserving our national heritage.” (Right next to Putin’s comment was one from the then plenipotentiary representative of Putin in the Volgan Federal District, Sergey Kiriyenko, who today is the head of Rosatom of Russia).

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Not part of the Repin Museum’s regular collection. Photo by Grigory Pasko

A museum employee, Lidiya Grigorievna Aramova, a former teacher in Shiryayevo, met us warmly. She’s been in charge of the I.E. Repin House-Museum, a branch of the Samara Art Museum, since 1990. Her parents’ house stands on the same street as the museum. In the words of Lidiya Grigorievna, she remembers Putin’s arrival very well. “Come now!”, she exclaims. “This was such an event for us!” She also told us that governor Titov’s dacha is located in the settlement of Solnechny. We later got to see this “dacha” from afar: massive stone mansions sticking out like sore thumbs in their opulence against the background of the squalid village huts. Aramova showed us the house-museum, and told us how in the 1970s, a Shiryayevo pensioner, the former teacher Alexandra Portugalskaya, had found Repin’s house, which, after endless Soviet bureaucracy and red tape, eventually became the museum.

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Photo of the I.E. Repin House-Museum in Shiryayevo by Grigory Pasko

Needless to say, we didn’t find any mysterious potato fields or helipads in Shiryayevo. The road was there, though. We found out that the helicopters had just landed on the levee, not on some specially built helipad. So it turns out the policeman had lied. The facts bear witness that on that visit, Putin didn’t ever enter the city of Samara proper. In 2000, his helicopter had touched down in the village of Kuzkino of Shigonsky Rayon, where he had opened the new academic year at a school. After this, he flew to Shiryayevo. Once upon a time, as the local newspapers wrote, Shiryayevo had been a model village. Anneta Bass wrote about Putin’s arrival in one of her articles: “Museum workers dream that the village would become a tourist preserve. But the eternal budget deficit did not yet permit funds to be allocated for the construction of a hotel. Perhaps the visit of the president will help in this. And Putin, they say, would personally not be against buying a cottage in Shiryayevo…”

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Photo of Lidiya Grigorievna Aramova, curator of the Repin Museum, by Grigory Pasko

For now, Putin still doesn’t have a cottage in Shiryayevo. I asked Lidiya Grigorievna if maybe the museum hadn’t devoted too much exhibition space to Putin. After all, they’ll soon need to change this exhibit… She thought a moment and then replied: “If we need to, we’ll change it”.