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Modern Potemkin Villages

In 1787, Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was scheduled for a grand tour of the newly acquired lands of Crimea and New Russia—now part of Ukraine—which she gained by defeating the Ottoman Empire and after signing peace treaties with the Cossack Hetmanate. The trip was to be arranged by Gregory Potemkin, the governor of the region, who was clearly Catherine's favorite and one of her numerous lovers.

The region had been devastated by the war, and one of Potemkin's major tasks were to rebuild it and bring in Russian settlers. In 1787, as a new war was about to break out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, Catherine II with her court and several ambassadors made an unprecedented six-month trip to New Russia. The purpose of this trip was to impress Russia's allies prior to the war.

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Fireworks in honor of Catherine the Great on the Dnieper River.

As soon as Potemkin heard of the upcoming visit, the cunning governor put of a big show of sham prosperity by hastily erecting many fake villages on the banks of the Dnieper River and along Catherine's route in order to impress the Empress and her diplomatic friends. The story goes that as soon as the barge carrying the Empress and ambassadors arrived, Potemkin's men, dressed as peasants, would populate the village. Once the barge left, the village was disassembled, then rebuilt downstream overnight.

Modern historians agree that these accounts are mostly exaggerated, at best, or completely fictionalized, at worst. Still, the legend stuck. Today, the term "Potemkin village" has come to signify any deceptive or false construct meant to deceive others into thinking that a situation is much better than it really is.

Time and again various regimes and government have used such fakery with varying degree of success. In 1944, when delegates from Red Cross came for inspection of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the Nazis presented Theresienstadt as a model Jewish settlement. Prior to the visit, the Nazis deported many Jews to Auschwitz to minimize overcrowding. They built fake shops and cafés to imply that the Jews lived in relative comfort. In reality, more than 33,000 inmates died there as a result of malnutrition, disease, or the sadistic treatment by their captors.

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In 2010, in Cleveland, USA, fake doors and windows painted on plywood panels were used to disguise vacant houses in a blighted part of the city. Take a close look at the windows of this house. The flowers are painted on wooden boards to fool passersby into believing that the house is sound and occupied. Photo credit: Chuck Crow

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Photo credit: Chuck Crow

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In Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, during the 2013 G8 summit, large photographs were put up in the windows of closed shops in the town so as to give the appearance of thriving businesses for visitors driving past them. Here, you can see a "pretend" butcher shop in the village of Belcoo in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, near Enniskillen. Some vacant stores and shops in the village have large wraparound stickers on the windows to make them look occupied. Photo credit: Bryan O'Brien / The Irish Times

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A "pretend" office supplies shop in the village of Belcoo in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, near the site of G8 summit. Photo credit: Bryan O'Brien / The Irish Times

Recently, in a new book, photographer Gregor Sailer documents the phenomenon of Potemkin Villages from around the world. Sailer photographed faithful replicas of European cities in China to mock towns built for vehicle testing or combat training. The following images are from the book.

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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Photo credit: Gregor Sailer

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