Who wouldn’t want a library or a museum named in their honour? A namesake to remember us by long after we’re gone. But we can’t all be so lucky with our legacies. Case in point: 18th century Russian military leader and lover of Empress Catherine the Great, Gregory Potemkin, whose name would come to define any kind of construction built for the purpose of deceiving others. According to legend, when the Empress visited Crimea in 1787, he ordered the creation of entire fake villages all along her route in order to disguise the recently annexed area’s dilapidated state. Phoney houses with painted façades were erected and thousands of peasants were alleged to have been stage-managed to fool the Empress into thinking that the area was faring better than it was. After rumours of her whirlwind visit got back to St. Petersburg, critics coined the notion of the “Potemkin village”, a term which would remain relevant to this day, used to describe places that are built specifically to provide a misleading façade, usually for the purpose of propaganda. Let’s discover a few of them…
The sole purpose of a Potemkin village is to make outsiders think that a situation is better than it really is, and perhaps no other country is better versed in this practice today than North Korea. Situated in the Demilitarized Zone is a village called Kijong-Dong, built in the 1950s in an attempt to encourage defection from people in South Korea.
From afar, the small town which directly faces its enemy, also known as the “Peace Village”, looks relatively normal. It has clean well-kept streets, a number of brightly-painted multi-storey buildings and identical low-rise apartments which all appear to have working electricity which would demonstrate North Korea’s prosperity and economic success following the split. The government claims that the village is home to some 200 residents, a farm, a hospital, and a school. Despite appearances however, the more likely reality is, KijongDong has no permanent residents.
Telescopic lenses have revealed that the village’s buildings are nothing more than empty concrete shells, lacking glass windows, interior rooms and even flooring. According to South Korea, caretakers flip light switches and sweep empty pavements, all to preserve a grand illusion. Photographs from inside the village, are non-existent and Western media know it better as ‘Propaganda Village’.
While the concept of architectural fakery used to hide deceptive, dangerous motives is one that we find common amongst totalitarian regimes, we find that Western democratic governments have also implemented forms of Potemkin Villages. To give a better impression to visitors during the 2006 Super Bowl, Detroit arranged for lights to be installed behind selected windows of its abandoned buildings and vacant towers. Similar tactics have been used in run-down parts of Cleveland, Ohio, Chicago and Cincinnati, disguising abandoned housing with fake doors and windows to create an illusion of occupancy in blighted neighbourhoods.
And it’s nothing new. In fact, some of America’s most iconic architecture is arguably based on the concept of Potemkin villages.
In the Old West pioneer towns, false front architecture was the perfect choice to peddle the American dream. The tall vertical facades often hid a more basic wood-framed building and gable roof, creating the illusion of grandeur, affluence and stability in a new frontier town. The decorated facades used better-graded material on the facade, while investing very little in the side and rear of the buildings. The main streets needed to reflect stability and success, even if, most times, the buildings (and the town’s economic prosperity) were only temporary.
Mining towns in particular seemed to rise from the ground and quickly fall back into oblivion, becoming ghost towns, so business-owners were not keen to spend money on temporary storage buildings. Their goal was to make money as soon as possible and pack up in search of opportunities elsewhere once the mine dried up. If a false-front town became successful, the community would remove the temporary wooden structures and rebuild with more stable brick or stone material. Of course, Hollywood sets use false front architecture all the time because they’re inexpensively made and quick to install. It’s perhaps why the industry loved making cowboy movies.
Similar occurrences of Potemkin villages take place during dark and turbulent times in modern history. During World War II, Germany had created a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto in Terezin, Czechoslovakia to mislead the world, including the Jewish community itself, about Hitler’s Final Solution. The camp, called “the peace ghetto,” served as a halfway point, where prominent and elder Jews would stay before being deported to extermination camps. In 1944, the German Red Cross visited the ghetto to observe the living conditions and were led to believe it was a retirement settlement for Jews. Prior to the visit, the SS had embarked on an elaborate “beautification” campaign; setting up manufactured homes, shops, and manicured gardens to convince the delegation that the site was a thriving spa town. The ruse worked, and the Red Cross left feeling satisfied with Jewish living conditions and the overall attractiveness of the town. More than 88,000 people were held there for months or years before being deported to extermination camps and other killing sites while most of the remaining inhabitants died from malnutrition and illnesses like typhoid fever.
Looking to portray these spectacles in a new light, artist Gregory Sailer spent two years traveling to seven different countries searching for modern-day Potemkin villages. The results are a series of photographs he titles “The Potemkin Village.” “The effort and investments to construct all these large cities is very impressive,” he said. “Even though I knew that everything was fake, these mock towns and villages seemed to be kind of real. There’s a certain loneliness to walking through these places.”
“Not surprisingly”, in his search for Potemkin Villages, Sailor notes “the country of the term’s origin, Russia, still fakes whole streets in disguise when high-ranking political celebrities are visiting from abroad”.
The term is often used figuratively in politics and economics – Vladimir Putin himself is commonly referred to as a Potemkin President. But some might argue it hits even closer to home. Medium author Medina Eve believes social media is our generation’s Potemkin Village, comparing Facebook or Instagram likes to a façade, designed to make us feel like everything is going well. “But the more we hide behind these façades and rely on them for dopamine hits we’re missing IRL,” she warns, “the further from self-actualization we become”.
Are we all just living in a virtual Potemkin Village?