Potemkin Villages (Потемкинские деревни): The Story Behind the Russian Idiom
Потемкинские деревни, which can be translated as Potemkin villages, is a curious idiom found in Russian, which is also sometimes used in English. It is used to describe a cover up which attempts to make something seem a lot better than it may truly be, or something that is all for show. For example, you could say that a politician’s speech is a Potemkin village. This idiom arose from an interesting myth connected to Catherine II’s Russia.
Who was Potemkin?
The protagonist of our tale is Grigory Potemkin, who became Catherine II’s lover after the Russo-Turkish war (1768-74). Despite not remaining her lover for long, their amicable relations meant that he continued to hold great influence, and became governor of Crimea after it was annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. He was instrumental in carrying out this annexation, and spared no expense in trying to achieve his aim.
What does a Potemkin village refer to?
In 1787, Catherine II took a tour of Crimea and the surrounding areas taken over in the Russo-Turkish war known as Novorossiya (Новороссия). As the myth goes, Potemkin was unprepared for her visit, not having carried out the development that he had previously hoped to achieve in the region. Therefore, in order to impress the empress, he erected portable facades of houses and the front walls of impressive buildings throughout the areas where she was visiting, without actually building any permanent features. Thus, the idiom was born: anything that covers up or tries to improve an undesirable situation is a Potemkin village.
Did Potemkin villages really exist?
This is a debated question amongst historians, but the general consensus is that the idiom is based on a myth, or at least based on highly exaggerated circumstances. The Russkiy Mir Foundation states that Potemkin’s power was disliked by many in St Petersburg, and in order to mar his progress, rumours were spread in St Petersburg that Potemkin’s supposed efforts in Novorossiya were all a con. Those arriving from Novorossiya or Crimea would be interrogated about the nature of Potemkin’s advances. Many would appease their interrogators by saying that rumours of positive change in the region were fabricated, further spreading the idea that these portable villages existed.
Truth or myth, the story behind the idiom of a Potemkin village is as interesting as it is comical. Although the idiom reflects an event which may have taken place centuries in the past, it is still relevant today, and can be applied to a plethora of circumstances.
Leila, currently studying at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg