These cities were built to mislead and deceive
Photos: Gregor Sailer
There are dozens of sites around the world whose entire purpose is to appear as something they are not. These places were created with the intent to hide inconvenient truths, duplicate a distant reality, or deliberately mislead observers. Photographer Gregor Sailer has made it his mission to chronicle these places — a visual record of the inventive, bizarre, and disturbing side of humanity
In the late 1700s, Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was arguably the most powerful man in the Russian Empire.
Potemkin first distinguished himself as a military commander in the first Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774), becoming a firm favorite of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. He remained her confidant until his death in 1791.
She was called Catherine the Great for a reason. Under her reign, Russia’s borders expanded to include large swaths of the Ottoman Empire as well as much of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Russia was finally recognized as an important European power. The empress encouraged a cultural revolution among her people. She also ordered the founding of several cities and towns in Russia’s newly annexed territories, including Odessa, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, and Sevastopol. The noble elite established themselves in duchies across the empire, building magnificent mansions in the classical style loved by Catherine. Russia was thriving.
Yet beneath the grandeur and opulence, society was built on the backs of the serfs. Their inglorious existence spoiled the portrait of perfection.
That was a problem for Potemkin.
Reputation at Stake
Grigory Potemkin had been appointed governor-general of the new southern provinces, and for nine years he worked to transform the region into a prosperous addition to the empire. At his urging, Catherine agreed to travel to New Russia and the Crimea to inspect her new territories. In January 1787, the year of her silver jubilee, she set out from St. Petersburg on a six-month voyage down the Dnieper River toward the Black Sea. The royal entourage traveled more than 4,000 miles by sledge, river galley, and carriage in a triumphant parade.
The purpose of the royal tour was threefold. Firstly, Catherine wanted to intimidate the Turks, who were already gearing up for the second Russo-Turkish War. Secondly, her intention was for the fledgling Russian Empire to make an impression on the superpowers in Europe. Her journey included meetings with King Stanislaus of Poland and Emperor Joseph II of Austria, which were calculated to signal the durability of Russia’s ties to her allies.
The third reason involved Grigory Potemkin. He had appropriated money from the royal coffers to build new cities, ports, and naval bases to accommodate the empire’s growing fleet of warships. It was time for Catherine to see Potemkin’s astounding achievements for herself. Catherine’s voyage was to be not just a political and diplomatic accomplishment for the empress, but also a personal victory for Potemkin.
At court, Potemkin’s political rivals had spent the previous nine years denigrating the governor at every opportunity. They accused him of stealing millions of rubles, or at least wasting the money rather than using it wisely.
Potemkin’s reputation depended on the success of Catherine’s visit.
Potemkin spent three years preparing for the monarch’s arrival. He built new palaces, renovated old castles, and constructed an entire fleet of river galleys to accommodate the empress and her entourage. He planned elaborate balls and magnificent fireworks displays. He spared no expense to showcase the growth and success he had developed. But he’d have to marshal his full creativity to hide some blights on the landscape.
The beating heart of Catherine’s New Russia and the Crimea were the serfs, who lived in abject poverty. The depressing penury of that class would offset Potemkin’s achievements and cast a pall over the empress’s visit — ammunition for Potemkin’s enemies.
Potemkin could not risk that.
According to legend, Potemkin commissioned the construction of elaborate wooden props that were painted to look like flourishing towns and villages. The facades were erected along the banks of the Dnieper, where they were sure to be seen and admired as symbols of the region’s development. As the entourage traveled downriver, the fake villages were dismantled and reassembled further along the route, creating an unending fantasy of success and prosperity.
It’s a good story. But historians agree that it’s a myth — unsupported by several eyewitness accounts of Catherine’s voyage (including letters written by Emperor Joseph II himself). The advancements that Potemkin facilitated in the region were real and remarkable. In all likelihood, the tale of Potemkin’s villages was fabricated by his rivals.
But the name stuck. The term “Potemkin village” has come to mean any construction, literal or figurative, that serves as a utopian facade to conceal the dismal failures of reality. And no end of dictators, regimes, and militaries have utilized the concept to conceal, mislead, and deceive.
Image and Illusion
Gregor Sailer is an Austrian photographer of architecture and urbanism who’s made it his mission to bring unseen spaces to the public eye. His photographs are often startling, the sharp lines of the architecture he favors driving a narrative about the hidden places he exposes.
His 2017 series, The Potemkin Village, is a study of sham urban spaces on different continents, all of them diverse in structure and purpose. The curation of such varied Potemkin villages in one volume is itself a powerful narrative that forces the viewer to consider the common theme of the images, however unsettling it may be.
Yet Sailer aims to offer the images free of bias or editorializing. “My job as an artist is to enable access for outsiders to worlds that are hidden or invisible,” he says. “To tell [readers] new stories, and to make them think about topics that they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”
Ready, Aim, Fire
The City of Jeoffrécourt
The square of the French town is deserted, which is just as well, since every few moments a gunshot tears into the fog. The town seems typical of the French countryside, with drab gray houses and slanting roofs, and a church in the main square — all surrounded by endless muddy fields. But today, the bucolic scene has been transformed into a battleground as the British and the French fight for control.
In a two-story house overlooking the bridge that leads to the square, a group of camouflaged infantrymen from D Company crouch in the stairwell, taking cover from the enemy snipers. Their commander gives the signal, and the men shuffle silently upstairs, where they take positions beneath the shuttered windows. The corporal uses the tip of his rifle to nudge open a wooden shutter, giving him a view of the bridge below. He fumbles with the pin of a smoke grenade and hurls it through the window toward the square. He immediately launches another grenade in its wake and shouts, “Prepare for rapid fire!”
His men smash open the wooden shutters and fire rapidly toward the enemy snipers, the bullet casings crashing wildly onto the concrete floor. Downstairs, the men from 11 Platoon use the opportunity to race across the bridge. Under the cover of smoke and fire, the soldiers vault over barricades and barbed wire toward the shelter of the hôtel de ville in the town square.
The French town is not reenacting a battle from World War II. In fact, it’s not a true French town at all, but a military training site used to prepare troops for urban warfare.
Sailer reveals that the military training sites in France and Germany made a particular impression on him. These were places that looked like home, and to consider the reason for that was frightening.
“I hope to open the eyes of people so they realize that not everything is far away,” he says.
In the last two decades, virtually every Western military has devoted huge resources to modern urban warfare training. In the United States, a 1,000-acre military base in the Mojave Desert was transformed into a mini Middle East. Fort Irwin is comprised of 12 villages that would look quite at home in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Every branch of the US military gets three weeks of training at Fort Irwin, where paid civilian actors, many of them Middle Eastern refugees, play the part of Arab locals.
In Europe, several similar training sites exist. In England, the sham village of Eastmere reportedly gets frequent renovations based on the enemy of the day.
The combat city of Schnöggersburg in Germany is the largest military training site in Europe. The vast town contains high-rise buildings, a train station, an airport, a river, and a highway.
In the early 2000s, France began the construction of a series of fake urban settings, including Jeoffrécourt and Beauséjour, the construction of which cost at least $120 million. Jeoffrécourt is sprawled across 250 acres and could easily house 5,000 people.
But the town, when not overrun by trigger-happy troops, is actually an empty shell.
“I’m interested in fakes, copies, and backdrops,” Sailer says.
It’s natural he’d be drawn to China, which has built an entire industry on fakes and imitations. China is also the king of ghost towns: A full 20 percent of the country’s urban housing properties — 65 million homes — stand empty.
Several of these ghost cities lie on the outskirts of Shanghai. In 2001, the Shanghai Planning Commission launched the “One City, Nine Towns” initiative, which was intended to resolve the overcrowding in the most populated city in the world. Each of the suburban districts of Shanghai received a new town, with each town being modeled after a different Western country in the hope that the novelty would draw residents. The Shanghai government brought in engineering firms from each of the original countries to make the villages as authentic as possible.
Made in China
Thames Town alone cost $635 million to build. The British engineering firm Atkins, tasked with the planning of Thames Town, scouted England for its most picturesque features. The town contains familiar English landmarks across an area of 1 square kilometer. Tudor-style houses dominate the landscape, and there are cheerful red telephone boxes on street corners, old-fashioned lampposts imported from England, and the ubiquitous church spire rising from among the sloped roofs. The charming town center was modeled on a town in Cheshire, and one of the churches is a take on a parish church in Bristol. No English town would be complete without a pub or fish-and-chips shop; the one in Thames Town is a carbon copy of a popular haunt in Lyme Regis, Dorset.
Of course, it’s immediately obvious to any Englishman that the town is an impostor. Gothic, Victorian, and Tudor architecture are meshed together in ways that never occur in real English towns (and of course, all signs are written in Chinese). But to a visitor less familiar with English architecture, Thames Town appears authentic.
For The Potemkin Village, Gregor Sailer photographed German Town, Swedish Town, Holland Town, and Thames Town — all of which are practically deserted. Some wealthy Europhile Chinese have made these towns their homes, but the cost of real estate is too high for the average citizen.
Despite frequent comparisons to Las Vegas or Disneyland, these Chinese villages were not built for entertainment purposes. They were intended to be vibrant working communities. Thames Town, for instance, was to house 10,000 students and staff in its nine universities, which makes its vacancies all the more depressing.
During the day, the themed towns are a tourist trap. Chinese and foreign tourists wander the towns, exploring; the more scenic spots are popular backdrops for wedding photo shoots. But even with all the visitors, “it was like walking through a ghost town,” Sailer remembers. “Crossing large squares without seeing anyone, passing empty stores. It was obvious that places where people should be living were empty.”
The serenity in Sailer’s photos is an illusion. The overcast skies above the windmills and Tudor mansions hint at the heaviness beneath the surface. Everywhere, there are cameras recording the lives of the citizens, and even when immersed in a European experience, it is impossible to forget that the lifestyle in the communist state is antithetical to the same countries the towns impersonate.
Among the gloomy Chinese towns and military bases in Sailer’s The Potemkin Village are photographs of a typical American main street and a row of Scandinavian homes. These could be a couple of movie sets, but they are actually two auto test areas in Sweden.
The inclusion of these innocuous testing sites in the book is a curious one. But Sailer opines that the testing sites are “perfect examples of Potemkin villages.”
The American-style site was the world’s first purpose-built simulated city for testing automobiles when it opened in Vårgårda in 2009. This is where Autoliv, the Swedish company that supplies virtually every car manufacturer with safety components, tests their products.
Less than an hour away is AstaZero, which opened in 2014, and is the world’s largest auto testing site. It has seven tracks and testing facilities across an area of 2 square miles, and each are designed to provide unique driving conditions. The City Area at AstaZero was designed to imitate the Harlem neighborhood of New York City — the stores, shutters, and fire escapes are all clones of the original. The only difference is that the real Harlem has never been just one story high. The designers chose Harlem as the inspiration for the testing site because they wanted it to have a dynamic feel.
Sailer doesn’t think it feels very dynamic. The fussy panels set against the backdrop of enchanting wintery woods make the track feel just as surreal as any of the other Potemkin villages he photographed. It’s also hard to understand why the self-driving cars being tested require such elaborate decor.
Still, these sites stand out among the others in Sailer’s book — the only facades that are just what they claim to be.
Just a Facade
Ufa and Suzdal
Perhaps the most startling images in The Potemkin Village are those of the Russian cities Ufa and Suzdal. In fact, the idea for the series was sparked when Sailer visited Suzdal in 2014.
Suzdal is one of Russia’s oldest towns. In medieval times, the rural community was an important center of trade. By the 18th century, Suzdal had gained prominence as a religious center, and at one point there were 40 churches for 400 citizens.
In the late 1800s, the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway brought a significant part of Russia into the age of the Industrial Revolution. Suzdal, however, was not on the railway route and got left behind while the rest of the country advanced into modernity. Today, Suzdal looks much the same as it did 200 years ago, just more dilapidated, and like the villages in Shanghai, its only industry is tourism.
In November 2013, President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to visit Suzdal. In uncanny echoes of the 18th century legend, the townsfolk were ordered to give their ramshackle homes a makeover. Oversized tarps were printed with images of pretty wooden cabins and hung over the cracked windowpanes and crumbling walls of the houses. This was done all along the route planned for the president’s motorcade.
In the end, the efforts were for nothing — Putin’s visit was canceled.
Hide and Seek
The city of Ufa tried something similar two years later in June 2015 when they hosted an international summit. Massive canvases were erected over the facades of abandoned office buildings and decrepit houses, and posters of fake landscapes were hung along the highway to give the impression of a scenic view.
In Sailer’s images, the cover-up seems ridiculously obvious and juvenile. But Sailer says that despite the cheap techniques used, the camouflage was effective, and it was challenging to identify these Potemkin villages.
“There were four of us in the car driving up and down the main road looking for covered buildings,” Sailer says, “and it took a while for us to find them.”
The locals were not much help in pointing out the locations of the disguised buildings. The Russians, always guarded when it comes to matters of state and politics, preferred to pretend that the printed facades did not exist.
Here in Russia, where it all began, Potemkin’s villages live on.
The Nazis took the concept behind Potemkin’s villages to a characteristically exacting and gruesome extreme in the construction and administration of Theresienstadt.
Theresienstadt was a prison, ghetto, and concentration camp established in 1940 by the Nazis after their invasion of the Sudetenland. Known in Czech as Terezín, it was located just 50 miles from Prague and close to the German border — the ideal site for a Nazi prison. The site was originally founded as a garrison town in 1784 by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and the entire town was a fort, complete with high walls and a moat. There were two fortresses, plenty of barracks, and several administration buildings. Emperor Joseph II named the town for his mother, Empress Maria Theresa, whose hatred of the Jews led her to expel them from her kingdom in 1744.
Nestled in the idyllic hills of Bohemia, Theresienstadt had all the trimmings of a picture postcard. It was the perfect backdrop for one of the Holocaust’s greatest hoaxes.
The Nazis called it the Paradise Ghetto.
The morning of June 23, 1944, was bright and sunny. The townsfolk of Theresienstadt, dressed in their finest clothes, turned out en masse to welcome visitors to the camp.
At about ten o’clock, the three visitors arrived. They were E. Juel-Henningsen and Franz Hvass of the Danish Red Cross, and Maurice Rossel, a Swiss representative of the International Red Cross (ICRC). The Danish government, with the backing of Sweden, had insisted that the Red Cross be allowed to inspect the camps where Danish citizens were interred. Wishing to avoid conflict in Denmark, the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) had no choice but to authorize a Red Cross visit to Theresienstadt.
The town’s mayor, Paul Eppstein, arrived in his limousine to greet the guests. He delivered a speech in which he waxed poetic about the paradise that was Theresienstadt. The Danish representatives had the opportunity to chat with some Danish Jews, who were clearly content with life in the ghetto.
With much fanfare, the representatives were shown around the town by the camp commandant, Sturmbannführer Karl Rahm. The main street boasted a bank, a pharmacy, and several shops. The guests were treated to coffee in one of the town’s cafés. Afterward, the representatives strolled past a hospital, a school, a synagogue, and a delightful pavilion where children were playing.
The tour lasted all day and culminated in two special events. After work, thousands of residents gathered in the armory to watch a soccer match. When the game ended, the representatives were led to the social hall. On the stage, a chorus of young children sang Brundibár, a children’s opera, accompanied by a full orchestra. The performance utterly charmed the inspectors.
The Red Cross representatives wrote enthusiastic reports about Theresienstadt. Maurice Rossel, in particular, was satisfied with what he saw. In his report for ICRC, he wrote that he “was convinced that its population did not suffer from undernourishment.” Most importantly, he added, “We found that the ghetto was a community leading an almost normal existence.”
But the tour of Theresienstadt had been staged from start to finish.
The Theresienstadt lie was the brainchild of the architects of the Final Solution — Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and Heinrich Himmler — and was confirmed at the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 1942, at which the Final Solution was implemented.
At the start of the war, the Small Fortress in Theresienstadt (or Kleine Festung) functioned as a Gestapo prison for political prisoners while the town itself became a Wehrmacht military base. In 1941, the first transport of Jews arrived at Theresienstadt and the ghetto was established. In 1942, the town’s original Czech residents had been relocated to make room for the tens of thousands of Jews who were transported there from Western Europe.
From the beginning, Theresienstadt was designed to deceive. The Nazis needed a place to send prominent Jews, or Prominenten, as they were called. These were German Jews who had achieved VIP status by being highly decorated World War I veterans. Artists, musicians, scientists, and other cultural elites from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Austria were also considered Prominenten, as were elderly German Jews. The Nazis could not conceivably send these celebrities to slave labor camps, at least not without causing an international outcry.
And so, Theresienstadt was given a false identity. The elderly Jews were told it was a large retirement village where they could live out their days in peace. The artists and musicians were told that the picturesque Bohemian town was a spa resort, where they would be protected from the war.
The Prominenten were grateful for the wonderful opportunity they had been given. It was only upon their arrival at Theresienstadt that they realized that their spa town was actually a transit camp— a way station on the road to the Final Solution.
At Theresienstadt, the Jews were permitted to establish a Council of Elders, or Judenrat, to give the appearance of self-governance. In reality, the Judenrat had little power.
Life in Theresienstadt was unbearable. At any one time, there were upwards of 45,000 inmates and conditions were terribly overcrowded. Food rations were far from adequate; each person received a quarter loaf of bread twice a week and some potatoes that were often rotten. The elderly, who could not work, received half the regular rations.
Due to certain privileges afforded the prisoners, Theresienstadt had a greater percentage of survivors than any other camp. Still, 85 percent of adults died, either of disease, starvation, or after being deported to the extermination camps in Poland. Of the 163,200 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, only 23,000 survived the war. Of the 15,000 children in Theresienstadt, just 100 survived.
When the RSHA made the decision to permit a Red Cross inspection of one of the camps holding Danish citizens, the Paradise Ghetto was the obvious choice. Lacking the watchtowers and barbed wire, it didn’t look like any of the other concentration camps, and the overcrowding and prisoners’ skeletal appearances were easily remedied.
From February to June 1944, in preparation for the Red Cross visit, the SS gave Theresienstadt a complete makeover. Adolf Eichmann called it the “Beautification.”
Rations were increased to make the Jewish prisoners look healthier. To relieve the overcrowding, the Nazis cut the three-tiered bunks down to two tiers and shipped one-third of the camp off to Auschwitz. Then work began on the creation of a Potemkin village. The women were forced to clean the streets of the ghetto (with toothbrushes), and 1,200 rosebushes were planted. Several “businesses” were set up on the main street — the clothing stores “sold” clothing that had been confiscated from the prisoners, black-dyed water became coffee at the café, and the SS printed “ghetto money” for the bank. All the other stores were painted facades. Paul Eppstein, head of the Judenrat, was ordered to act the part of the town’s mayor. The teenagers in the camp were stand-ins for the children, of whom there were actually only 14 or so.
The inmates practiced for weeks for the Red Cross visit. In the words of one survivor: “Each person was given a role to play. It was arranged beforehand, down to the last detail — who would sit where and what they would say. The people who looked bad did not appear at all.” It was, in Eichmann’s words, a “model ghetto.”
The visit was a marvelous success. In fact, it was so successful that the Nazis promptly did it all over again, regularly hosting propaganda tours in Theresienstadt. They conveniently murdered the actors as soon as their services were no longer needed: Paul Eppstein was executed soon after the ICRC visit, as were the soccer players, the opera children, and almost all of the ghetto prisoners who acted that day — all witnesses to the lies of the Paradise Ghetto.
The two Danish representatives were cautious in their commendation of the camp. But Maurice Rossel’s report was nothing short of enthusiastic. Today, Czech and Israeli historians agree that Rossel’s report emboldened the Nazis to murder 6,500 Czech Jews.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 909)
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