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Russia Again Demonstrates Its Past Is Unpredictable

  • Victor Yasmann

The Father of Nations still has his fans.

The Father of Nations still has his fans.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once said that it doesn't matter who votes, but who counts the votes. This axiom of the "father of nations" would seem perfectly applicable to the "Name of Russia" project, which was created in order to determine the most outstanding personalities of Russian history. It all began when the project's sponsor, the Rossia state television channel, asked Internet users to choose from a list of 500 nominees the 12 names that most fully symbolize the country.

Similar projects have already been carried out in 22 countries around the world, and in none of them did the selection process produce any particular conflicts. That is because these countries have come to terms with their pasts. Therefore, the British -- as might have been expected -- voted for Winston Churchill, the Americans selected Ronald Reagan, South Africans endorsed Nelson Mandela, and Germans picked Conrad Adenauer. The German case is interesting because the competition organizers there published a list of ineligible people that included all the leaders of the Nazi regime.

In Russia -- the country with an unpredictable past -- everything was different. The project organizers clearly manipulated the voting in such a way that the competition and its results were undermined.

By the middle of the summer, Stalin was leading in the voting, a fact that produced consternation among the organizers and their masters in the Kremlin. But the fact was that Stalin was the choice of this forward-leaning audience of Internet users, none of whom, of course, lived under the dictator.

And this fact surprised no one. In the great cultural counterrevolution that has been going on in Russia over the last decade or more, Stalin's name was long ago rehabilitated and has even become a fundamental element of the current system's ideology of national revanche. All you have to do is walk into any bookstore to see whole shelves of books devoted to the father of nations, approximately three-quarters of which are paeans to the dictator. Around the same time, a new history textbook by Aleksandr Filippov and others appeared that called Stalin "an effective manager" and whitewashed the Great Terror as "a rational tool for the development of the country."

Cultural Schizophrenia

It soon became clear that the project organizers were not concerned about the moral aspects of Russia's choice, but by the political aspects. They weren't concerned about the reaction in the West -- they haven't cared about the West's opinions in ages -- but about the possibility of a split in the ranks of the ruling elite.

The question arose whether official state television -- which has adopted an anticommunist and pro-monarchist stance -- could allow the elevation into the pantheon of Russian history of a man who successfully battled both anticommunists and monarchists. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church had already soundly rejected a bid in July by communists in St. Petersburg to try to have Stalin canonized. A representative of the Patriarchate called the thought "monstrous."

And then there is the problem of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize winner who immortalized Stalin's millions of victims and whose legacy the Kremlin is currently trying to co-opt. Is it really possible, even in Russia, to honor both Solzhenitsyn and Stalin in one breath? That would be nothing short of ideological schizophrenia.

And so they found a way out. The head of the project, journalist Aleksandr Lyubimov, sternly and conveniently explained that Stalin's lead was the work of hackers and a provocation. In August, the voting was nullified and restarted. For a while, to the joy of the monarchists, Tsar Nicholas II was ahead in the voting, but then the situation began to change.

Then, suddenly, the preliminary list of finalists was announced and it turned out to be completely politically correct. Heading the list was the medieval statesman and military leader Aleksandr Nevsky, with more than 2 million votes. Nevsky defeated the Teutonic knights in the 13th century and has since become a symbol of defiance of the West for the nationalists. He was particularly highly esteemed by Stalin.

Nevsky was followed by poet Aleksandr Pushkin, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin, 18th-century military commander Aleksandr Suvorov, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, early 20th-century reformer Pyotr Stolypin, Aleksandr II, chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev, and Stalin.

Patron Saints

The most noticeable thing is that Nicholas II has vanished from the list. Apparently, his character was too weak. As for the rest, it is all pretty logical. Lenin is there to satisfy the leftists who continue to honor him. Stolypin and Aleksandr II are there to please the court liberals. And the rest are all statists untarnished by liberalism. Stalin himself would have approved.

It is true that Pushkin loved freedom a little too much, but he toed the line when it came to foreign policy. He wrote "To the Slanderers of Russia," but that didn't help him personally. Nicholas I denied him permission to travel abroad, which Pushkin wanted to do his entire life. But that's the way Russian history is.

At the head of the list stands the faithful holy Prince Nevsky, a solid figure who has been canonized by the Orthodox Church. Interestingly, just days before it was announced that Nevsky had won the competition, it was leaked that he either had been named or would soon be named the official patron saint of the Federal Security Service (FSB). But it turned out that many siloviki, with the blessing of the church, had already put forward "their" saints.

The newspaper "Vokrug novostei" reported that the Tax Police are under the heavenly protection of St. Matthew, who -- before he went on to write one of the gospels -- had been a tax collector. The navy is under the protection of the apostle Andrew; the paratroops are watched over by the prophet Elijah. The troops of the Interior Ministry are protected by the sainted Grand Prince Vladimir, while the infantry is shielded by St. George. The corps of engineers has the holy Prince Daniil of Moscow, and the border guards are protected by Ilya Muromets, who incidentally is the only legendary character to have been canonized by the Orthodox Church. The strategic wing of the air force is protected by the sainted military commander Fyodor Ushakov, while the strategic rocket forces are watched over by St. Varvara.

Over the next 12 weeks, Rossia will devote hour-long programs to each of the finalists before the final ranking is determined. But if Nevsky is the ultimate winner, the FSB will have the biggest patron saint not only of all the security organs, but of the entire country. And what about Stalin? Stalin made the final dozen -- in last place. A sort of rear guard.

Victor Yasmann is an analyst for RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL