Skip to main content

Another Potemkin Village: A Redux


“In a sense, the media is a moving Potemkin village of understanding, constantly adapting and reconstructing after-the-fact.” 

Visakan Veerasamy

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” 

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

“We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders.” Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister

As the result of a death in my family and my personal health, I will be republishing an article that I wrote in April of 2018. The subject of the article is very poignant in light of current events in Ukraine. I am trying to keep up with the flood of news, half of which is true and half of it is fabricated. We must all be mindful of the amount of misinformation that is coming out of Ukraine today. This is not new. The fog of war is dense and it will require wisdom and disciplined reading in order to stay focused on what is true and what is just being written to create a story. In next week’s article, I hope to address where this is going, what the potential outcomes might look like, and what that means for our future.

Have a great week?

Gregory Potemkin was a dashing 18th-century Russian nobleman who intrigued in courts, smote his Turkish enemies upon the steppes, and allegedly wooed Catherine the Great. It was while he was courting his nation’s comely Tsarina — at least according to legend — that his name came to forever stand for something insubstantial. For Catherine’s 1783 tour of new Russian possessions in the Crimea, Potemkin endeavored to show her the best face of the empire. The original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected phony portable settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Russian Empress; the structures would be disassembled after she passed, and re-assembled farther along her route to be viewed again as if new.[1] A “Potemkin village” signifies any deceptive or false construct, conjured often by cruel regimes, to deceive both those within the land and those peering in from outside.

This week’s More than Meets the Eye will take a brief look at a tragic event this week that most will not even have heard of. Our world has always nested in the branches of deception, ever since the first lie in the garden. But the intensity, sophistication, and tempo of lies have become accelerated by the powerful effects of technology in our world today. 

Literally, it is extremely difficult to know what is true and what is not. Who can we trust to tell us the truth and who can we not? Who is building Potemkin Villages around us? This is a dangerous minefield, those who guide us through this treacherous maze have an amazing responsibility. It is not a responsibility that I take lightly.


The attack began at 14:00 local time (GMT) in the northern Mali port city of Timbuktu. (Yes, there really is a city named Timbuktu) UN Peacekeeping troops and men from the French garrison are stationed there. In a statement, from the Ministry of Financial Security said that while the two camps were being subjected to “about 10 rockets,” men in International UN peacekeeping Uniforms tried to “sneak” into the military zone on two booby-trapped vehicles.

One of the vehicles carried the emblem of the Malian Armed forces of the Ministry of Financial Security and the second was identified by markings of the United Nations. The first vehicle exploded while the second was defused. 

The UN mission said one peacekeeper was killed “during an exchange of fire.” About 10 others were wounded. The Ministry of Financial Security said that about 10 “wounded” were killed in the ranks of the Burgan force. “The fighting ended at about 18:30,” the ministry said, more than four hours after it began. Bamako and the UN mission confirmed they had regained control of the situation.

Since World War II, U.N. peacekeepers have been dispatched to 69 conflicts — civil wars, border disputes, and failed states. But now they are confronting an unsettling new threat: al-Qaeda. In previous issues of More than Meets the Eye, I warned that al-Qaeda would be back. This past week’s attack is just an example of what is yet to come. Here in the vast, lawless desert of northwest Africa, their convoys are being torn apart by improvised explosive devices and their compounds blasted by 1,000-pound car bombs. It is a crisis that looks more like the U.S. ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than the cease-fires traditionally monitored by U.N. missions.

In the past four years, 118 peacekeepers have been killed — making the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, the world body’s deadliest ongoing peace operation. The bloodshed has raised questions about how an institution developed in the 1940s can serve a world under threat from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The issue is especially potent given the expectation that U.N. peacekeepers will eventually go to places such as Syria and Libya.

The United Nations has been remarkably unprepared for this serious threat. Most of its troops from Africa and South Asia brought tanks and vehicles that were easy targets for explosives, unlike U.S. mine-resistant vehicles. The U.N. compounds, dotted with metal storage containers turned into offices­ and bedrooms, had flimsy perimeter security and were vulnerable to the massive car bombs used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional affiliate of the extremist group. For a while, U.N. forces­ didn’t have a single helicopter to provide any air support. I digress.

The real matter for this weeks issue is the extent of the deception being used by Islamists in the targeting of this UN peacekeeping compound. The Peacekeepers welcomed the Potemkin compatriots as they killed and wounded these troops inside their own defenses. This is a ruse well known by US soldiers as they have been facing these trojan horse tactics for over a decade now in Iraq and Afghanistan, but these are new tactics to the untested African peacekeepers. These tactics change the rules of engagement (known as ROE). They create fear, confusion and suspicion. Terrorists 1, Peacekeepers 0. It is a clear win for the Islamists.

This week the entire calculus for peacekeeping missions changed in Mali. The UN has tried to stay focused on only peacekeeping through peaceful means, but increasingly they are seeing that simply their presence requires them to increase the robustness of their response to potential threats to themselves and to those whom they are protecting. There has been a firm stance against UN Peacekeeping forces up-arming or getting involved in the conflict. But the escalating construction of Potemkin Villages is causing them to totally rethink their position and they are questioning the foundations of their missions. We can only surmise what the implications of these contemplations will be. Certainly, the increasing use of elaborate deception will only cause these institutions to adapt by developing an escalated response, which inevitably will lead to escalated violence.


I know that I come back to this time and time again, but things are simply not as they appear. The ease and sophistication by which deception can be introduced into terrorist scenarios is staggering. Nothing can be taken at face value anymore. Last week I shared a quote ascribed to Mark Twain, “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” The question that concerns me is what do you and I do with the lie, while the truth is still lacing up its boots? 

I receive a lot of email from people asking me “have you heard about this? The implication is that I ought to know about it because it is certainly true. Just so you know, one of the first things I do is do a quick search. Even the most cursory search can prove or disprove the veracity of a story. 

Of all the people in the world, you and I should be known as a people of the truth. I fear that in many cases we are not. That is one of the age’s greatest tragedies. We follow the teachings of one who defined himself as “truth.” How could it be possible that we do not insist on it with the greatest of zeal? If we are not insistent on truth, then we have nothing to offer the world. Albert Einstein once said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” If we are not determined to be a people of truth in the little things, how can anybody trust us when we speak of the eternal? click to tweet


  1. Begin the practice of abiding only the truth. Refuse to pass on “hearsay” on any matter without first doing your best to confirm or deny its veracity. You will be amazed how much of what is passed on via social media is just not true. Social media is a poor medium for information, especially if your life and livelihood depend on it. Interestingly, 55% of adults over the age of 50 get much of their news from social media, while 78% of youth say they get much of their news from social media. In a world of Potemkin Villages, this has the potential to create amazing confusion and ignorance. I once again quote Mark Twain, “Those who do not read the news are uninformed, those who read the news are misinformed.” This leaves us in a veritable pickle and terribly exposed to Potemkin Villages which are popping up all around us. 
  2. Learn to use simple search tools which can help you make some semblance of sense out of what you hear. There are a couple of tools that I use regularly. I am not going to say that they are always right, but they have proven to be a valuable source for at least raising the kinds of questions that will get you to the truth.
  3. Here are a few tips I use to fact check though:

– Try to find primary sources or people with some credibility in the field or journalists with a good track record.

– Look up sources/authors on Wikipedia. They’ll usually have a section on bias. They’re not reputable, but they’re more reliable than they get credit for IMO. Feel free to follow their citations and double-check them though.

– Check against multiple sources and perspectives.

MyWOT lets users rate websites’ trustworthiness.

– Having good sources isn’t a replacement for critical thinking skills. Youtube has some intro-level playlists on this though, including lectures by college professors.

4. Test everything against the Word of God. (1 Thess 5:21) If we are going to be a follower of Jesus, there is no other source of truth than our Bibles. James 1:5 tells us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Allow God’s Word and his Spirit to lead you into truth. The fact is, most of us are just sloppy. We don’t take the time and energy to insist on knowing the truth. We lazily accept what others say without as much as a raised hand. Insist on truth. Insist on it from yourself! Insist on it from your loved ones! Insist on it from your leadership! Only truth will set us free! Let’s insist on it!


© 2019 • More Than Meets