"Women's eyes have pierced more hearts than ever did the bullets of war." That old quote must have been in the mind of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin when he asked the peasants to spruce up the area around the Ukraine and Crimea before Catherine II made a grand tour of the area in 1787. Folklore says that Potemkin had facades of villages constructed along the banks of the Dnieper River to impress the monarch and her travel party. He wanted to enhance the value of her new conquests, as well as enhance his standing in Catherine's eyes.
But Aleksandr Panchenko, an authoritative historian on 18th and 19th century Russia, said that all the Potemkin village stories are myths. Panchenko said, " We must conclude that the myth of 'Potemkin villages' is just that. It is not an established fact." He wrote that "Potemkin did decorate the villages, but he didn't hide anything from the Empress." His close relationship with Catherine would have made it difficult to deceive her, though some historians say that Potemkin may have thought that foreign ambassadors traveling with the imperial party could be deceived.
Potemkin distinguished himself During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74, and he became Catherine's lover in 1774. They had a romantic relationship that lasted less than three years, though the couple remained close friends the rest of their lives. Catherine appointed him to several important posts, which included making him governor-general of "New Russia," which was Crimea and the Southern Ukraine.
In 1783, Russia annexed Crimea, and Potemkin wanted to make it the showplace of Catherine's empire. He developed the Black Sea naval port of Sevastopol, which gave Russia a southern coast, and he settled several more towns and built a formidable war fleet of 15 ships and 25 smaller boats. Potemkin was the catalyst behind thousands of settlers who effectively launched manufacturing and agricultural businesses in this new southern land.
From the beginning of the project, Potemkin planned to share his accomplishments with Catherine as well as with the European powers that travelled with her. It was a monumental task and he had limited time to execute it so it's no surprise that a few roads, villages and a palace or two were not completed on time.
The tale about Potemkin villages came from Georg von Helbig, who was one of the Saxon envoys to Catherine's court, who was not a friend of Potemkin. Georg von Helbig did not make the trip to the Crimea, but in his diplomatic dispatches, and in a Potemkin biography that was completed almost a decade after the Potemkin's death in 1791, he passed along inaccurate gossip that circulated in Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital.
The term Potemkin village was also used in modern Russia to describe the attempts of the Russian government to fool foreign visitors. The government would take visitors who were sympathetic to communism and socialism to superior factories, schools, stores, neighborhoods and villages and present them as the norm experienced in Russian society instead of the exceptions they were in their society. The strict limitations imposed on foreigners in the USSR made it impossible for them to see real examples of Russian life.
The term is also often used by judges who are members of a multiple-judge panel. They may dissent from the majority's opinion on a legal matter, and use the term Potemkin village to describe an inaccurate application of a legal doctrine. Using the term means that the reasons espoused by the majority are not based on accurate law. The opinion is a masquerade to avoid a difficult decision.
Even though Potemkin was the architect of an important part of Russian society his name in modern times means there is a façade associated with some aspect of life that appears real, but is not.