Potemkin Village

sochi by David Horsey

Potemkin village by Slug Signorino

The phrase Potemkin [poh-tem-kinvillages was originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. According to the story, Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.

The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is. Some modern historians claim the original story is exaggerated.

Gregory Potemkin was a favorite and lover of Catherine II. After the Russian conquest of modern Southern Ukraine and Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and liquidation of the Zaporizhian Sich, Potemkin became governor of the region. The area had been totally devastated during the wars by the Russian army, and Potemkin’s major task consisted of rebuilding it and bringing in Russian settlers. As a new war was about to erupt between Russia and Ottoman empire, in 1787 Catherine II made an unprecedented six month trip to New Russia, with her court, several ambassadors, and (according to some sources) the Austrian emperor Joseph II, travelling incognito.

The purpose of this trip was to impress Russia’s allies ahead of the new war. In fact, Potemkin assembled a few ‘mobile villages,’ located on banks of Dnieper River. As soon as the barge carrying the queen arrived, Potemkin’s men dressed up as peasants would show up in the village. Once the barge left, the village had to be disassembled and rebuilt downstream overnight. Potemkin later led the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War in 1787-1792.

Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth behind the Potemkin village story. Some dismiss it as malicious rumors spread by Potemkin’s opponents. These historians argue that Potemkin did mount efforts to develop the Crimea and probably directed peasants to spruce up the riverfront in advance of the Empress’ arrival. According to Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Potemkin’s most comprehensive English-language biographer, the tale of elaborate, fake settlements with glowing fires designed to comfort the monarch and her entourage as they surveyed the barren territory at night, is largely fictional.

Aleksandr Panchenko, an established specialist on 19th century Russia, used original correspondence and memoirs to conclude that the Potemkin villages are a myth. He writes that ‘Potyomkin indeed decorated cities and villages, but made no secret that this was a decoration.’ The close relationship between Potemkin and the Empress would make it difficult for him to deceive her. Thus, the deception would have been mainly directed towards the foreign ambassadors accompanying the imperial party. Regardless, Potemkin had supervised the building of fortresses, ships of the line, and thriving settlements, and the tour – which saw real and significant accomplishments – solidified his power.

The term would gain relevance again in 1931, following the Manchurian Incident (a staged event engineered by rogue Japanese military personnel as a pretext for the Japanese invasion of the northeastern part of China, known as Manchuria). China referred the issue to the League of Nations. The League’s representative was given a tour of the ‘truly Manchurian’ parts of the region. It was meant to prove that the area was not under Japanese domination. Whether the farce succeeded is moot; Japan withdrew from the League the following year.

The Nazi German Theresienstadt concentration camp, called ‘the Paradise Ghetto’ in World War II, was designed as a concentration camp that could be shown to the Red Cross, but was really a Potemkin village: attractive at first, but deceptive and ultimately lethal, with high death rates from malnutrition and contagious diseases. It ultimately served as a way-station to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kijŏng-dong, built by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the north half of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is a village built at great expense during the 1950s in a propaganda effort to encourage South Korean defection and to house the North Korean soldiers manning the extensive network of artillery positions, fortifications and underground marshalling bunkers that are in the border zone.

In 1982, Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, covered the windows of abandoned buildings in The Bronx with decals of plants and Venetian blinds to hide the blight. In 2010, 22 vacant houses in a blighted part of Cleveland were disguised with fake doors and windows painted on the plywood panels used to close them up, so the houses look occupied. A similar program has been undertaken in Chicago and in Detroit during the World Series festivities in 1984.

The term ‘Potemkin village’ is also often used by judges, especially members of a multiple-judge panel who dissent from the majority’s opinion on a particular matter, to describe an inaccurate or tortured interpretation and/or application of a particular legal doctrine to the specific facts at issue. Use of the term is meant to imply that the reasons espoused by the panel’s majority in support of its decision are not based on accurate or sound law, and their restrictive application is merely a masquerade for the court’s desire to avoid a difficult decision.

Often, the dissent will attempt to reveal the majority’s adherence to the restrictive principle at issue as being an inappropriate function for a court, reasoning that the decision transgresses the limits of traditional adjudication because the resolution of the case will effectively create an important and far-reaching policy decision, which the legislature would be the better equipped and more appropriate entity to address. For example, in ‘Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey’ (1992), Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that ”Roe v. Wade’ stands as a sort of judicial Potemkin Village, which may be pointed out to passers-by as a monument to the importance of adhering to precedent.’

Sometimes, instead of the full phrase, just ‘Potemkin’ is used, as an adjective. For example, the use of a row of trees to screen a clearcut area from highway drivers has been called a ‘Potemkin Forest.’ The term ‘Potemkin Court’ implies that the court’s reason to exist is being called into question; it differs from a kangaroo court in which the court’s standard of justice is being impugned. Many newly constructed base areas at ski resorts are referred to as Potemkin Villages because they create the illusion of a quaint mountain town, but are actually carefully planned theme shopping centers, hotels, and restaurants designed for maximum revenue. Similarly, in ‘The Geography of Nowhere,’ American writer James Howard Kunstler refers to contemporary suburban shopping centers as ‘Potemkin village shopping plazas.’

In the documentary ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,’ Enron’s trading floor, used to fool visiting analysts, is described as a ‘Potemkin Village.’ Traders were thought to be engaged in dealing with outside clients, but were in fact conversing with people in the same building and each other.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.