Why Russians Put Stalin at the Top of the List

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On Sunday, state-controlled television station Rossia will air the first program in a new series titled "The Name of Russia." This is a homegrown version of similar programs that were popular in Britain, Germany, France and the United States. In December, the program will announce the person chosen as the most outstanding Russian in history. The original field of 500 candidates has been narrowed down to 12 finalists based on the results of an Internet poll.

The shortlist of the 12 people being considered for the title of "Russia's All-Time Greatest Citizen" says a lot about the public's distorted, contradictory and mythologized understanding of their country.

For example, from Russia's litany of great literary figures, only Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky are included. Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Nobel laureates for literature Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Sholokhov or Joseph Brodsky did not make the top 12. At the same time, seven of the names are princes, tsars, emperors, Bolshevik leaders, tyrants and despots, including Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin and Stalin.

Our leaders would like everyone to believe in the following conception: The state is above and beyond everything else; it is always right; everything good in the country exists thanks to our strong and wise rulers; the state's authority is bestowed by the Almighty; and anybody who does not respect the authorities and who is not thrilled with their performance is not a patriot. That is how Russians have been educated for centuries -- with a brief interval during the democratic reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- and this tradition has continued throughout the eight years of Vladimir Putin's presidency.

Of course, it is not hard to argue that Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Tsar Alexander II were all great people. Peter the Great led the revolution in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that transformed Russia into a European power at a time when the country's development had been lagging tragically behind the rest of the world. Catherine the Great's reign during the last third of the 18th century was one of Russia's most prosperous periods in history. And Alexander II freed the peasants from slavery and introduced other important liberalizing reforms.

The fact that Alexander Nevsky made the top 12 list of Russia's greatest figures is particularly interesting. Having received over 2 million votes, he has a strong lead over those next on the list. He reigned over 13th-century Novgorod, Kiev and Vladimir during a time when Russia was not a unified state but a collection of feudal states. Nevsky's inclusion is largely the result of the historical myth surrounding his name. Most modern Russians know of Nevsky from Sergei Eisenstein's famous film about him, which was made almost 70 years ago and is still shown periodically on television. That film depicted the 1242 Battle of the Ice -- a contest between Russian forces and knights of the Crusades on the ice of Chudskoye Lake. Eisenstein's contemporaries called it a "mockery of history," but the Soviet leader at that time, Stalin, thought differently. Soon after the start of World War II, the Soviet Union introduced the Alexander Nevsky medal for outstanding military achievements. From this point on, Russians began to idealize Nevsky and exaggerate his military and political contributions. In reality, neither the Battle of the Ice nor the battle against the Swedes in 1240 were great military victories. Nevsky actually joined forces with the invading Tatar conquerors of Russia who broke with Europe, and he ruthlessly put down two uprisings by Novgorod citizens against their Tatar masters. In the opinion of many historians, Nevsky's iron-handed policies contributed greatly to the formation of despotic authority in Russia.

Another controversial figure on the list is Ivan the Terrible, who ruled in the 16th century. He was one of the cruelest and bloodiest tyrants in Russian history, is responsible for mass executions, pogroms that destroyed entire cities and long, disgraceful wars that finally emboldened the Crimean Khan Davlet Geray to attack and burn Moscow to the ground. Under Ivan the Terrible's reign, the country was brought to ruin in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It is interesting that the last time Ivan the Terrible was praised in this way on a state level was, again, under Stalin.

Other great figures in Russian history that did not make the list were Mikhail Kutuzov and Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Kutuzov defeated Napoleon's forces in the War of 1812, and Zhukov battled Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945. Also missing is the great scientist Sergei Korolyov, the father of Russia's space program, and Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president. Even Andrei Sakharov, the great Russian academic, human rights activist and fighter for freedom and democracy, is missing from the list.

Instead, we have Stalin. This might be the most frightening of all. It would be unimaginable that the people of Germany would name Hitler as one of the greatest Germans of all time. In Russia, people are seriously discussing the idea of teaching high school students that under Stalin, "terror was used to serve the goal of industrial development" and that "Stalin's actions were fully rational as a leader of a country under attack in a global war."

But I am certain that Stalin won't win the "Name of Russia" contest. Voters -- particularly the younger ones -- may sincerely want Stalin to win, but the organizers of the poll are more constrained by a sense of political correctness. Already, Alexander Lyubimov, deputy director of Rossia television and the person in charge of the contest, has announced that 2 million votes for Stalin will be disqualified; the official reason was a hacker attack that may have caused double voting. But that doesn't make things any better.

Russia's increasingly aggressive foreign policy and repressive domestic policy under Putin and Dmitry Medvedev are, to a great extent, a direct result of the lingering illness that still infects Russian society -- our fascination with Stalin and Stalinism.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.