‘Potemkin village’: meaning and origin

The expression Potemkin village denotes a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.

This expression occurs, for example, in the conclusion to A game of two halves: how ‘sportswashing’ benefits Qatar and the west, by David Wearing, lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Wednesday 16th November 2022:

As a Potemkin village of 21st-century capitalism, the 2022 World Cup is not a phenomenon separate from or alien to the west. It is a representative example of the world that western power built. The western brands sponsoring the tournament benefit just as the regime does from the continued exploitation of migrant labour that is making the tournament possible.
And to the extent that the tournament serves to sportswash authoritarianism, it will be sportswashing an authoritarianism that has long been a joint venture between the west and Qatar. Only when the spotlight shines on the role of our own governments will true accountability for all this be possible.

The expression Potemkin village refers to the sham villages said to have been built by Grigori Potemkin 1 to give a false impression of prosperity along the route that Catherine II 2 was to travel during her visit to Crimea in 1787.

1 Grigori Potemkin (1739-1791): Russian soldier and statesman; lover of Catherine II, whose favourite he remained until his death; in 1774, he became the governor-general of Russia’s new southern provinces.
2 Catherine II (1729-1796), known as Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

The following explanations are from Potemkin: A Picture of Catherine’s Russia (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., [1938]), by George Soloveytchik (1902-1982):

For a long time he [i.e., Grigori Potemkin] was considered merely as one of Catherine’s many favourites, a particularly unsavoury and extravagant character who bamboozled the Empress during her trip to the Crimea by putting up cardboard villages on the way and importing thousands of peasant serfs with their implements and cattle in order to create a picture of sham prosperity. The origin of all these stories, which resulted in Potemkin being handed down to history as a villain and an unscrupulous charlatan, was established many years ago. They can all be traced back to his anonymous biography, the author of which is known to have been the Saxon diplomat Helbig 3. It appeared in the years 1797–9 in the Minerva—a German review, published in Hamburg. This German biography was also translated into French (1808), English (1811 and 1813), and various other languages, being published with occasional additions and alterations, but always anonymously and with the bulk of Helbig’s crude inventions incorporated in the narrative.
Potemkin’s detractors have asserted that he built whole sham villages, with cardboard houses and paste palaces, or that he drove millions of unwilling slaves, dressed up as farmers, and their cattle to the various places passed by Catherine, in order to create a false picture of progress and prosperity, abandoning these wretched victims to starvation and even death when his pageant was over. The originator of these stories that found a willing echo in many circles hostile to Potemkin was the Saxon diplomat Helbig, and the legend of ‘Potemkin Villages’ (Potemkinsche Dörfer—a stock phrase in colloquial German) as a synonym of sham owes its inception to him. Yet neither Helbig nor anybody else has produced so much as a vestige of evidence in support of these vile accusations.
There is, on the contrary, ample evidence that they are not true. Ségur 4, an intelligent and sceptical observer, who had the courage of his opinions and did not hesitate to criticize Potemkin on various scores, was full of admiration for his achievements in the south. The Prince de Ligne 5, equally shrewd, on hearing of these insinuations, indignantly denied them. Contrary to the assertion made by some that Catherine was ‘taken in by the Prince’s bluff’, or by others that ‘although she had seen everything, she had noticed nothing’, the Empress was fully aware of the wanton calumnies, and being genuinely impressed by Potemkin’s great work, was particularly angry.

3 Georg (or Gustav) Adolf Wilhelm von Helbig (1757-1813): Saxon diplomat; in post at St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1786 to 1796.
4 Louis Philippe (1753-1830), Comte de Ségur: French diplomat; Minister Plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1784 to 1789.
5 Charles-Joseph Lamoral (1735-1814), Prince de Ligne: he accompanied Catherine II on her visit to Crimea in 1787.

The earliest occurrences of the expression Potemkin village (also village à la Potemkin and Potemkin’s village) that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Foreign Intelligence. France, published in The Weekly Chronicle (London, England) of Saturday 18th November 1843:

We find in La France an article which suggests an unfavourable opinion of the colonisation system practiced [sic] in Algeria:—“150 colonists returned on the 28th ult. from Algiers to Toulon on board the Crocodile,” says that paper. “All these colonists complain of the soi-disant colonisation so pompously announced by Marshal Bugeaud 6. All the new villages so pompously announced in the ministerial journals are merely villages à la Potemkin 7, constructed previous to the famous journey of Catherine II. in the Tauris 8. Thus at every point the miserable system which governs France is founded on falsehood.”

6 Thomas Robert Bugeaud (1784-1849), Duc d’Isly: Marshal of France who played an important part in the French conquest of Algeria.
7 This seems to suggest the use of the expression villages à la Potemkine in the original French text (the French spelling of the surname is with final silent e—cf., below, the French expression village Potemkine).
8 Tauris: a name for Crimea.

2-: From a correspondence from St. Petersburg, Russia, dated Saturday 10th October 1863, published in The Morning Advertiser (London, England) of Friday 16th October 1863:

The Invalide Russe of to-day […] publishes an order of the day from the Grand Duke Michael, Governor-General of the Caucasus, which proves that the art of building Potemkin villages is not yet extinct. The Grand Duke had inspected the military hospitals in the Caucasus, and found all the arrangements in the best possible order. Subsequently, however, he appears to have learnt that these arrangements were only made specially for his visit, and had been carried out in a manner showing how little importance the officials attached to the welfare of the patients compared with securing favour in high places.
“The hospital in Maikop, for instance, contained 1,400 men, instead of 700—the number for whom accommodation was provided. Shortly before the Grand Duke’s visit 636 patients were sent elsewhere—a step not taken previously for nearly three months, although the mortality rate increased; the walls were whitewashed, the patients supplied with better food, and clean linen. Four assistants, who said the provisions were bad, were subsequently dismissed by Staff-Surgeon Kevialowski. For all these laches the surgeon and hospital commandant simply received a reprimand. The Grand Duke, however, adds that he shall in future severely punish all persons who shall exhibit the hospitals not in their true condition, but in a state purposely arranged for the inspection of the chief.”

3-: From the account of the Battle of Slivnitsa, in The Struggle of the Bulgarians for National Independence under Prince Alexander: A Military and Political History of the War between Bulgaria and Servia in 1885. Translated from the German of Major A. von Huhn (London: John Murray, 1886):

A few rifts in the fog enabled us to see that our infantry was holding out splendidly, though the beautifully arranged tiers of trenches were not of much use, from the very simple and to us very sad reason, that we had hardly enough soldiers to man the lower line of trenches alone. We had not a single man in reserve, and the higher tiers of trenches and our fine redoubt were only too much like ‘Potemkin’s villages.’

4-: From an essay on modern architecture, by the Austrian architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918), translated by the U.S. architect Nathan Clifford Ricker (1843-1924), published in The Brickbuilder (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of August 1901:

The neglect of artistic requirements, the principle of utility so prominent everywhere, an antipathy to great monumental works of architecture, an invariable lack of money for art effects, gives the architect many a hard problem, and these and similar difficulties have produced a kind of sham architecture that attempts to conceal faults by deception. The obsolete apartment house façades and the pattern type of façade most recently affected (arcades and buildings on Francis Joseph Quay, in Vienna), an artistic and not a practical suggestion, belong here. The swindling ideas, teeming with deceptions and recalling Potemkin’s villages that occur in such arrangements, cannot be sufficiently censured. No other art period has such things to show; they give a very melancholy representation of the art conditions of our era.

5-: From Truth (London, England) of Thursday 26th May 1904—interestingly, this text also contains the expression railway à la Potemkin:

In one of her frank moods the Princesse Mathilde 9 said to the late Grand Duchesse Marie 10, who had been boasting of the strides forward of Russia: “When you talk like that you remind me of Potemkin and the opéra comique villages he built in the steppes, through which the Empress Catherine passed. Nearly everything in Russia that Russians feel proud of is mere frontage, like Potemkin’s villages.” Had the Princesse Mathilde been able a few years before her death to visit Harbin or Dalny she would have found confirmation of this opinion. I almost fancy the Trans-Siberian must be a railway à la Potemkin.

9 Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904): daughter of Jérôme Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815.
10 Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia (1819-1876): daughter of Nicholas I (1796-1855), Emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855.

6-: From The private lives of William II. & his consort: A secret history of the court of Berlin from the papers and diaries extending over a period beginning June 1888 to the spring of 1898 of a lady-in-waiting on her Majesty the Empress-Queen (London: William Heinemann, November 1904), by Henry William Fischer (1856-1932)—the following is about the Emperor’s “visits to the hunting-grounds of friends in all parts of Germany”:

And those Potemkin villages! That nothing may grate upon the imperial feelings, the Herr Graf or Fuerst compels his peasants to whitewash and paint farmhouse and hovel for miles around and sometimes pays for the beautifying out of his own pocket. Furthermore, he must furnish greens and flags to decorate the streets, engage numerous torch-bearers to light up the highway on the eve of the arrival and during the nights of the visit, and employ four hundred to five hundred beaters, at the very least, a week or longer. For his Majesty is not content to shoot the game on his friend’s domain; his host, if he loves his peace, will hire all the hare, deer, or roe for a dozen German miles in the neighbourhood and let them be driven into his own preserves.

The corresponding French expression is village Potemkine. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from L’aventure de Panaït Istrati, by the Italian socialist politician Pietro Nenni (1891-1980), published in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste : Revue Mensuelle du Socialisme International (Paris, France) of Wednesday 15th January 1930:
—the following is about the visit that the Romanian working-class writer Panaït Istrati (1884-1935) made to the U.S.S.R. in 1927, on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution:

Panaït Istrati n’était pas homme à se laisser promener en auto-car suivant des itinéraires indiqués à l’avance, et il n’était pas homme à se laisser jouer le coup du village Potemkine.
Au-delà de la façade trompeuse, il voulut voir l’intérieur de l’édifice construit par la Révolution.
Panaït Istrati was not one to let himself be taken by coach along predetermined itineraries, and he was not one to let himself be deceived by the Potemkin-village trick.
Beyond the deceptive façade, he wanted to see the interior of the edifice built by the Revolution.

2 thoughts on “‘Potemkin village’: meaning and origin

  1. I repurposed this concept the other day to refer to “Potemkin sources,” meaning sham citations that a cheating writer adds to give a veneer of authenticity to AI-generated prose.


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 )

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.