You are currently viewing The Potemkin Effect
  • Post published:March 15, 2023

We humans are adept at creating and concocting lies, and then once the lies have been spoken into existence, deeply believing them. Such concoctions, if not explicitly designed to sow the seeds of chaos, are intended to produce a preferred narrative for the liar(s). Such a stratagem can be used to advance an individual or propel a nation to act outside acceptable norms. When nothing is true, when we cannot distinguish between good and evil, then what moral compass do we have to provide us guidance?

This makes me think of a story I recently read known as the “Potemkin village.” Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was an eighteenth-century Russian minister. Over his lifetime, Potemkin served in many capacities for Catherine the Great: builder, diplomat, officer, and lover.

In 1789 Catherine decided to tour her empire down the Dneiper River through the Ukraine and Crimea. To impress Catherine with his administration of the region, Potemkin is alleged to have ordered that everything be hurriedly spruced up along the way using painted facades to fool Catherine into thinking that the area was far richer than it was. This ruse involved the construction of painted façades to mimic real villages, full of happy, well-fed people, for Catherine and her officials to see.

In a fit of zeal to make a favorable impression on Catherine and her entourage during her inspection tour down the river, the countryside was whitewashed. New villages sprang up that consisted only of fake pasteboard facades. This extravagant staging might be exaggerated by some critics, but you know we can’t let pesky facts get in the way of a good story.

Whatever the level of truth, the whole effort was a sham and a fraud. Potemkin concocted and created the lies, believed by the highest levels of government because they wanted to believe. Is our morality nothing more than a “Potemkin village”?

Our best attempts at goodness and morality are no better if our hearts and minds are not regenerated by truth. We long to be of good character. We long for those around us to also be of good character, those we associate with, those with whom we choose to invest our time and treasure, those we choose to elect. Don’t we want those around us to have the substance of real character or be feeble imitators? Sound character can only come when a heart has been touched by something greater than itself…something profound, transcendent, and holy, not whitewashed.