In March 1774, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the favorite general and sometime lover of Catherine the Great, took control of the anarchic southern frontier of her empire, a region previously ruled by the Mongol Khans, the Cossack hosts, and the Ottoman Turks, among others. As viceroy, Potemkin waged war and founded cities, among them Kherson, the first home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. In 1783, he annexed Crimea and became an avatar of imperial glory. To Vladimir Putin in particular, Potemkin is the Russian nationalist who subdued territory now impudently and illegitimately claimed by Ukraine, a nation that Putin believes does not exist.
The rest of the world remembers Potemkin differently, for something that we would now call a disinformation campaign. In 1787, Catherine paid a six-month visit to Crimea and the land then known as New Russia. The story goes that Potemkin built fake villages along her route, populated with fake villagers exuding fake prosperity. These villages probably never existed, but the story has endured for a reason: The sycophantic courtier, creating false images for the empress, is a figure we know from other times and other places. The tale also evokes something we recognize to be true, not just of imperial Russia but of Putin’s Russia, where mind-boggling efforts are made to please the leader—efforts that these days include telling him he is winning a war that he is most definitely not winning.