Following a format created by the BBC and picked up by a number of European countries, viewers of the Russian state broadcaster "Rossiya" have selected 50 out of 500 names that they believe best represent Russia. By September the list will be narrowed down to 12. The voting will continue until the end of the year when the Russians will choose one person to become the greatest hero of Russian history and bear "The Name of Russia" or, to be faithful to the grammatically awkward original name of the project, "The Name Russia."
Used to their history being rewritten just about every decade, Russians often joke bitterly: Russia is a country with an unpredictable future and an unpredictable past. Now, the project's TV advertisement says, "We have already chosen our future [shows President Medvedev]. Now we should choose our past."
After some 1.5 million votes (as of July 9) the top 12 list is now led by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, much to the surprise of the project's producers.
Appearing on a live program of RFE/RL's Russian Service in June, Aleksandr Lyubimov, Rossiya's deputy director and the chief producer of The Name of Russia project, said, "I wonder how many people will end up picking Stalin as the name of Russia. It sounds scary even when you think about it."
Not as scary as the actual result of the vote. Josef Stalin, one of the most bloodthirsty rulers in Russian history, is set to win the honorary title. He is leading with nearly 180,000 votes. "The Father of the People" is beating the iconic Russian songwriter and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who is running second with about 140,000 votes.
The top 12 list has slight variations every day, but most of the time the two leading candidates are followed by Bolshevik leader Lenin, two or three tsars, a couple of literary figures, a saint or two, a cosmonaut, and an 18-century polymath.
An otherwise benign desire to get the uninterested Russians to read up on their own history has led to consolidating a contingent of hardcore Stalinists. Irina, one of the many upset voters, posts the following comment on the forum under Stalin's bio on The Name of Russia website:
"People, wake up! What are you doing? How can you vote for that cruel bastard who sent millions of people to death and crippled millions morally and physically? Perhaps those who voted for him should learn about the horrors of long-term imprisonment for no reason; you should learn what it means when your son is sent away to die at a northern labor camp.... Voting for Stalin is like Germans voting for Hitler. As one [Internet] user said here [on the forum], [Hitler] also did a lot for Germany, he wanted the whole world to belong to it. Stalin is the incarnation of evil in the world. I am ashamed of Russia."
Irina, I am with you.
And anyway, why does a country need to be associated with one particular name? What is the purpose of this history quiz/popularity contest -- putting the winner's portrait on the covers of Russian history books, which, by the way, are already much too loud in their praise of Stalin as the great Soviet modernizer? How does the schizophrenic rating of saints, artists, communist leaders, soccer players, and monarchs -- based largely on their stereotypical portrayals on TV shows and in Soviet-time movies -- help quench what Lyubimov calls a thirst for knowledge of the heroes of Russian history?