In 1783, the Russian Empire scored a major victory against the Ottoman Empire: it conquered the Crimean Peninsula. Although nominally independent, the Crimean Khanate had essentially been a client state of the Ottomans, fellow Muslims (even when Crimea was formally allied with Russia). Once the lush peninsula was annexed, the next order of business was to do something about the vast steppes which separated it from the Russian heartland and the Turks to the southeast, smarting from their recent loss. The momentous task of settling and fortifying what came to be known as Novorossiya (“New Russia”), fell to Prince Grigory Potemkin, the lover and favorite of Catherine the Great.
About this, they — as in, the shadowy “they” who sit invisible at the table of every conspiracy, “they” who hide under every bed where an illicit affair is being consummated, “they” who are predominantly flamboyant 18th-century diplomats — they tell the following story:
Basically, Potemkin encountered major problems. There was a reason, after all, why this piece of land, with its location smack in the middle of the Eurasian continent, a navigable river, level terrain and a very long history of merchants and armies moving to and fro, had never been permanently settled. The settlers, brought in through a combination of false promises, threats and outright brute force, found the climate to be unremittingly harsh and the soil unsuitable for cultivation (at least with 18th-century methods). Crops failed, irrigation canals turned into swamps, wells dried up and desertion was like a hemorrhage. People — farmers, soldiers, artisans, all — gathered up their families and ran for their lives. As for Potemkin, he ruled with an iron fist, womanized, embezzled with abandon and wrote his regal girlfriend glowing reports, because why the hell not? One of the most curious things I’ve noticed about “premodern” history is that in an age full of public disembowelments and such, when the faintest of offenses could subject even a powerful and well-connected courtier to brutal public torture and humiliation, people had an unfathomable tendency to gamble with their lives in ways that were truly extraordinary. In any event, it should have come as no surprise to Potemkin when, in 1787, his beloved scheduled a progress down the Dnieper River by barge, to survey his successes in the company of various courtiers and foreign dignitaries.
Potemkin had actually gotten quite a bit done in very short order. He founded a number of strategically placed cities and expanded and fortified old Crimean towns. His biggest achievement was the founding and rapid build-up of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which finally turned the once land-locked country into a true naval power. The problem, of course, was that all this was accomplished at a tremendous cost and at the expense of the countryside, which now looked like a wasteland.
And so — the flamboyant 18th-century diplomat tells us — Potemkin decided to play one of the biggest gambles ever engaged in by a courtier: he had his people construct fake settlements along the Dnieper, consisting of shells of houses painted in cheerful colors; and he paid people to dress up and stroll to and fro singing and pretending to have a good time.
The royal barge moved slowly. As soon as it passed one fake “town”, the actors would run, get on their horses, and ride ahead of the barge to the next fake “town” where they would once again sing and dance on the river bank and bow to the Empress. It is this story that gave us the idiom “Potemkin village”, meaning an elaborate front constructed by a government to mask dreary reality.
Serious historians doubt the veracity of the story, and Western historians in particular, generally go so far as to write it off as a complete fabrication, from beginning to end. In all fairness, there is something to this skepticism. For one thing, prior to the development of sophisticated government apparatus in the 19th century, diplomats’ accounts were notoriously unreliable. Their reports were written as much to entertain as to provide useful information. To that end, they blatantly exaggerated things, and when business was slow, regaled their princes with tawdry court gossip and lurid tales of executions.
Then there is the inconsistency within the story itself: if the Saxon diplomat came to learn of Potemkin’s fraud, how come the Empress didn’t? Catherine was very fond of romance and known to shower lovers with favor, but like her earlier English counterpart, Elizabeth I, she never let her courtiers forget who was the boss. She never allowed herself to be made a fool of, and when crossed, she could be absolutely ruthless. If she ever got an inkling that Potemkin had duped her like this, she would have had his head.
Still, I do think that there is some truth to the story, that Potemkin fudged a great deal to make his domain look more impressive than it really was, and I would not put it past him to construct shells of buildings and to pay people to pose as residents. The reason I believe it is that in the past 100 years or so, authoritarian governments have proven again and again that they are both capable of and willing to construct whole parallel universes meant to give foreign observers a grossly distorted view of life in their own countries. (North Korea is preeminent among nations today in constructing Potemkin Villages, the most remarkable example of which is Kijŏng-dong.)
On the other side of the mirror, I have found that the main reason that Westerners — especially healthily skeptical, left-leaning Westerners — consider the Potemkin Villages story a complete myth is that they simply cannot fathom that a government can be committed enough to fool foreign observers to engage in such an elaborate deception. I remember once having a very frustrating argument about this very thing with an American who had visited the USSR in the 1960’s. Why, he said, life in the USSR looked perfectly comfortable. His guide, for example, was a very lovely young lady who spoke fluent English(*), so the stories about how difficult it was to learn foreign languages, and how people doing so were regarded as suspicious by the regime have to be false. Towards the end of his trip, on the spur of the moment, she took him to see some friends of hers, who lived in a beautifully appointed apartment and spontaneously broke into song, so all those horror stories about kommunalkas have to be false. He saw gleaming hospitals and elegant schools, so the stories about patients freezing to death in unheated hallways and school classes numbering over forty have to be false. He saw store shelves heaped with food and consumer products, and so all those stories about people standing in line for three hours to buy a ring of kielbasa have to be false. It was a frustrating argument because he made it sound as if I was a conspiracy nut, trying to convince him of the existence of a parallel world where stores, schools, hospitals and even families existed solely to convince foreigners that the USSR was paradise on Earth, and that tourist guides, trained by the Interior Ministry, tightly controlled where foreigners went, what they saw and who they talked to.
But of course, this is a case where one must choose one of two conspiracy theories. Either the CIA paid millions of people like me to tell fantastical, but extraordinarily similar, stories about a world of “show” stores, schools, hospitals and families, or the people who ruled the country where I spent my childhood really did create an elaborate alternate reality meant to shield visitors from the truth. Pick your poison.
I do find it curious, however, that authoritarian governments have the highest stakes in creating a reputation for benevolence and economic prosperity while providing neither. And as long as we take the absence of self-criticism in a particular society as evidence of perfection, Potemkin Villages will continue to proliferate.
(*)It was impossible to tour the USSR without an official guide, and if the tourist in question was a young man, it went without saying that his guide would be a lovely young lady. It’s harder to doubt the words of someone that you are attracted to, and their constant presence wouldn’t feel like malevolent hovering.