Potemkin Village
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Basic Information

Grigori Potemkin was one of the many lovers of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, and probably her favorite. Considering how many she had, that's saying something. In 1783, Catherine annexed the Crimea and appointed Potemkin as the governor of the region. Potemkin promised to turn the barren steppes into the garden spot of Russia and soon reports came to Catherine of the wonderful progress he was making; new towns, forts, naval bases in the Black Sea, fertile fields of wheat. Catherine had to see it all for herself, so a tour of the region was arranged for her.

Emphasis on the word "arranged."

Everywhere she went, Catherine saw prosperous farms and villages and happy peasants. In truth, the freshly-painted farmhouses were painted only on one side, the newly shingled roofs were patched with cardboard; elaborate screens of artificial trees and false-front buildings were constructed to hide the uglier bits and all the peasants, many of whom had actually been forcibly brought in from other provinces to make the region look more populous, were ordered under penalty of death to wear their best clothing and smile when the Empress rode past.

The plan worked. Catherine was happy with her "Potemkin Villages".

Modern historians disagree as to whether or not the story of the Potemkin Villages is true. Some say that it's a fiction spread by General Potemkin's political rivals; others suggest that it is an exaggeration of efforts to spruce up the region in anticipation of the Imperial visit.

True or not, the term "Potemkin Village" has come to mean a contrived false front intended to hide a more squalid reality.


Game and Story Use

  • A high-ranking official is visiting soon and you've been given the assignment of making sure Everything Looks Nice and Nothing Goes Wrong. You can handle that, can't you?
  • This is, sadly, normal behaviour wherever authoritarianism takes root - wherever officials are made to implement a stupid idea and then show their superiors that it worked, some equivalent of the the Potemkin village will appear, whether inside a business or a nation. Similar things were built to demonstrate the success of Lysenkoist agriculture and other communist insanities for Mao, Stalin and others, and production records falsified to disguise reality, and this sort of universal deceit perhaps goes some way to lessen the culpability of the dictators in question for the vast quantities of death and other suffering that they caused. As noted, stupid ideas can also be forced through on a smaller scale in the stagnant eddies of a market economy - but there the reckoning tends to be faster and the body count lower.
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