Of all the great things the Russians have given the world, my favourite is the Potemkin Village.
I have always loved the Potemkin Village. It’s one of my favourite places. It’s my dream vacation.
I was reminded of the Potemkin Village when a Canadian columnist — Cathal Kelly — used the term to describe the Russian Olympic Village of Sochi, in an article about the spiritual and moral decline of the International Olympics. Sochi, after all, was a place built explicitly for TV, but not actually designed to be lived in (and barely designed to be walked around in) — washrooms without toilets, doors that went nowhere, no food at the food kiosks, etc.
The columnist used “Potemkin Village” as a metaphor, and so it is — it means any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is” (Wikipedia). But its historical origin is one of the great, bizarre stories of all time.
In 1787, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great was set to travel to Crimea, which Russia had just annexed from Ottoman Empire. Sound familiar? Catherine’s defense minister — and favourite lover — Grigory Potemkin, the newly installed governor, created a portable fake village, which he had set up ahead of Catherine’s passage to the Crimea. This fake village would obscure the real villages in the region, which had been devastated by war.
As Catherine passed by, Potemkin’s men (and women too, I imagine), would line the fake streets of the fake town, waving gaily at their queen, dressed in colourful folksy costumes. They would thus obscure the real peasants, starving and dressed in rags, moved roughly out of the way, out of sight and out of mind. [How good it is we don’t do things like that anymore to our undesirables, when mega-projects like the Olympics are planned.]
When Catherine had passed by, the village would be quickly disassembled, hurried downstream, and rebuilt overnight, in time for Catherine to pass through it again, those “peasants” in their colourful costumes waving patriotically. No problems in this part of your empire, Majesty!
I am always so tickled by this light-hearted story I imagine it happening over and over again into an endless future.
Imagine, after the empress has passed by, you could bring foreign investors down to your Potemkin Village, and get investment to fund its development.
You could appoint a municipal council for your Potemkin Village, and even though your village doesn’t exist, the mayor and council could run it, and draw their stipends. This could go on for years, for decades. I bet you wouldn’t even need fake peasants for that!
You just have to remember to reassemble your fake village when the empress comes through.
What a fantastic gift Grigory Potemkin gave us, with his fake village. Or could it only happen in Russia? Could it? Could it?
Grigory Potemkin also lent his famous name to a Tsarist era Russian battleship (or had his name lent for him). This battleship became famous in its own right when its crew rebelled against their officers in the Revolution of 1905. It then sailed around, having misadventures and running amok.
This battleship also lent its name to one of the most famous films of all time — 1925’s “Battleship Potemkin” — by Sergei Eisenstein, which revolutionized the way films were both made and seen. See it if you get the chance.
In the meantime, a ferocious summer is underway. While real villages in B.C. are in danger of burning down, you can bet no harm will ever come to Potemkin Village. See you there!