Potemkin court

Potemkin village

Potemkin villages were purportedly fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. According to this story, Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress's eyes.

General Potemkin's villages

There is a division among modern historians on the degree of truth behind Potemkin villages. While the tales of the fake villages are generally considered an exaggeration, some historians dismiss them as simply 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's arrival. For example, according to 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.

Some Russian historians have a somewhat different view. Aleksandr Panchenko, an authoritative specialist on 19th century Russia, used original correspondence and memoirs to conclude that the myth of the Potemkin village has a basis in reality as "Potemkin really did build mock towns and villages, but he never denied that they were theatrical sets. Panchenko writes that "Potemkin's goal was to demonstrate that this vast region was already practically civilized, or was at least energetically becoming civilized," by showing a vision of what the area would become including using screens on which villages were painted and driving flocks of sheep each night to the next stop along the route.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that the close relationship between Field Marshal Potemkin and Empress Catherine made it likely that she was aware of the fictitious nature of the villages. Thus, the deception would have been mainly directed towards the foreign ambassadors accompanying the imperial party.

Regardless, Potemkin had in fact directed the building of fortresses, ships of the line, and thriving settlements, and the tour – which saw real and significant accomplishments – solidified his power. So, while "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, the phrase may not apply to its original context.

Modern Uses

"Potemkin village" has also frequently been used to describe the attempts of the Soviet government to fool foreign visitors. The government would take such visitors, who were often already sympathetic to socialism or communism, to select villages, factories, schools, stores, or neighborhoods and present them as if they were typical, rather than exceptional. Given the strict limitations on the movement of foreigners in the USSR, it was often impossible for these visitors to see any other examples.

Examples of Potemkin villages

  • The Theresienstadt concentration camp, called "the Paradise Ghetto" in World War II, was designed as a concentration camp that could be shown to the Red Cross, but it was really a Potemkin village: attractive at first, but deceptive and ultimately lethal, with high death rates from malnutrition and contagious diseases, and it ultimately served as a way-station to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
  • Gijeong-dong, Democratic People's Republic of Korea
  • Following the Manchurian Incident, and China's referral of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria to the League of Nations in 1931, the League's representative was given a tour of the 'truly Manchurian' parts of the region. It was meant to prove that the area was not under Japanese domination. Whether the farce succeeded or not is moot; Japan withdrew from the League the following year.
  • In his December 2007 essay in The New York Review of Books 54.19 ("A Moral Witness to the 'Intricate Machine'"), Avishai Margalit referred to many of Israel's settlements in the West Bank as "little more than Potemkin villages."
  • It was said of Beijing in an article on 08/12/2008 in the Evening Standard in the United Kingdom, that "the entire host city has been turned into a kind of Potemkin Olympic village".

Term used in legal system

The term "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 term 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 the U.S. Supreme Court abortion case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v Casey, 505 US 833, 966 (1992) then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said 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".

Other uses

Sometimes, instead of the full phrase, just "Potemkin" is used, as an adjective. For example, "Potemkin Court", "Potemkin Security". The meaning of "Potemkin Court" seems distinct from kangaroo court in that the court's reason to exist is being called into question, not its standard of justice. The use of trees to screen a clearcut from a highway has been called a "Potemkin Forest."

The term is also used in politics and literature. Frank Rich's 2006 book, "The Greatest Story Ever Sold," likens the George W. Bush administration's efforts to create favorable news stories about the progress of the Iraq War, both in the United States and in Iraq, to a "Potemkin Village."

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.

See also


  • Chen Jo-hsi. (1978). The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-12475-1
  • EircomTribunal, "2003 Potemkin Village Award," EircomTribunal.com,
  • Goldberg, Jonah. "Potemkin Village in Cuba: Let's make one of our own", National Review, April 19, 2000.
  • Katchanovski, Ivan and Todd La Porte. "Cyberdemocracy or Potemkin E-Villages? Electronic Governments in OECD and Post-Communist Countries," International Journal of Public Administration, Volume 28, Number 7-8, July 2005.
  • Ledeen, Michael. "Potemkin WMDs? Really?", National Review, February 2, 2004
  • Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin ISBN 0-87580-324-5 (edited and translated from the Russian by Douglas Smith)
  • Potemkin Court as a description of The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (from the Washington Post)
  • Potemkin Parliament as a description of the European Parliament (from the New Statesman, Sept 20 2004)
  • Sullivan, Kevin. "Borderline Absurdity", ''Washington Post, January 11, 1998.
  • Buchan, James. "Potemkin democracy" as a description of Russia. "New Statesman", July 17, 2006

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