LIES AND DECEPTION
Potemkin and his villages
Grigory Potemkin is today barely remembered outside Russia. Most people have heard that he erected pasteboard cottages in the countryside to fool Catherine the Great into believing that the peasants were living happy, rustic lives. But that story is a myth, and it diminishes the achievements of a truly extraordinary man.
(The Winter Palace at St Petersburg was completed in 1762. It was designed as the winter residence of the tsars and Catherine the Great was its first occupant. The immense baroque palace has 1057 halls and rooms and 1945 windows).
Totemkin village is one of those phrases that has taken on a life of its own because it conjures up such a useful image. We can all see how someone might put a huge effort into tricking us for a short moment in order to create a falsely pleasing long-term impression. In politics, the expression 'Totemkin village' has become a cliche for expensive, headline-grabbing policies which fail to address the real problems behind society's painted facade. Politicians as different as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British prime minister Tony Blair have been accused of constructing Potemkin villages. US president George W. Bush has been described as 'the Potemkin village idiot'.
There are some intriguing variations on the theme. 'Potemkin parliaments' are institutions which, in dictatorships, rubber-stamp the despot's decisions in order to lend a democratic gloss to an authoritarian process! 'Potemkin courts' are a judicial sham, a way of paying lip service to justice when the real aim is to eliminate opponents of the government. Other adaptations of the phrase include 'Potemkin economy', 'Potemkin society', Potemkin science' and 'Potemkin education reform'. In every case, the use of the word Potemkin suggests cynical deceit - a pretence made all the worse for being so flimsy and transparent. Potemkin's name has become a synonym for tawdry, deliberate falsehood.
THE AMBITIOUS COURTIER
Grigory Potemkin was the adviser and consort of Catherine the Great, and a fine Russian statesman in his own right. He hitched his star to Catherine's from the very start of his career. In 1762, as a 23-year-old army officer in the Preobrazhensky Guards, he took part in the palace coup that brought her to power. On the night that the German-born Catherine snatched the throne from her feeble husband, Peter III, she rode out at the head of the Preobrazhensky regiment. She was 33 years old, and she was dressed in the striking green uniform of a cavalry captain. As the mounted column set off to arrest the tsar, it was suddenly noticed that Catherine had forgotten her dragonne, the decorative loop of braid that officers wore on the hilt of their swords. The young Potemkin galloped over to Catherine, tore off his own dragonne, and offered it to her. This chivalrous gesture, made by a youthful and good-looking cavalryman, pleased Catherine immensely. It was Potemkin's only contribution to the coup, but, once the drama was over, Catherine made sure that he received a promotion along with generous gifts of money and serfs.
After that first encounter, Potemkin was never far from Catherine's thoughts. He was often invited to her soirees, as a
(In the depths of the Russian winter, Empress Catherine, ensconced in her great travelling sleigh, made her way through her Empire accompanied by foreign guests including the ambassadors of several major European nations. She aimed to impress them with evidence of Russia's modernization)
lively and entertaining guest. He had a special gift for mimicry, and on one occasion he dared to imitate the Empress's speaking voice, making much of her marked German accent. The assembled courtiers were horrified by Potemkin's impudence, and it could easily have cost him everything. But Potemkin had judged his gamble well: Catherine roared with laughter.
Potemkin became a courtier. He rose swiftly through the ranks, all the while growing closer to Catherine. He was certainly in love with her, or at least with an idealised regal image of her, and she was becoming increasingly fond of him. By 1768, when war broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, he was a Kammerherr, a chamberlain of the court, as well as a captain in the Guards. In this latter role he requested permission to leave St Petersburg to fight the Turks. Catherine granted the request, but missed him while he was gone. When he returned in 1771 he was greeted by Catherine as a hero. Absence had made the queen's heart grow fonder, as Potemkin had calculated that it would. It was a short time after this that they became lovers.
Their affair was passion-filled and all-consuming. They could not bear to leave each other's side, and when they had to be apart they constantly scribbled little billets doux, which were carried to and fro through the corridors of the palace by trotting footmen. Many of these are as intimate as they are brief. 'I am going to bed,' wrote the Tsaritsa of All the Russias at the end of one evening. 'The doors will be open. Darling, I will do whatever you command. Shall I come to you or will you come to me?' Potemkin's apartments were connected to Catherine's by a secret staircase - so secret that everybody in the court knew about it. One of them made the short walk to the other's bed every night. In the daytime, they often met in the banya - the Russian bathhouse - where, wreathed in steam, they made love and talked politics by turns.
(Potemkin's influence on Catherine lasted long after their love affair had ended. They corresponded regularly and he was party to the most important state documents. His energy was astonishing; as well as his military exploits, his colonising efforts in the south of the empire led to the creation of several major cities - a long way from the 'cardboard villages' that bear his name)
THE SOUTHERN TSAR
Potemkin's ascendancy to the pinnacle of Catherine's affections brought him wealth and power too. The gifts that she showered upon him made him fabulously rich, and the titles and responsibilities she bestowed gave him formal influence: in his mid-thirties he became a member of the State Council, Catherine's advisory cabinet. He was given command of Russia's Cossack cavalry, and was made Governor-General of 'New Russia', the lands that Russia had wrested from the Ottoman Empire in the recent war. But the true source of his power was his closeness to Catherine. For years to come, he was her dearest friend and counsellor, the person who understood her intuitively and utterly. The spiritual connection remained long after the fire went out of their affair and both of them had found other, younger lovers. To the court and to foreign diplomats and spies, Potemkin was the 'demi-tsar'. In New Russia, a vast swathe of territory on the northern shores of the Black Sea, Potemkin was to all intents and purposes a full-fledged emperor. He was resolved to consolidate Catherine's political and territorial gains in the south, and this became his life's work. It was a task worthy of his huge ambition and energy, and he set to it with great gusto. In this phase of his life he most resembles Peter the Great, who by the force of his own will founded a new Russian capital on the Baltic coast, built a navy, dragged Russia out of its medieval somnolence and turned it into a great European power. Potemkin, for his part, conquered the Crimea and established a fleet on the Black Sea (so that Russia would have a port in the south as well as the north). He reformed the army, abolishing sadistic punishments, redesigning the uniforms for comfort and practicability, and doing away with the ridiculous powdered wigs that were the bane of an infantryman's life. He ruled his domain as a benevolent despot, always ready to dispense mercy and munificence to the pitiful Russian villeins who looked on him as a distant father.
To the court and to foreign diplomats and spies, Potemkin was the demi-tsar
And like Peter, Potemkin was a builder. The tsar has the eponymous St Petersburg to his credit, but Potemkin has many cities to his. Among them are Odessa, the naval port of Sevastopol, Nikolayev, Kherson and Ekaterinoslav - 'Catherine's Glory' - known since Soviet times as Dniepropetrovsk. These cities were surrounded with new plantations and populated with adventurous colonists. Like America in the 19th century, New Russia attracted 'the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.' Renegade scossacks, Greek and Albanian peasants, heretical Old Believers, Corsicans, German farmers, persecuted Jews - Potemkin made them all welcome in the virgin southern lands. He took a lively interest in the progress and problems of these foreign immigrants, and was always looking for new sources of colonists. At one point he even considered inviting British convicts to settle — his brave new world.
THE GRAND TOUR OF 'NEW RUSSIA'
But even while this great work was going on, there were rumours in St Petersburg that all the stories about new cities, mighty warships, vines weighed down with fat grapes and so forth, were just fabrications put about by Potemkin himself. He had plenty of enemies at court who were happy to pass on such tittle-tattle.
Some of the stories reached Catherine's ears, and perhaps this helped her to make up her mind to go and see it all for herself. Both Catherine and Potemkin had much to gain from a royal tour of New Russia. Potemkin wanted to show to his sovereign all that he had achieved in the new lands, in particular the diamond-shaped jewel of the Crimea with its brand-new navy. Catherine wanted to satisfy her own curiosity, and to show it all off to the foreign ambassadors who were to accompany her. Peter the Great had called Petersburg his 'window on the west'; New Russia would be Catherine's shop window, her imperial showcase.
The Empress and her entourage set off from her palace in Tsarskoye Selo, south of St Petersburg, in the winter of 1787. The snowy procession consisted of 14 carriages and more than 150 sledges. Catherine's carriage was a horse-drawn fur-lined house on skis. She shared this little mobile home with her latest lover, a pretty young dunce named Mamonov. They were joined in her carriage from time to time by the ambassadors who had been invited on the trip - the envoys of Austria, France and England - and by other courtiers, hand-picked for their ability to amuse the Empress on the long journey. It took the best part of a month to reach the golden-headed city of Kiev. Here the party met with Potemkin, and waited for the frozen river Dniepr to melt, so that they could continue their journey south by boat.
OBSERVATIONS ON THE TOUR OF THE SOUTH
That day came on April 22, 1787. Catherine and her court embarked on specially-built barges no less luxurious than her winter carriage. Bands played on the foreshore and cannons fired the royal salute. During the past weeks, Potemkin had worked hard to ensure that the riverbanks were clean and tidy for miles downriver, and that the buildings on the foreshore were pleasing to the eye. Perhaps this last-minute spring-clean, magnified a hundredfold in the telling, helped to foster the rumour that all the buildings on the riverside were merely pasteboard facades, that they were only meant to be seen by the Empress for a short moment as she passed down the middle of the broad river.
The French ambassador, count Louis-Philippe de Segur, may even have been alluding mischievously to these stories when he wrote in his diary: 'Towns, villages, country houses, and sometimes rustic huts, were so wonderfully adorned and disguised with garlands of flowers and splendid architectural decorations that they seemed to be transformed before our eyes into superb cities. Palaces suddenly sprang up and magically created gardens.'
Another member of the party Charles-Joseph de Ligne, an Austrian prince, set out to see the New Russia for himself, and to disprove the rumours if they were false. At one of the frequent riverside stops he left his barge and went for a walk. He was a friend of Potemkin's, and so is not an impartial witness, but his testimony has the ring of truth. 'I know very well what legerdemain tricks are,' he wrote. 'But I made several excursions without the Empress. I discovered many things with which even Russians are unacquainted. Superb establishments in infancy; growing manufactories; villages with regular streets surrounded and irrigated with little rivers.
Catherine herself joined in the rumour-scotching by writing a parody of stories being told 'in the cities of Moscow and Peterburg and in the foreign newspapers'. Here is her rather laden spoof: "I saw the mountains walking towards us with a heavy gait, and bowing down to us with a languid expression. Let those who do not believe it go and look at the new roads that have been built. They will see that everywhere steep descents have been turned into comfortable slopes. In a story, however; the heavy gait and the bowing sound better.'
THE CARDBOARD LIBEL
On May 1st, Catherine wrote to Count Nikolai Saltykov, a known opponent of Potemkin at court. 'Yesterday I saw with my own eyes the regiments of light cavalry, of which it was said to me by many old fishwives [she was referring to government ministers in Peterburg] that they exist only on paper. These regiments are not
(Catherine II the Great was Empress of Russia from 1762 until her death in 1796. German by birth, her marriage to Peter III was partly the result of some diplomatic manoevring by Frederick the Great of Prussia and the Count Lestocq - who had great influence at the Russian court - to draw Russia and Prussia closer together. As a ruler she wanted to be perceived by Europe as a civilised and enlightened monarch, although her behaviour to her subjects was often tyrannical)
cardboard at all; in fact they are very beautiful'.
That, surely, should have put paid once and for all to the accusations against Potemkin. So how come the lie became so deeply entrenched, and has persisted to this day? The answer lies with a shadowy enemy of Potemkin's, a Saxon diplomat named Georg von Helbig. He was, in essence, a foreign spy at Catherine's court, and it was part of his job to collect court gossip. He knew that, in a country like Russia, the content of palace rumours told at least as much as facts and hard statistics about the true state of affairs.
Helbig did not accompany the imperial party on the tour of the south, but he wrote down everything he heard about it. His despatches all revolve around the same idea: that the entire New Russia project was nothing but a stage-set. 'Only the closest buildings are real,' he wrote of the city of Kherson. 'The rest are drawn on pasteboard, then nailed together and brightly painted.' He also claimed that the great fleet which was inspected by Catherine at Sevastopol 'was made up of merchants' boats and old barges, which were brought here from all around and paraded as martial ships'.
According to Helbig, the same herd of cattle and band of peasants were ferried overnight from place to place and put on display like toys in a doll's house. When they arrived exhausted, after journeys of a hundred miles or more, the peasants were given colourful suits of clothes and made to dance on the riverbank. Catherine was unwittingly gazing on the same people day after day. Helbig gave this rather comical scenario a sinister twist by claiming that other peasants were starving in their thousands while all this was going on.
The coinage Potemkinsche Dorfer - Potemkin villages - is Helbig's own dubious contribution to history. He used it in his despatches, but the expression took flight when he wrote into a biography of Potemkin that he published on his return to Germany. Helbig's book of 'anecdotes' was translated into French and English, and widely read throughout Europe in the first decades of the 19th century. This little volume is the seed of the Potemkin-village legend. But it is nothing but a malicious fairytale, what we would now call an urban myth.
20TH-CENTURY POTEMKIN VILLAGES
Grigory Potemkin did not build any cardboard villages; only real, solid cities. But the concept of the Potemkin village lived on in his native land, and found a literal embodiment 200 years after Catherine's grand tour. In the later years of the Soviet Union, curious westerners who went to the USSR were routinely chaperoned around model schools, kindergartens, factories and hospitals, and told that they were typical of the country as a whole. This was the Potemkin principle in operation, and it was so much a standard propaganda manoeuvre that the Soviets thought everybody did it. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited America in the 1960s, he was taken to visit an industrial plant. On the way in, he noted that the car park was full of automobiles - and he took this to be a deliberate trick on the part of his hosts. He thought that the car park had been stuffed to make him think that all American workers were so well-paid that they could buy their own cars. The truth was: the cars did indeed belong to the workers. But Khrushchev could not credit it; he was sure that he was looking at a Potemkin factory.
The Soviet espousal of the Potemkin principle reached a high-point in 1980, with the Olympic Games in Moscow. Just before the athletes and the world's media arrived in the Soviet capital, bright kiosks selling all manner of undreamed-off luxuries were installed throughout the city. Muscovites were astonished: it was soddenly possible for anybody to buy Czech beer, American cola, tinned caviar, bananas... The kiosks closed as soon as the Games were over. Moscow was 'de-potemkinised', and reverted to its usual regime of endless queues and chronic shortages.
Grigory Potemkin would have thought such a sham unworthy of a great nation. Everything about him was larger than life. His enormous physique, his immense energy and appetites, his profound but rumbustious love for Catherine, his lordly personalty, his military conquests and empire-building - all of these bear the mark of genuine feeling, tangible success, substantial achievement. Potemkin was overpoweringly real, a flesh-and-blood titan. It is hard to imagine a person less likely to resort to the empty pretence that is now forever associated with be name.
IN AROUND 1992 I ATTENDED A WEEKEND SEMINAR ON "BIBLE PROPHECY" - in THE FLORIDA [WHERE I WAS LIVING AT THE TIME]. THE FIRST LECTURER WAS A UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR. HE WAS SELLING HIS 200 PAGE BOOK. WHAT WAS HIS SUBJECT? HE TOLD US ALl THE ROCKETS AND ARMAMENTS PARADED THROUGH THE STREETS OF RUSSIA, WERE MADE OF CARDBOARD!! THEY WERE NOT REAL AT ALL!! RUSSIA HAD NO UNCLEAR BOMBS; IT WAS ALL A PAINTED PRONT; A GREAT DECEPTION; THE WESTERN WORLD WAS BEING DUPED BY CLEVER PROPER-GANDER.
HERE WAS A SO-CALLED "EDUCATED PERSONH" FROM PLANET PLUTO, WITH HIS SILLY AND CRAZY IDEAS - I WALKED OUT NEVER TO RETURN TO THAT SEMINAR. HE WAS THE FIRST OF MANY CRACK-POTS!!
NOW YEARS LATER THE ONLY WAY OUR SPACE PERSONNEL CAN GET TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION IS ON RUSSIAN ROCKET-SHIPS.
YOU TALK ABOUT SILLY, STUPID, DAFT, PROFESSORS, THAT GUY FROM THE USA HAD TO THE FIRST PRIZE FOR UTTER DAFTNESS. YET PEOPLE SAT THERE FOR AN HOUR OR MORE LISTENING TO HIS SO-CALLED PROOF. AND THEN BUYING HIS BOOK! THE ONLY CARDBOARD WAS COMING FROM HIS CARDBOARD MIND.