When I Say Russia, You Say ...

Unknown
On June 12, amid the festive revelry of Russia Day, a goodly chunk of the populace may have missed the bell for round two of Rossia television's "Name of Russia" contest, a "grandiose" national project whose odd-sounding title should not obscure its noble aim -- to identify a single individual as the most significant figure in Russian history.

Yes, while you and I were downing shots of festive revelry, the field of candidates in this significance sweepstakes was mercilessly slashed -- from 500 first-round nominees to 50. Gone are 450 greats and not-so-greats, from Archpriest Avvakum to arch-creep Felix Dzerzhinsky. And as the semifinalists start training for round three, it's no more Mr. Nice Guys. All 50 heavyweight contenders, says Rossia, now get "campaign staffs" of Russia's "most prominent politicians, scholars and cultural and religious figures" to whip them (well, their reputations) into shape for this summer's elimination bouts. Come Sept. 1, only 12 survivors will move on to the finals. Gr-r-r-r-r-r.

To some, the appearance of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a towel and water bucket in some contender's corner will be a dead giveaway as to the eventual winner. But Putin aside, this is a tough contest to handicap. Seriously, choosing a lone individual to stand for one of the world's great cultures presents a real branding dilemma. While it's easy enough to eliminate some of the 50 -- does anyone really think Fyodor Chaliapin, the hard-drinking "Volga Boatmen" singer and backstage brawler, is a strong candida- ... Hmm, see why this is so difficult?

Indeed, if I were voting in this round, I'd treat it like a classic election in my native Chicago. I'd vote early, often and for several different candidates. And in the spirit of Chicago's legendary smoke-filled rooms, here are a cigar-chomping American's best bets from round two -- the contenders least and most likely to advance to the "Name of Russia" finals. If someone in Vegas or Khimki will take your action, bet the farm against the first five here and double-down on two or three guys in the second group:

(1) Lev Yashin, the famous football goalie. Not a chance. Would Yogi Berra win the American version? (2) Vladimir Dal, the great dictionary compiler. R-i-i-ight. (3) Ivan the Terrible. High name recognition, low approval rating -- probably the "terrible" thing. (4) Grigory Potemkin. Besides the villages -- what? (5) Nicholas II. Short, incompetent, polarizing -- everything you don't want in a national leader. Even America's isn't short.

Now for the sure-thing advancers: (1) Peter the Great. Invented modern Russia -- and see how much better "Great" sounds than "Terrible"? (2) Fyodor Dostoevsky. Three words: Greatest. Novelist. Ever. You still feel guilty about not reading "The Brothers Karamazov," don't you? (3) Leo Tolstoy. Four words: Other. Greatest. Novelist. Ever. You've seen "War and Peace," right? Natasha Rostova is Audrey Hepburn. (4) Alexander Pushkin. The national poet and "our everything" to Russians, but with his African ancestor, as hard to handicap as Barack Obama, who might win big or ... (5) Yury Gagarin. Genuine global hero. The first man in space and a great guy by all accounts. He even read "Amerika" magazine!

There, make yourself a bundle. Meanwhile, political scientists are furiously pondering the significance of all this significance. Is the contest just more fevered pumping of the patriotism well (and cheaper than parading tanks)? Or is the idea to divert attention from the ever-mushrooming cult around the current leader (whichever one he is)? Or is this simply innocent national self-inquiry, a fun way to find out what the Russian in the street might actually answer if a sociologist asked, after wisely stepping off the street, "When I say 'Russia' and 'significant,' who comes to mind? No, besides the current leadership. Relax, take your time. Dum-dee-dum. OK, look: Will you admit to liking anybody besides 'Vova' and 'the new guy'?"

Actually, the likeability and significance of historical figures shouldn't be conflated -- as Americans my age well know. Richard Nixon, whose wildly unpopular presidency has been conservatively characterized as "a crime wave," was nevertheless significant. That said, it also bears noting that insignificance and dislikability can coexist in America's once-mighty: George W. Bush, whom Time magazine recently deemed less influential than comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat), is now the president least approved of since the invention of approval ratings. Ouch.

November can't come soon enough, eh? Meanwhile, maybe a U.S. television network should organize a "Name of America" contest. Got any good tips?

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.