In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a country which is faring poorly, making people believe that the country is faring better. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village built solely to impress Empress Catherine II by her former lover Grigory Potemkin, during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While modern historians agree that accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Potemkin erected phony portable settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the Russian Empress; the structures would be disassembled after she passed, and re-assembled farther along her route to be viewed again as if another example. The term is a translation of the Russian: потёмкинские деревни (IPA: /pɐˈtʲɵmkʲɪnskʲɪɪ dʲɪˈrʲɛvnʲɪ/; romanization: potyómkinskiye derévni).
Grigory Potemkin was a minister and lover of the Russian Empress Catherine II. After the Russian annexation of Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and liquidation of the Cossack Zaporozhian Sich (see New Russia), Potemkin became governor of the region. Crimea had been devastated by the war, and the Muslim Tatar inhabitants of Crimea were viewed as a potential fifth column of the Ottoman Empire; Potemkin's major tasks were to pacify and rebuild by bringing in Russian settlers. In 1787, as a new war was about to break out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Catherine II, with her court and several ambassadors, made an unprecedented six-month trip to New Russia. One purpose of this trip was to impress Russia's allies prior to the war. Another purpose was to familiarize herself, supposedly directly, with her new possessions. To help accomplish this, Potemkin set up "mobile villages" on the banks of the Dnieper River. As soon as the barge carrying the Empress and ambassadors arrived, Potemkin's men, dressed as peasants, would populate the village. Once the barge left, the village was disassembled, then rebuilt downstream overnight.
Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth behind the Potemkin village story, and some writers argue that the story is an exaggeration. 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." He writes that "Potyomkin indeed decorated existing 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, if there were deception, it would have been mainly directed towards the foreign ambassadors accompanying the imperial party.
Although "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 is possible that the phrase cannot be applied accurately to its own original historical inspiration. According to some historians, some of the buildings were real, and others were constructed to show what the region would look like in the near future, and at least Catherine and possibly also her foreign visitors knew which were which. According to these historians, the claims of deception were part of a defamation campaign against Potemkin.
According to a legend, in 1787, when Catherine passed through Tula on her way back from the trip, the local governor Mikhail Krechetnikov attempted a deception of that kind in order to hide the effects of a bad harvest.
- Western visitors to the Soviet Union were strictly controlled by the secret police, especially during the Soviet famine of 1932–33. For example, Édouard Herriot said that Soviet Ukraine was "like a garden in full bloom".
- 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. Japan withdrew from the League the following year.
- North Korea has a Potemkin village called Kijongdong inside the De-Militarized Zone, also known as the "Peace Village".
- 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.
- Henry A. Wallace visited a Soviet penal labor camp in Magadan in 1944 and believed that the prisoners were "volunteers".
- In 1998, the energy services company Enron built and maintained a fake trading floor on the 6th story of its downtown Houston headquarters. The trading floor was used to impress Wall Street analysts attending Enron's annual shareholders meeting and even included rehearsals conducted by Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling.
- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had routes in Caracas that would be visited by foreign dignitaries fixed up, with workers placing new paint on the streets and painting rocks and other fragments that were inside of potholes.
- In 2006, Detroit arranged to have lights installed behind selected windows of many vacant towers to give a better impression to visitors in town for Super Bowl XL.
- In 2010, 22 vacant houses in a blighted part of Cleveland, Ohio, US, were disguised with fake doors and windows painted on the plywood panels used to close them up, so the houses looked occupied. A similar program has been undertaken in Chicago and in Cincinnati.
- In preparation for hosting the July 2013 G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, large photographs were put up in the windows of closed shops in the town so as to give the appearance of thriving businesses for visitors driving past them.
- In 2013, before Vladimir Putin's visit to Suzdal, some old and half-ruined houses in the city center were covered with large posters with doors and windows printed on them.
- In 2016, the Turkmen village of Berkarar Zaman was built and opened by the government, but was abandoned soon after opening.
- In the 2018 lawsuit filed against Exxon for the fraud relating to the discrepancy between the published cost of climate regulation and the internally calculated costs, New York Attorney General Underwood's complaint alleged, "Through its fraudulent scheme, Exxon in effect erected a Potemkin village to create the illusion that it had fully considered the risks of future climate change regulation and had factored those risks into its business operations."
- During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government set a target of 100,000 daily tests before the end of April 2020. On 30 April 2020, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, declared the target to have been met. This claim was widely disputed when it emerged that the government "changed the way it counts the number of COVID-19 tests"; some 40,000 of the total were home-test kits which had been sent out by mail, but not yet completed. The government's misleading claims were later challenged by the UK Statistics Authority, and described as a "Potemkin testing regime" by Aditya Chakrabortty in an opinion piece for The Guardian.
In the United States legal system
"Potemkin village" is a phrase that has been used by American judges, especially members of a multiple-judge panel who dissent from the majority's opinion on a particular matter, to refer to an inaccurate or tortured interpretation and/or application of a particular legal doctrine to the specific facts at issue. Use of the phrase 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. For example, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), chief justice of the United States, William 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". Similarly, Judge William G. Young of the District of Massachusetts described the use of affidavits in U.S. litigation as "the Potemkin Village of today’s litigation landscape" because "adjudication by affidavit is like walking down a street between two movie sets, all lawyer-painted façade and no interior architecture."
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 motorists has been called a "Potemkin forest". For example, the glossary entry for "clearcut" in We Have The Right To Exist: A Translation of Aboriginal Indigenous Thought states that "Much of the extensive clearcut in northern Minnesota is insulated from scrutiny by the urbanized public by a Potemkin forest, or, as the D.N.R. terms it, an aesthetic strip – a thin illusion of forest about six trees deep, along most highways and fronting waters frequented by tourists." Another example is the phrase "Potemkin court", which implies that the court's reason to exist is being called into question; differing from the phrase "kangaroo court" with which the court's standard of justice is being impugned.
In the Old West of the United States, Western false front architecture was often used to create the illusion of affluence and stability in a new frontier town. The style included a tall vertical facade with a square top in front of a wood-framed building, often hiding a gable roof. The goal for the architecture was to project an image of stability and success for the town, while in fact the business owners did not invest much in buildings that might be temporary. Often these towns did not last very long before becoming ghost towns, so businessmen wanted to get started quickly but did not want to spend a lot of money on their stores. Many Western movies feature this kind of architecture because, just like the original buildings, it is quick and cheap to create.
Many of the newly constructed base areas at ski resorts are referred to as Potemkin villages. These 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".
Hardcore punk band Propagandhi released an album in 2005 called Potemkin City Limits. The cover depicts children playing in a city that is drawn on the ground, a façade city. Their 2009 album Supporting Caste has a song called "Potemkin City Limits", about the statue of Francis the Pig in Alberta, Canada.
Donald Trump's business councils have been described as Potemkin Villages after several high-profile CEO participants resigned in August 2017. Trump's The Art of the Deal describes a stunt in which he lured Holiday Inn executives into investing in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino by directing his construction manager to rent dozens of pieces of heavy equipment, in advance of a visit by the executives, to move dirt around on the proposed casino site, creating the illusion that construction was under way.
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