The phrase Potemkin villages (an alternative spelling is Potyomkin villages, was originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. 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. It is unclear whether the origin of the phrase is factual, an exaggeration, or a myth – for information on the historical debate see below.
Russian minister Grigory Potemkin led the Crimean military campaign. According to the story, he erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.
Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth behind the Potemkin village story.
While tales of the fake villages are generally considered exaggerations, some historians dismiss them 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: “Based on the above said we must conclude that the myth of “Potemkin villages” is exactly a myth, and not an established fact.”
Panchenko writes that “Potyomkin indeed decorated cities and villages, but made no secret that this was a decoration.”
Also, 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 in fact supervised the building of fortresses, ships of the line, and thriving settlements, and the tour – which saw real and significant accomplishments – solidified his power.
So, even though “Potemkin village” has come to mean, especially in a political context, any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation, it’s possible that the phrase cannot be applied accurately to its own original historical inspiration.
According to a legend, in 1787, when Catherine passed through Tula on her way back from the trip, the local governor Mikhail Krechetnikov indeed attempted a deception of that kind in order to hide the effects of a bad harvest.
Examples of Potemkin Villages
- Following the Manchurian Incident, and China‘s referral of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria to the League of Nations in 1931, 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. It is an uninhabited 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, Ohio 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 Cincinnati.