The term “Potemkin village” [Rus: potyomkinskiye derevni] is used to refer to an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition. The image, the illusion, the façade and nothing behind it - all this has been synonymous for more than two centuries with the Potemkin village. These fake settlements were allegedly erected by the Russian Minister Grigory Potemkin to impress the Empress Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. The truthfulness of this story has been the subject of much debate. The myth of "Potemkin villages" is a myth, and not a reliably established fact.
In 1786, Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, favorite of Catherine the Great, completed the conquest and pacification of the Crimea. In 1787 Empress Catherine II announced her intention to visit the Crimean Peninsula, which had been annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier. According to “eyewitnesses,” this is where the events took place. Catherine’s journey brought her through the vast steppes located along the Dnieper River.
In 1787 Catherine the Great showed her new lands, Novorossiya and the Crimea, to the Austrian Emperor Joseph and some foreign ambassadors. They sailed to the Black See from Kaniv along the Dnieper, docking overnight. Considering Austria’s misfortunes with Turkey and the sad state of Poland (Russia’s nearest neighbor to the west), the visitors were amazed by Russia’s accomplishments and the scale of construction in Ekaterinoslav (conceived as a “third capital” of the Russian Empire).
Everyone knew that Novorossia had only recently been annexed to the empire of Catherine II; that it was a desolate steppe, without cities, roads, almost without a settled population. The aim of Potemkin was to demonstrate that this vast territory is already almost civilized.
Acording to the story,Potemkin, Prince of Tauris, in an effort to impress the Empress with the work he had done in the south of Russia (which for many years had been a desolate area ravaged by constant warfare), constructed fake villages along the route of the Empress and her foreign guests. He then ordered peasants to stand along the side of the road with happy smiles. To make his “villages” more authentic he even had herds of cattle move along the road. Each time Catherine saw the cows she did not realize they were the same ones she had seen the day before.
In fact, the contemporaries of the 1787 travel expressed a lot of harsh judgments about the "miracles" shown to the Empress. "The monarchy saw and did not see," wrote Prince M. M. Scherbatov, "and the testimony and praise of its essence are vain, the very action of teaching monarchs not to praise what they themselves do not know themselves".
Analysis of the sources leaves no doubt that the idea of "Potemkin villages" arose several months before Catherine II set foot on the newly acquired Russian lands. Potemkin, who took the lead in transforming Novorossiya and the Crimea, was envied and opposed by many in Petersburg. Beginning in the 1770s they spread rumors that all of Potemkin’s reports on his activities in the south were a con.
Another interesting part of this story can be found in the “revelations” of some travelers accompanying the Empress that were published 20 years after Potemkin’s death. The Swedish nobleman Johan Erenstrom recalled not only the scene of the fake villages but also cited that peasants tried to sell things to the traveling party. However, Erenstrom’s recollections are not proof for researchers, as this Swedish nobleman was known to switch sides between the Russian and Swedish imperial courts. So his “act of unfolding the truth” could have been perpetrated for political purposes. There are also memoirs of other participants of the trip that describe the legend about the villages as “a fake.”
Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth in the story behind Potemkin’s villages. Most consider the myth about fake settlements to be an exaggeration. They claim that the allegations are based on malicious rumors spread by Potemkin's opponents.
Potemkin really decorated cities and villages, but he never concealed that it was scenery. Dozens of descriptions of the journey through Novorossia and Tauris have survived. In none of these descriptions, made hot on the heels of the events, there is not a hint of "Potemkin villages" although the decoration is mentioned repeatedly.
The French delegate, Count Segur wrote : "Cities, villages, homesteads, and sometimes simple huts were so decorated with flowers, painted decorations and triumphal gates, that their appearance was deceiving the eyes, and they seemed to be some kind of marvelous cities, magical created castles, magnificent gardens".
Austrian Emperor Joseph II, incognito with the party, and the envoys of the European powers perfectly understood the purpose for which they took the journey with Catherine. Their skepticism was more of a mask, behind which was a fear that Russia would be able to implement these grandiose plans.
In the USSR, organizers of tours for foreign citizens carefully selected the sites to be visited. The best schools, factories and hotels were portrayed as typical and the routes were impossible to change due to strict limits for foreign travelers.
In May 1944, US Vice President Henry Wallace visited Kolyma and was extremely pleased with what he had seen. In fact, he was shown Potemkin villages. The organization of the visit was a special operation of the NKVD. The question whether Wallace understood anything during the trip remains open. In 1952, after the publication of Elinor Lipper's "Camps" book about the Kolyma camps, Wallace publicly admitted to the press that he had no idea that Magadan was actually the capital of camps that contained political and criminal prisoners.
In the 1970s and 1980s - when regional Communist Party leaders hosted their “bosses” from Moscow – they showed them huge amounts of cattle inside modern facilities in an attempt to demonstrate rapid developments in agriculture. But in many cases pigs and cows were specially brought in for the occasion from other places in order to impress the “people in high places.”
This can still occur today in Russia when lower-ranking officials try to impress their bosses. Some far-sighted regional leaders see this as a big problem. “We don’t need Potemkin villages,” said the governor of one Siberian region. “We need real action to improve the infrastructure in the region.”
Many observers and political analysts often use the term “Potemkin villages” when somebody does something to try and change the mindset of the “bosses” at various levels – and this holds true in Russia as well as many other countries around the world.
The concept of the fake villages is widely used in many other circumstances - especially when someone tries to surprise people with things that do not really exist. As modern history shows “Potemkin villages” have become an international phenomenon.
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