August 9, 2009

Potemkin Village

From the Dragon City Journal.
proper noun

[Po-TEM'-kin] or (for purists) [Po-TYEM'-kin]

ing that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance

  • “the Potemkin village of this country's borrowed prosperity” (Lewis H. Lapham).
After Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemki, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of Ukraine and the Crimea.

— The American Heritage Dictionary v. 3.5 1994.

Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemki

Catherine II, Czarina
of Russia, 1762-1796
D. B. Weldon Library

Potemkin village IN USE:
The Conservative Book Club ads on [Ann Coulter's] site were a Potemkin's Village scam as well, the strategy they used would be to buy these 'books' by wingnut authors in bulk, which artificially inflated their Best Seller rankings.
Posted by: Abbycat. July 19, 2009 at 12:16 a.m.on in response to article titled "Ann" Coulter Ranks Blacks Above Insects. Then she attributes her mindset to liberals.

Has no-one learned from the Bush Administration's Potemkin Village, er, town hall meetings? Don't let in [to Democrat town halls] anyone who disagrees with you and eject anyone who looks like they might. Tip: scan the parking lot for bumper stickers and have your goons pretend they're Secret Service.
Latest Republican Strategy of Violence. Posted on: August 3, 2009 9:20 PM, by Greg Laden. Greg Laden's Blog: Science as Culture - Culture as Science,

In December of 2005, as the following citation shows, Frank Rich, OP-ED columnist for the New York Times, found the Potemkin village image useful in explaining his perception that the Bush administration was staging success-draped events for American dignitaries visiting the country Iraq to make on-the-ground assessments.

When a government substitutes propaganda for governing, the Potemkin village is all. Since we don't get honest information from this White House, we must instead, as the Soviets once did,decode our rulers' fictions to discern what's really happening.
"It Takes a Potemkin Village" By Frank Rich. The New York Times OP-ED, Sunday Dec. 11, 2005.

Then in September of 2007, Rich — perhaps unable to find a alternate epithet — found the Potemkin village image once again apropos to describe his perception that the Bush White House was still staging false events.
A more elaborate example of [the George W. Bush] administration Disneyland can be found in those bubbly Baghdad markets visited by John McCain and other dignitaries whenever the cameras roll. Last week the Washington Post discovered that at least one of them, the Dora Market, is a Potemkin village, open only a few hours a day and produced by $2,500 grants (a k a bribes) bestowed on the shopkeepers.
As the Araqis Stand Down, We'll Stand Up." Frank Rich. OP-ED, The New York Times. Sept. 9, 2007.



Of the five etymological sources I consulted, four dodge the proposition that Potemkin did in fact supervised construction of actual sham villages, telling us timorously, instead, that the idea of sham villages comes to us second hand — with no indication of whose hand is holding the pen scribbling the tale! The other two sources suggest that some minimal cardboard shaming of the riverside landscape may have occurred, but that ultimately the constructions known as Potemkin Villages less existential than they were verbal invention, mere fictions floated into the political rumorsphere by Potemkin rivals.

reports that the presumptive villages were
named after Prince Potëmkin, who allegedly had villages of cardboard constructed for Catherine II's visit to the Ukraine and the Crimea in 1787 [emphasis supplied],
without citing who did the "alleging."

2. Similarly, The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia avers that
Potemkin's successful disguising of the weak points of his administration led to the claim that he erected mere facades — "Potemkin villages" — to show Catherine on her tour of the region [emphasis added].
A claim, made by whom?

3. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the phrase
Potemkin villagesPotëmkinskaja derevnja in Russian — denotes any of the sham villagessaid to have been built by Potemkin to give a false impression of prosperity in the Crimea, in advance of Catherine II's visit in 1787. Chiefly fig. [again, emphasis added]
OED editors crouch into the passive voice here—"said to have been built"— without telling us who did the "saying." But among the historical citations it provides to illustrate the term in use, the OED lexicographers includes a 1939 citation by a certain G. Soloveytchik who claimed he knew the identify of the person who began all of this, alleging that
Potemkin's detractors have asserted that he built whole sham villages, with cardboard houses and paste order to create a false picture of progress and prosperity... The originator of these stories . . . was the Saxon diplomat Helbig, and the legend of ‘Potemkin Villages’ . . . as a synonym of sham owes its inception to him.

4. Unlike the three references quoted thus far, the American Heritage Dictionary (4th Ed.) states directly that the sham villages were, in fact, built along the the River Dnieper, stating that they were named
[a]fter Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, who had elaborate fake villages constructed for Catherine the Great's tours of the Ukraine and the Crimea.

5. Finally,
the redoubtable Encyclopedia Britannica (2007), counters all of the texts just cited, dismissing the sham villages and the cavorting peasants as an "apocryphal tale":
[T]here was exaggeration in all [Potemkin’s] enterprises. . . . Catherine's tour of the south in 1787 was a triumph for Potemkin, for he disguised all the weak points of his administration—hence the apocryphal tale of his erecting artificial villages to be seen by the empress in passing.


Realizing that quotations from a mere five reference texts — reputable though they may be — do not offer historical consistency on the matter, we find ourselves still wondering: How many square feet or acres, if any, of townsite phantasmagoria appeared along the banks of the Dnieper in 1778 under the direction of
Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin?

The answer: We may never know with certainty.

But at least it is fun to imagine that along the banks of the Dnieper that summer some manner of townsfolk histrionics tap-danced and whooped things up against the backdrop of extended rows of specious facades. And when the last illusion had passed from imperceptive Catherine's view, it is not unreasonable to imagine that she turned her fluttering eyes toward the fawning peeps of her lover Grigori Aleksandrovich and whispered in swooning Russian: "O, Aleksie, my sweet: I approve!"


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