Sunday, July 15, 2007

Potemkin-izing: Preparations for a President

We have no rooms available on the 29th and 30th. The hotel administrator dropped the bomb without blinking an eye.

Excuse me?

We were in a conversation with Hotel Azov about our upcoming singing school and double-, triple-checking our hotel arrangements for the next weekend and the week to follow. Five instructors for the annual Christian Singing School would arrive from the States on Friday, the 29th and then students from across Russia and the Ukraine would arrive on Sunday, the 1st. We had made hotel reservations months ago and now they’re saying that we don’t have rooms?

Sorry. You have no reservations.

I was positively baffled. Later however, pieces of this puzzle began coming together during conversations with other hotels. It’s not that reservations were never made. It’s simply that they were cancelled. Think of it as getting bumped by VIPs, in this case, 7,500 of them, all police officers in town to shore up security for President Putin's summit with 80-some regional governors. Well, on to Plan B our guests' weekend.

But there were other security measure in place for the weekend: Streets that were part of the president’s itinerary were blocked. Kiosks and open air markets were closed from Thursday until Monday. It’s not that we had to do without fresh produce, bread and flowers, we just needed to find them elsewhere.

On the plus side, the president’s visit launched a whirlwind of urban beautification. Every street he would travel – from the Rostov International Airport to city center, from there to the governmental dacha and on to the race track – was adorned with bright pansies and flags.

* * * * *

You may have heard about the efforts to impress a long-ago monarch, Catherine the Great, empress of Russia during the late 1700’s. Legend has it that one Prince Gregory Potemkin was so keen on impressing the empress with the prosperity of his jurisdiction, in this case the Dnieper River region of southern Ukraine, that he built a fake city. The buildings that appeared to line their route were merely facades. He imported peasants, animals and all, who played their roles as the empress passed through town.

Although at least one historian disputes the legend, the term Potemkin Village has come to be synonymous with a sham.

* * * * *

Here in Rostov, most of the beautification efforts were the real thing. For months painters had been hanging from scaffolding at all sorts of precarious angles and repainting fronts of buildings along Balshaya Sadovaya. Street corners that long had been piles of tiles and sand have been transformed into attractive walkways.

But on Kir-OV-ski Prospect, I did happen upon a building which brought to mind Potemkin’s alleged techniques. The building has been undergoing extensive remodeling and is still rather unsightly, sorry to say. Unsightliness will never do, of course, certainly not for the eyes of dignitaries. Happily, the dilemma was easily solved with a mural, a very large mural -- a two-story high mural hung from roof to sidewalk, the painting of a building stretched along the street side of the building, thus masking the work in progress.

Coming up with Plan B for our overseas guests ever so easy. Lucky for me, I got to host dear sisters Pat and Judy, both from Kentucky. They were such good sports about camping out in my living room, one on the sofa, the other on a folding bed. It just now occurred to me that Pat and Judy might have been a little put-off by the unsightly wall tiles in my bathroom. Oy! For next time, I might want to camouflage that bathroom wall. Perhaps a wall-sized mural of. . .of a bathroom wall?

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