Catherine the Great and her triumphal tour to the far reaches of her realm in 1787. The European guests were impressed, though some less than others. A Potemkin village? …
…The little towns viewed from a safe distance of the red and gold galleys were no more than pasteboard cutouts, silhouettes against the May sky. Helbig, the envoy from Saxony, was responsible for most of these tales, and it was in his diplomatic reports that the phrase “Potemkin Villages” originated. Potemkinsche Dorfer became a stock German colloquialism, a synonym for sham and deception, thanks to Helbig.
Early in the voyage, the Austrian de Ligne had tried to discredit the stories. “They have already spread a ridiculous report,” he wrote to france, “that villages of cardboard have been distributed along our route at intervals of a hundred leagues, that paintings of vessels and cannons and cavalry without horses are displayed…” But those hostile to Potemkin seemed to prefer Helbig’s version of the voyage.
True, an edict had preceded the sightseers ordering all beggars, cripples, drunks, and infirm, all garbage and dead animals, removed from streets from which the Empress would pass; all villagers to dress in clean clothes, the girls to comb their hair and wear flowers or ribbons; all markets to show fresh and appetizing produce; screens of birches to hide unsightly vistas; and all townsfolk to smile and appear cheerful in the presence of visitors. But this was not so unusual it was argued. Was it not comparable to dressing up the streets of the city for a triumphal procession under commemorative arches, with flags, costumed dancers, military bands, and soldiers in full spit and polish? …( to be continued)…
(see link at end)…The concept of Potemkin villages dates to 1787. In that year, Catherine the Great’s favorite, Prince Grigorii Potemkin, welcomed his monarch and a glittering array of European diplomats and dignitaries on a trip to “New Russia” (Crimea). As the story goes, Potemkin had hollow façades of villages constructed to impress the visitors and demonstrate the success of Russian power and civilization in colonizing the new imperial lands.
The late academician Aleksandr Panchenko convincingly called these stories about Potemkin villages a “cultural myth.” Panchenko documented how hostile rumors of false façades erected by Potemkin actually emerged several months before Catherine and her party departed Petersburg. While elaborate entertainments staged for Catherine’s entourage were undoubtedly spectacles designed to project the extent of Russian imperial might, “here is what is important: Potemkin did in fact decorate the city and settlements, but never hid the fact that they were decorations. Dozens of descriptions of the journey to New Russia and Tauride have been preserved. In none of these descriptions made in the actual course of events is there a trace of ‘Potemkin villages,’ although the decorativity is recalled constantly.” Thus did enlightenment spectacle—refracted through politics, intrigue, geopolitics, and an enduring European-Russian cultural divide—turn into myth.
In the 1920s, when the Soviets designed a novel and indeed uprecedented system to display model institutions and sites of socialism, the concept of Potemkin villages reemerged with a vengeance among Western travelers. Why did the legend persist? There are very good reasons why Catherinian (and, I will argue, Soviet) Potemkin villages represent one of the world’s most enduring myths. First, they described an elaborate, top-down political stagecraft that was convincing to foreign and domestic observers alike, for it was in fact lavishly enacted on a regular basis. Second, they tapped into a discourse about “Russia and the West” that was perpetuated since the first early modern European visitors visited Russia. If in Muscovy the tradition centered on Russian backwardness and barbarism, after Peter the Great’s Westernization it emphasized incomplete civilization, inauthenticity, and deceptiveness. After Potemkin, the notion of façades was at the very heart of the Marquis de Custine’s La Russie en 1839, one of the most influential books ever written about Russia. To Custine, the vast empire was nothing but a gigantic “theater,”…Read More:http://www.histoire.ens.fr/IMG/file/Coeure/David-Fox%20Potemkin%20villages.pdf