September 24, 2015

Potemkin

adj. sham, insubstantial; consisting of little or nothing behind an impressive facade
Oxford English Dictionary

Today is the birthday of Grigory Potemkin, whose windswept locks may or may not have been a cheap rug.

Anyone trying to sell a house should know the subtle tricks for sprucing up a shabby property—toothpaste for wall cracks, shoe polish for hardwood scratches, and baking cookies to mask the odor of incontinent pets. Some scholars believe (although the historical record is sparse and there is ample evidence to the contrary) that Grigory Potemkin may have pulled the greatest bait and switch in history when he built entire bogus villages in the arid wasteland of southwestern Ukraine to impress his boss and sugar mama—Catherine the Great.

Potemkin was born to a military family along the Dnieper River in western Russia in 1739. He would eventually be part of the 1762 coup that overthrew the hapless Peter III and put Peter’s opportunistic wife, Catherine II (soon to be “Great”), on the throne, ushering in a new era of sex and statesmanship that would last for more than thirty years. Catherine liberally commingled her public and private lives, vocally proclaiming that she and Peter had never consummated their marriage (despite the existence of their “son,” Paul) and enjoying affairs with multiple advisers and supporters—though, strangely and ironically, not one of the most legendary philanderers of the age (see Casanova). Catherine called upon Potemkin for military guidance when her crown was threatened in the early 1770s, and the two inevitably became lovers.

Within a decade, the flagging powers of the Ottoman Empire (see ottoman) and others ceded control of an enormous swath of land, almost a quarter of a million square miles, to Russia as Catherine expanded her empire ever south and west. Catherine named Potemkin a prince of the Holy Roman Empire and directed him to rule the vast, treeless steppes of southern Ukraine and annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea (see also cardigan). History gets a little murky at this point, depending on who is doing the telling, but Potemkin’s detractors claim that when Catherine and several foreign dignitaries visited the barren flatlands under his control, Potemkin built entirely fake settlements with glowing fires and mobile herds of animals to make the desolate prairies look more inhabited. What is probably more likely is that Catherine was either party to the ruse (hoping to impress her entourage) or that Potemkin did little more than encourage his denizens to bring some spit and polish to their rural outpost.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many negative eponyms, whether or not the story is true is less important than the fact that it is how most of history remembers Potemkin. Fairly or not, today his name is invoked politically to represent what is believed to be a superficial cover-up of any undesirable truth, applied to everything from the Olympic Village constructed in Beijing in 2008 back to the concentration camps where the Nazis allowed visits during World War II.

Still, despite his notorious namesake, his alleged venereal disease, and the undisputed fact that he lost his marbles near the end of his life, it is safe to say that Potemkin has fared better historically than Catherine the Great. Despite overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, many still claim she died after failed fornication with a horse.