Potemkin: A mask to disguise a shabby fact or condition

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The phrase Potemkin village is defined in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary- Encyclopedia as a “pretentious showy or imposing facade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.”

The name  Potemkin is from Prince Potemkin who allegedly had a village of cardboard constructed for Catherine II’s visit to the Ukraine  in 1787.

This was part of an elaborate scheme to fool visiting royalty.

Within this process, a phrase developed that means to disguise something in such a manner as to hide its flaws.

From Merriam-Websters Word Histories:

“Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin  (1739-1791) was a prince, a politician, the commander in chief of the Russian army, the lover of Catherine the Great and, for 17 years, the most powerful man in the Russian empire.

“His reputation for extravagance, licentiousness and even magnanimity inspired the rise of a body of anecdotes about him. One of the undisputed peaks of his long, illustrious career was his masterminding of Russia’s conquest of the Crimea, a feat accomplished in 1783.

“Four years later Potemkin arranged for Catherine, his beloved empress, to take a grand tour of the newly annexed territory. Part of the empress’ official acceptance of her new provinces consisted of dedicating new towns bearing her name, etymologists said.

“Accompanying the Russian court on this glorious junket were the Emperor of Austria, the King of Poland, and a swarm of diplomats, one of whom, a certain Helbug from Saxony was the originator of a Potemkin anecdote.”

“According to Helbug’s account, Potemkin, in order to impress Catherine with the prosperity of her new acquisition, erected whole villages along her traveling route.”

These villages were made of cardboard, but the people could not get close enough to detect the buildings were, in fact, cardboard.

Fortunately, Catherine was kept so far away she could not detect these villages were facades. Though the story of the sham villages must be regarded as apocryphal, it has been retold often since first coming to light.

Etymologists say this deception over the years found a receptive audience, and it has given us the expression “Potemkin village” to use for any imposing facade or display intended to obscure or hide an undesirable condition.

According to Merriam-Webster etymologists, in 1980 at the time of the Olympic Games in Moscow, some of the Western journalists observed that among Westerners there was an eerie sense that somehow the Soviet capital had been transformed into one vast ‘Potemkin village.’

In other words, etymologists said the festive prosperous Moscow that was being presented to the outside world was but a deceptive facade erected to hide the dreary reality of communism behind it.

The use of the expression ‘Potemkin village’ to characterize the dreary facade was a particular etymological expression that seemed appropriate to Americans.

According to a legend that has attained the status of fact in the popular imagination, Russia is where the whole notion of a Potemkin village started.

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgarg7@aol.com

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