Potemkin’s Heirs

Less than meets the eye: this perfectly sums up the idea behind a Potemkin village. As the story goes, the Potemkin village is the invention of Russian Field Marshal Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tavricheski, who became famous for his use of fake cities and mock towns for demonstrating the wealth and prosperity of the Tsarist Empire. To this day his idea is copied by many others, as shown in the book „The Potemkin Village“ by photographer Gregor Sailer. We spoke with him about the peculiar magic of modern-day Potemkin villages.

The Potemkin Village
Carson City VI, Vårgårda, Sweden, 2016. Photo: Gregor Sailer

Mr Sailer, where did you get the idea to search for today’s Potemkin villages?
I have been thinking about them for quite some time. My interest in the artificial and stage set-like character of architectural environments is something that motivated me within earlier projects, such as the so-called “Closed Cities” or a subterranean World War II-era factory for Messerschmitt airplanes. This time, the Potemkin village became the focus of my attention. My research yielded plenty of results. In today’s world, there is a surprisingly large number of architectural phenomena that can be related to the Potemkin village.

For instance?
For one, there are classical examples of mock villages that, just as in the days of Potemkin, feature staged architectural elements in order to simulate wealth and prosperity, even if the actual built environment communicates the opposite. This was the case in Russia. While in Russia, I took photos of buildings that were covered with huge printed canvases for a large media event. The aim was to give observers a better impression than was actually the case – which actually worked pretty well. Beyond that, there are other reasons for creating architectural backdrops. In recent years many armies erected ghost towns in order to train soldiers for missions in foreign countries. In Sweden, there are streets and rows of houses that serve as testing grounds for cars. In China, new urban quarters are built according to historic European models in order to sell them to affluent clients as high-end luxury residential real estate. It was important to me to deal with the phenomenon of Potemkin villages as broadly and as comprehensively as possible. This is why I included all these variations within my work, even though a term such as “mock village” carries negative connotations – after all, we are dealing with fake towns, meaning copies and counterfeits.

“In particular, the juxtaposition of illusion and failed attempt at illusion produces thrilling and strong images.”

What aspect of architecture that pretends to be something it is not is interesting to you as a photographer?
It isn’t the illusionary or deceptive character of such objects or places, but rather the interactions between successful and failed spatial illusions that I find fascinating. As a photographer, I have the opportunity to capture and focus on the backdrop character of building envelopes. Potemkin villages use them, after all, to create the illusion of a “normal” place. In particular, the juxtaposition of illusion and failed attempt at illusion produces thrilling and strong images. At the same time, my images are also supposed to convey a political message. I intend to make observers aware of the significant efforts that are made today and are aimed at the reproduction of particular aspects of reality. The creation of a controlled world of illusion requires huge investments. To me, that is pretty disturbing.

The Potemkin Village
Russland, Ufa & Suzdal. Photo: Gregor Sailer

How real does the illusion feel that is produced by these architectural backdrops?
Quite real. In particular, the training grounds of the US Army in the Mojave Desert, surrounded by an open landscape, manage to convey to visitors a rather familiar and urban experience. This effect can be increased by use of particular tricks: for instance, the Army has employed more than 300 actors who are supposed to imitate small town life in the Middle East. This is complemented by equipment and furnishing, even fake fruit for the market stands.

Is this why, for observers, the distinction between a normal and a Potemkin village can become blurry?
That is true, but only in specific instances. Eventually you recognize that you aren’t in an inhabited settlement that has developed over time, but rather a mock-up, albeit crafted in a very sophisticated manner. The dominating feeling that I have in such places is, always, loneliness – and emptiness.

Many such places that you visited are secluded from the outside world. Military training facilities, for example – how can you as a photographer access these places?
Truthfully, it isn’t easy, which is also the reason why my photo work for this project depended on a very long research and organization phase. The first and basic question is, where to find such facilities? When it comes to bureaucratic structures of the military, there isn’t much available public information. Once you find something, it is important to navigate through the chaos of bureaucracy: Who is responsible for the object, who can provide you with a permit to visit it? Quite often I had to dig deep into the organizational structure of the Army – hoping that my request wasn’t ignored by the responsible officials.

“There are a number of military architects. Their job is to design settings that reflect the situation in current conflict zones as precisely as possible.”

Within your research, were you able to find out who is actually tasked with planning and designing such mock villages used by the military?
There are a number of military architects. Their job is to design settings that reflect the situation in current conflict zones as precisely as possible. In recent decades armed forces of European countries were involved in conflicts in the Middle East, in particular. The response to this were mock villages that recreate the typical settlement structures found in those countries. For this purpose, the architects design street patterns, places and buildings of note, such as mosques and minarets, by following authentic examples. The aim is to enable soldiers to prepare for their mission according to conditions that match the reality on the ground as much as possible. Planning and design tends to be rather detailed, for example, in the case of stair riser heights and tread depths.

The Potemkin Village
Junction City IV, Fort Irwin, US Army, Mojave Desert, California, USA, 2016 Photo: Gregor Sailer

What needs to be considered in such cases?
Stair risers and treads can have different dimensions depending on which part of the world they are built in. Different than what we are used to, at least. Treads can be shallower, risers can be taller. In the case of urban warfare, it can be fatal if soldiers aren’t prepared for such details.

“Something that I never encountered in these places was an actual and authentic atmosphere of everyday urban life.”

Beyond all attention to detail, is there something that can’t be reproduced artificially when planning and designing such buildings or cities?
Something that I never encountered in these places was an actual and authentic atmosphere of everyday urban life. The mock towns that serve military purposes certainly don’t pay attention to that circumstance. Yet, even when the attempt is made to create a real habitable city based on a Potemkin-like architectural approach, that atmosphere never comes to life. It is dependent on social experiences and interactions to a much higher degree than a particular kind of architectural environment. In the sparsely populated urban copies of China, for instance, even the most luxurious building facades can’t deny that they completely lack this particular quality. The atmosphere here is quite spooky.