Potemkin Villages: The History Of Fake Buildings For Tricking Outsiders

By | May 18, 2020

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No. 41–46 Leinster Gardens. (David Anstiss/Wikimedia Commons)

What do you see in the photo above? Just a beautiful upscale residential street, basking in the rays of an unusually sunny London afternoon, right? There's nothing particularly interesting on the surface of it, but what if someone told you that's all it is? That if you turned a doorknob, it wouldn't open, and if you peeked through the window, you'd find nothing but a dark wall?

At least, that's the case for two of the houses in Leinster Gardens, whose white mid-Victorian facade exists merely to cover up the unsightly railroad tracks behind them. These so-called fake buildings are more common than you might think, often found in the upscale neighborhoods of big cities to hide ugly industrial or transit blights. If you put enough of these fake buildings together, you've got what's known as a Potemkin village.

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The former castle brewery in Kolín. ( -jkb-/Wikimedia Commons)

Potemkin's First Village

Potemkin villages can be entire streets, neighborhoods, or even towns filled with fake buildings, usually for some kooky political or military purpose. The odd practice got its name from Grigory Potemkin, a lover of Russia's Empress Catherine the Great. According to legend, Potemkin wanted to show off Russia's impressive villages along the edges of the Dneiper River to some traveling royalty and foreign dignitaries as they passed by boat. There was only one problem: The villages in this area weren't actually impressive. They were poverty-stricken and derelict, nothing for a leader to boast about.

To remedy this, the story goes, they quickly built attractive facades to hide the ugly truth and then somehow moved these exteriors to the next town before the boat got there. The boat would have been moving faster than any method of 18th-century ground transportation, let alone one that could move an entire wall, so this would have been quite a feat indeed for the chance that the traveling foreigners wouldn't notice they kept passing the same building. Most historians have called out these inconsistencies, but the name stuck all the same.