Potemkin village (Russia)
|Potemkin village/Potemkinskaia derevnia|
|Author: Jessica T. Pisano|
|Affiliation: New School for Social Research, New York, USA|
Original text: Jessica T. Pisano, New School for Social Research, New York, USA
A Potemkin village is a simulation: a facade meant to fool the viewer into thinking that he or she is seeing the real thing. The concept is used in the Russian-speaking world as well as in English and in other languages. Potemkin village belongs to a genus of phenomena that proliferate in post-Soviet space. Those phenomena describe gaps between external appearances and underlying realities. In the Russian language, the genus includes species such as pokazukha (window-dressing, see Pisano 2014, Radio Maiak 2010), imitatsiia (mimicry—a loan word from English, in contrast to the Russian podrazhenie, or imitation), feik (doctored news images or reports), as well as a rich vocabulary describing various subspecies of shell companies: roga i kopyta, firma-odnodnevka, fonar’, pomoika, ezhik, and many others.
Potemkin villages bear a family resemblance to the phantasms of capitalist reproduction that Baudrillard described as simulacra, but they arguably express a different ontological orientation. Some understand Potemkin villages as imaginaries rather than illusions. In such interpretations, Potemkin villages are aspirational, rather than deceptive, and they are only meaningful insofar as their referent exists somewhere in the world. In Russia, Seifrid writes, the ‘prolific construction of simulacra’ is ‘not a sham culture suspended over reality’s absence, but one energetically cycling, responding to, and transforming into hard cultural currency the fabricated signs that it appropriates, magpie-like, from abroad—sustained by a hope in the referent’s eventual advent’.
The original Potemkin villages were said to be eighteenth century facades constructed by Prince Potemkin to impress Empress Catherine II as she traveled in Crimea following its annexation from the Ottoman Empire. Historians now agree that this legend is likely an exaggeration. But debates about the veracity of the original story crystallise frictions embodied in the concept: Where should the lines be drawn between artifice and embellishment, and between embellishment and mere decoration? Wherein lies the distinction between deception and aspiration? And where artifice is persuasive, how do we know what it is that we are seeing? These questions have become particularly salient during the current period, in which Potemkin villages and related concepts are frequently used to describe political institutions, including electoral practices and elite-led and elite- captured social movements. Increasingly, politicians and others across the political spectrum refer to Potemkin villages, or some variation on the concept, to accuse their opponents of inauthenticity.
Potemkin villages appear in numerous guises in nineteenth and twentieth century literature, as well as in Soviet-era political economy. In the nineteenth century literary and political imagination, façade and theatrical tropes surface most famously in Gogol’s Revisor (1836) and with greatest present-day resonance in Mertvye dushi (1842), in which Gogol’s protagonist Chichikov schemes to raise money by purchasing recently deceased serfs (upon whose head landowners continued to owe taxes) and using their names as collateral. Writing in reaction to liberalisation later in the century, Aksakov bemoaned the ubiquity of mere appearances. Among the most infamous statements about Potemkin villages are the observations of the Marquis de Custine, who described Russia as an ‘empire of catalogues’.
Soviet-era Potemkin villages included performances of economic development: presentations of model farms, factories, schools, and other institutions were staples of visits by delegations from Moscow and abroad. In 1988, Mikhail Zadornov published a widely read satirical essay about the practice. Post-Soviet literature likewise contains numerous references to a variety of types of Potemkin village. For example, in the world of Viktor Pelevin’s Omon Ra, humans dress as game to entertain hunting parties of Party elite and millions of political prisoners simultaneously jump up and down in order to simulate tests of nuclear warheads.
The concept plays a central role in the eponymously titled The Post-Soviet Potemkin Village, which analyses the political economy of villages along the present day Russia-Ukraine border. In it, Jessica Pisano drew on long-term field research in rural communities to show how post-Soviet privatisation of land in Russia and Ukraine produced widespread rural dispossession and consolidation of state and corporate control, all concealed by a paper record of rural ownership. In contrast to many other examples, Potemkin villages in the post-Soviet countryside were not entirely intentional charades. Instead, they were produced by a confluence of economic policy choices at the national level and local actors’ responses to those choices.
Beyond the Russian-speaking world, variations on Potemkin villages can be found in most contemporary polities and in many vernaculars. These ‘experience near concepts’ most often are used to describe political phenomena. In Lusophone Africa and Brazil, people speak of laws that are ‘só para inglês ver’ (‘just for the English to see’), originally in reference to nineteenth-century pro-forma Portuguese efforts to stamp out the slave trade in the face of British criticism. In Francophone Africa, Emmanuel Terray writes of la véranda and le climatiseur. Journalism and scholarly research in and about Latin America has long referred to the ‘democratic façade’ (fachada democrática). And in politics in the United States, ‘Astroturf’ lobbyists pay PR firms to create campaigns that resemble grassroots political movements.
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