Grigori Potemkin (1739-1791) was an advisor to Catherine the Great of Russia in the late 1780's. In 1787, he sailed with Catherine down the Dneiper River to show her all the development he had accomplished on her behalf. Catherine must have enjoyed the river, because she didn't notice that Potemkin had built sham villages along it's banks full of jobless peasants appearing to be actively involved in pretend commerce. It was all a show. After the boat was out of sight, the peasants packed up the village and moved downstream to another location to pull off the charade again. Catherine was so impressed, Potemkin was named Prince of Tauris, the ancient name of Crimea, and showered with gifts, even becoming her lover for a while.
I must admit, when considering Potemkin, my first thought was that he would be the ideal choice to fill the now vacant position of Director of the Bureau of Prisons. Anyone who could pull off that kind of fraud would be perfect to run an institution built on lies. Unfortunately, the downside of pointing a finger is that there are three pointed back at me. And I am the one who's at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp for fraud.
So instead of looking at Potemkin the man, let's focus on what he did--building sham villages full of fake people. Maybe there's a life lesson to be learned. Regrettably, I've been involved in some of those villages, too. They looked active and alive on the outside, but were none of those things on the inside. The Potemkin village accurately describes many American institutions which have lost their way. Of course, a Potemkin peasant can also be a metaphor for my own life at times, going through the motions with little internal substance.
Nobody really aspires to be a peasant in a Potemkin village. It just happens. When we find ourselves there, the transformation must be initiated from within. It begins in front of a well-lit mirror as we demand honesty and transparency from ourselves. Only then can our priorities become more selfless, full of love and compassion. What some would call "Christ-like." And only after we are changed within can we hold accountable our institutions--governmental, religious, corporate. Otherwise we'll just create something different that's just as inauthentic and lifeless.
In a free society, the power of our economic, clerical and political institutions are nothing more than byproducts of our internal values. In that way, we always get what we deserve. But why not expect more? Remember, there were twelve men who followed Jesus and whose lives were forever changed by the gospel of love, forgiveness, and compassion. They changed the world. We already know it works, but we live as if we don't believe it. There's no reason why history can't repeat itself.