This refers to a flimsy facade erected to impress someone.
In the late 1700s, Russian official Grigory Potemkin was in love with Catherine II. Potemkin was working to develop the Crimea region. When Catherine traveled there in 1787, Potemkin allegedly erected fake villages along her traveling route to impress her. Disputed legend has it that when she would pass a fake village, it would be disassembled then rushed forward and reassembled ahead of her, so she would pass it again.
The phrase has come to describe any bad situation that is artificially and haphazardly propped up to appear better than it is.
Why I Looked It Up
I’ve heard the phrase for years and deciphered it from context. I ran into it recently in a New York Times article about the newly-defunct Ozy Media.
[…] after he heard Mr. Watson boast of the company’s traffic numbers sometime around 2015, he thought they “seemed high” and started comparing the claims to public sources of audience data. Mr. Robinson, who said in an interview that he was fired earlier this year, concluded that the site was a “Potemkin village.”
I think it’s quoted there specifically to attribute it to Robinson.
In 2016, during the first Azerbaijan Grand Prix, there were big canvas facades hung over unsightly buildings on the race route (it was a street circuit) with generic, classic buildings printed on them. The hope was that cameras wouldn’t linger too long, and they would appear to be attractive buildings in passing. I remember the phrase “Potemkin village” being used to describe this plan.
A Twitter user captured a picture of one of the facades being hung. A response to that tweet snarkily noted “[Potemkin liked this].”