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The phrase "Potemkin village" (also "Potyomkin village", derived from the Russian: Потёмкинские деревни, Potyomkinskiye derevni) was originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. According to the story, Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is. Some modern historians claim the original story is exaggerated.
Gregory Potemkin was a favorite lover of the Russian Empress Catherine II. After the Russian takeover of modern Southern Ukraine and Crimea from the Ottoman Empire and liquidation of the Zaporizhian Sich (see New Russia), Potemkin became governor of the region. The region had been devastated by the Russian army during the war; Potemkin's major tasks were to rebuild it and bring in Russian settlers. In 1787, as a new war was about to break out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Catherine II with her court and several ambassadors made an unprecedented six-month trip to New Russia. The purpose of this trip was to impress Russia's allies prior to the war. To help accomplish this, Potemkin set up "mobile villages" on the banks of the Dnieper River. As soon as the barge carrying the Empress and ambassadors arrived, Potemkin's men, dressed as peasants, would populate the village. Once the barge left, the village was disassembled, then rebuilt downstream overnight.
Potemkin later led the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War in 1787-1792.
Modern historians are divided on the degree of truth behind the Potemkin village story, and some writers argue that the story is an exaggeration. Some historians dismiss it as malicious rumors spread by Potemkin's opponents. These historians argue that Potemkin did mount efforts to develop the Crimea and probably directed peasants to spruce up the riverfront in advance of the empress' arrival.
According to Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Potemkin's most comprehensive English-language biographer, the tale of elaborate, fake settlements with glowing fires designed to comfort the monarch and her entourage as they surveyed the barren territory at night, is largely fictional.
Aleksandr Panchenko, an established specialist on 19th century Russia, used original correspondence and memoirs to conclude that the Potemkin villages are a myth. He writes: "Based on the above said we must conclude that the myth of 'Potemkin villages' is exactly a myth, and not an established fact."
Panchenko writes that "Potyomkin indeed decorated cities and villages, but made no secret that this was a decoration".
The close relationship between Potemkin and the empress would make it difficult for him to deceive her. Thus, the deception would have been mainly directed towards the foreign ambassadors accompanying the imperial party. Regardless, Potemkin had supervised the building of fortresses, ships of the line, and thriving settlements, and the tour – which saw real and significant accomplishments – solidified his power.
So, although "Potemkin village" has come to mean, especially in a political context, any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation, it is possible that the phrase cannot be applied accurately to its own original historical inspiration. According to some historians, some of the buildings were real and others were constructed to show what the region would look like in the near future and at least Catherine and possibly also her foreign visitors knew which were which. According to these historians, the claims of deception were part of a defamation campaign against Potemkin.
According to a legend, in 1787, when Catherine passed through Tula on her way back from the trip, the local governor Mikhail Krechetnikov indeed attempted a deception of that kind in order to hide the effects of a bad harvest.
The phrase "Potemkin village" is also often used by judges, especially members of a multiple-judge panel who dissent from the majority's opinion on a particular matter, to describe an inaccurate or tortured interpretation and/or application of a particular legal doctrine to the specific facts at issue. Use of the phrase is meant to imply that the reasons espoused by the panel's majority in support of its decision are not based on accurate or sound law, and their restrictive application is merely a masquerade for the court's desire to avoid a difficult decision.
Often, the dissent will attempt to reveal the majority's adherence to the restrictive principle at issue as being an inappropriate function for a court, reasoning that the decision transgresses the limits of traditional adjudication because the resolution of the case will effectively create an important and far-reaching policy decision, which the legislature would be the better equipped and more appropriate entity to address.
For example, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (1992), chief justice of the USA William Rehnquist wrote that Roe v. Wade "stands as a sort of judicial Potemkin Village, which may be pointed out to passers-by as a monument to the importance of adhering to precedent".
The phrase "Potemkin court" implies that the court's reason to exist is being called into question; it differs from a kangaroo court in which the court's standard of justice is being impugned.
Sometimes, instead of the full phrase, just "Potemkin" is used, as an adjective. For example, the use of a row of trees to screen a clearcut area from highway drivers has been called a "Potemkin forest".
Many of the newly constructed base areas at ski resorts are referred to as Potemkin villages. These create the illusion of a quaint mountain town, but are actually carefully planned theme shopping centers, hotels and restaurants designed for maximum revenue. Similarly, in The Geography of Nowhere, American writer James Howard Kunstler refers to contemporary suburban shopping centers as "Potemkin village shopping plazas".
In the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Enron's trading floor, used to fool visiting analysts, is described as a "Potemkin village". Traders were thought to be engaged in dealing with outside clients, but were in fact conversing with people in the same building and each other.
Hardcore punk band Propagandhi released an album in 2005 called Potemkin City Limits. The cover depicts kids playing in a city which is drawn on the ground, a façade city. Their 2009 album Supporting Caste has a song called "Potemkin City Limits", about the statue of Francis the pig, in Alberta, Canada.
In Mad Men season 4, episode 2 ("Christmas Comes But Once a Year"), Freddy Rumsen remarks about the decor in Roger Sterling's new office. In response, Roger confides: "Well, don't be fooled by the setup here. It's Potemkinville." (In the previous episode, "Public Relations", Bert Cooper stated the firm had overspent on office space and could not afford a conference table, and earlier in this episode Don Draper tells his secretary the firm is belt-tightening.)
The phrase "Potemkin Fleet" is used in the Jack Campbell book Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught to describe a simulated fleet used by field officers to simulate acceptance to unreasonable demands by Fleet Command. The simulated fleet is designed to give the appearances of accepting all 'recommendations' for personnel management made by Fleet Command, while in actuality allowing the fleet the freedom of ignoring the orders and acting in their own best interests. The fleet officers seem to have no knowledge of the origins of the name, and suspect it could be a tribute to the first fleet officer to figure out how to outsmart Fleet Command. Reference page 92 in book.
In fiction, The West Wing episode "Twenty Hours In America" (Season 4, Episode 1) had the character Josh Lyman quote president "Jed" Bartlet as saying "the challenge of running the country is too great for a Potemkin presidency..." Lyman also says in the episode "Freedonia" (Season 6, Episode 15) that his campaign staff should thank their "Potemkin advance team".
In Trial Under Fire, the novelization of the MechWarrior 3 video game, the phrase is used after the commando team discovers that the BattleMech factory they were supposed to destroy is merely a plywood decoy with smoke producing stoves and strobe lights inside.
In the Eye on Basketball podcast, the Houston Rockets were described as having players be "Potemkin players" surrounding Dwight Howard and James Harden.