Everything I thought I knew about Potemkin, godfather of the public relations industry, turns out to be false. His villages were real, however new and fancied up — nothing like the “village squares” in 21st-century America, which spring up near highway exits and have no residents at all. The peasants posing with their herds weren’t rushed in for the empress’s visit, but had been there for at least four years. And he himself was no empty suit. He wouldn’t have had any motivation to deceive the empress; they were confidantes and former lovers who knew each other’s secrets. When he wanted to impress her, he arranged to set off 20,000 rockets, or spelled out her name on a mountainside with pots of burning oil. His ideas were often grandiose, and his greatest colonization scheme ran out of funds and had to be abandoned when it was less than half complete. Toward the end of his life, he announced plans to conquer Turkey, Poland, and Egypt. He contracted a fever, ate a whole goose, and died on the open steppe.
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