Friday, July 30, 2010

Potemkin Villages

O.K., I admit, I often find out that I am not as well informed as I like to think. Sometimes when I am doing research I run into a word or phrase which is apparently in somewhat common use but I have somehow managed to remain ignorant of it. The phrase “Potemkin Village” is such a phrase. You see, I was doing some reading about the FBI’s resent arrest of the Russian spies and that is when I came across this phrase. The incident turned into a mini lesson for me in what the phrase means. Let me explain.

I was reading an intelligence bulletin about these spies when I saw two separate summaries that described the whole thing as a “Potemkin Village”. It seems there are people in our intelligence community that are concerned about the speed in which the Administration handled this incident.

In an amazingly short period, the spies were swept up, arrested, charged with espionage, allowed to plea to a lesser charge of being unregistered foreign agents, given one-way tickets out of the country and sent off. This whole process happened so fast that the Obama Administration barley had time to issue a press release and take bows for keeping us safe.

Missed in all of this rush to justice were a couple of important points. First off, these people had been here, spying on us and operating unimpeded and undetected for over a decade. Just how did we debrief them and find out what they had been up to so fast? There are more than a few important questions that should have been answered. Just a few are: What were they after? How successful were they? Who were their contacts and handlers? How did they keep everything secret? How had they been communicating with Russia? Where did their money and support had come from? Did they know about any other “spy cells” or “networks” here or in other Western countries (Canada or Britain, for example)?

I have a hard time believing that the FBI was able to debrief and process a dozen or so spies in those few short days. Especially since they had been here, conducting their clandestine operations for over 10 years.

I was equally amazed at how quickly the Russians were ready to agree to a spy swap and send us home four people they said had been spying on them. It usually takes a week to get the Russians to answer a phone call form our State Department. How is it that this complicated agreement could be arranged and executed so quickly?

Let’s go back to that phrase, “Potemkin Village”, again and you will see why it was brought up. Potemkin Villages is a phrase based on a historical story. According to the story, there were fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigory Potyomkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. According to this story, Potyomkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress' eyes. In modern times, the phrase has been used to describe the attempts of the Soviet government to fool foreign visitors. The government would take visitors to select villages, factories, schools, stores, or neighborhoods and present them as if they were typical, rather than exceptional. Given the strict limitations on the movement of foreigners in the USSR, it was often impossible for visitors to see any other examples.

In using this phrase to describe the incident involving these spies, the intelligence people were implying that the Obama Administration might have been in too big a hurry. In a rush to get a good headline and divert attention away from other problems (like the oil spill and several pieces of pending legislation) they may have missed something. It is possible that the reason the Russians were so fast and so cooperative was that we might have arrested a group of people the Russians had allowed to “take a fall” so that we would miss their other intelligence assets in this country.

As much as I enjoy learning and expanding my vocabulary, this is just not the way I like to get my lessons (and I am not crazy about the Administration learning this way either).

Personal Side Comment:
Darryl - Now that you have safely arrived in the south seas, have a great adventure and then arrive back in JAX safely again! You have the skills and the character to make it a great voyage! Few people can say that. Remember, you also have friends, family and loved ones routing for you and looking forward to having back amongst them when you are done!



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