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The Myth of the Potemkin Village

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The Myth of the Potemkin Village

02.02.2017

Catherine the Great is met by an “Amazon squadron” near Balaklava in 1787


States wage war not only with weapons, but also by spreading disparaging rumors. Russia has experienced this for centuries and continues to do so. The dissemination of the “Potemkin village” tale is the most successful negative PR campaign in history. This myth has kept going for over two hundred years.


Even if you know nothing about the centuries of bad blood between England and the Netherlands, the dictionary can tell you about it: Dutch courage (drinking until you feel brave), Dutch widow (a prostitute), Dutch bargain (one made while drinking), Dutch feast (one where the host is the first to get drunk), Dutch defense (a decoy defense), double Dutch (balderdash), in Dutch (in a difficult situation), I’m a Dutchman if… (Ill be damned if). Even today, when the wars of old have disappeared from memory, you could refer to a frog as a Dutch nightingale in England, or a dissonant choir as a Dutch concert, and youd be understood. At one time, these turns of speech arose from spite, but they are included in dictionaries even today, though they may be marked obs.

But the Potemkin village doesnt require any such marking, as it flutters about on the web, in print, and over the airwaves. Even though it has already been proved long ago—and it was clear to intelligent people from the very beginningthat this is nothing more than a fabrication based on deep envy.

The dissemination of the Potemkin Village tale is the most successful negative PR campaign in history. This myth has kept going for over two hundred years and continues to injure the country it was created to damage. The most surprising thing is that it functions not only outside Russia, but also within.

Let them crack jokes, but well get to work

The late scholar A.M. Panchenko got to the bottom of this myth. In 1787 Catherine the Great showed her new lands, Novorossiya and the Crimea, to the Austrian Emperor Joseph and some foreign ambassadors. They sailed to the Black See from Kaniv along the Dnieper, docking overnight. Considering Austrias misfortunes with Turkey and the sad state of Poland (Russias nearest neighbor to the west), the visitors were amazed by Russias accomplishments and the scale of construction in Ekaterinoslav (conceived as a third capital of the Russian Empire), Kherson, Nikolayev, and Sevastopol. They were especially struck by the shipyards, which launched their first ships in the presence of these visitors. Ekaterina did not escape the annoyance of some participants in this trip. She wrote to Potemkin: I look upon the envy of Europe very calmly. Let them crack jokes, but well get to work.

Potemkin, who took the lead in transforming Novorossiya and the Crimea, was envied and opposed by many in Petersburg. Beginning in the 1770s they spread rumors that all of Potemkins reports on his activities in the south were a con. Anyone who arrived from there was subjected to biased questioning about the Black Sea fleet and the construction of cities and fortifications. They were expected to confirm that it was all a fantasy. Some people would answer evasively so as not to disappoint their questioners, and this would reinforce the rumors.

When the participants in the Empresss Crimean expedition returned to the capital, Potemkins enemies sprung questions on them: Is it really true that theres really no such thing as Kherson or Sevastopol? No ships or fortresses? They were disappointed, and the rumors started to quiet down.

Potemkinische Dorf

Twenty-two years later, Georg Adolf von Helbig a former representative of Saxony at the Russian court who didnt even take part on the excursion, suddenly had an idea (under the influence of political circumstances). In 1809 he published the book Potemkin, Prince of Tauris, which claimed that the settlements along the Dnieper were stage sets, which were transported by night to be erected in a new place while livestock were also herded there. He went so far as to claim that someone traveling with the Empress had recognized some cows by face. Such transportation of livestock, people, and stage sets would be technically impossible even today, 230 years later, but the enlightened public are not aware of such things. Helbig also thought up the expression Potemkinische Dorf: Potemkin Village.

Strictly speaking, the hypothesis that there were false towns in the last years of Catherine the Greats rule entered the head of another foreigner, the Frenchman de Piles. He either heard from someone or deduced himself that the settlements along their path must certainly be decorations, and the peasants were not locals. He wrote just a few lines about this in the 1790s. These lines might have come into Helbigs possession and given him additional inspiration, if he needed it.

Its impossible to describe the excitement that took hold of Europe in the wake of Helbigs book. What psychological compensation! The elites in countries cramped by their geography could tell themselves: all of Russias victories, gains, fortresses, shipyards, ships, all of Novorossiyaits all just painted on a canvas. Hurrah!

As Panchenko observes, not one of the travel journals of the participants on the excursion contains a single mention of anything like this. Only one of them later confirmed Helbigs tall talesthe Swede Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, a well-known schemer, who stood more than once, Panchenko writes, in the pillory and once almost lost his head on the scaffold. As for Helbig, the following fact, among others, unmasks his lying: A few months before the book about Potemkin, he released another book, Russian Favorites (Russiche Günstlinge), with a chapter about Potemkin that doesnt mention the fake villages or disguised peasants.

Two Hundred Years Later

A little more than two centuries have passed since Helbig, but here are some of todays headlines from foreign articles about Russia: The Politics of Potemkin Villages in Russia (Christian Science Monitor), Potemkin Nonproliferation (National Review), Economic Growth Potemkin-Style (Welt am Sonntag), Potemkin GDP (The Wall Street Journal), Potemkin Russia (Le Monde), Putins Potemkin Russia (United Press International), Free-Market Potemkin (The Wall Street Journal), Potemkin Compromise (The Wall Street Journal), Potemkin of the 21st Century (Newsweek), and so forth.

The Canadian journalist Mark Chapman writes (incidentally, his article is titled Where did I get my degree? At a Potemkin University in California and describes hundreds of companies in the U.S. and England that sell false degrees from famous institutions): Im tired of the unbridled love these Russophobic ‘news sources have for the word Potemkin, which they use as a definition for everything. My search engine gives six pages of mentions for the word Potemkin, but only twice is it used in its proper meaning: the battleship Potemkin and the last name. But there are too many other links to count: Potemkin villages, Potemkin cities, Potemkin monitors, Potemkin abbreviations, Potemkin presidents, Potemkin congresses, Potemkin prisons, Potemkin projects. What are you doing, guys? Are you lazy or out of ideas?

One is surprised not by the cliché, but by the strength of their passion. The liveliness of the Potemkin tale is a fact of Western, not Russian history. The Wests infatuation with Russia brings to mind a boy pulling on a girls ponytail so that she will pay attention to him, declare that he is the best there is, and fall in love.

As Max Hastings, a staff writer at The Guardian, complained (in the November 27, 2006 issue): there is something of the bitterness of rejected courtship in our response to their [Russias] recent behaviour. In light of this explanation, the phenomenon of the Western passion for the Potemkin label is more understandable.

Thats not the real question. Why do many of our own publicists continue to use this tale of the Potemkin village? Its difficult to imagine intelligent Russian authors who, decades after Panchenkos work appeared, still havent heard any indication that the Potemkin mythologeme is a malicious invention. Or are they not intelligent enough?

And to finish with the Potemkin issue: In preparation for hosting the July 2013 G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, large photographs were put up in the windows of closed shops in the town so as to give the appearance of thriving businesses for visitors driving past them.

Aleksandr Gorianin

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