Andrew Osborn








World News: Stalin's Popularity in Poll Stirs Backlash --- Russia's Last Czar Opens Slight Lead In Online Contest

The Wall Street Journal, 16th July 2008 15:04

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW-- In the land of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, an online poll to identify Russian history's "greatest heroes" has two early front-runners: autocratic Czar Nicholas II and dictator Josef Stalin.

While former dissidents and human-rights activists are horrified by the success of Stalin, who historians say sent tens of millions to their deaths, organizers of the popularity contest are unsurprised.

"He's like a brand. It's like Coca-Cola," says Alexander Lyubimov, a senior executive with Rossiya TV, the state-controlled broadcaster behind the "Name of Russia" contest.

The vote has fired people's imagination at a time when the Kremlin is trying to reclaim parts of its Soviet and Czarist past to forge a new nationalism. But as early results have shown, finding suitable historical heroes in a country with a centuries-old tradition of authoritarianism is complex. Elsewhere, the task was less fraught. In the U.S., a similar contest chose Ronald Reagan; in Britain, Winston Churchill; and in South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

Russian online voters have narrowed the field from 500 names to 50 and will boil that down to 12 names. The Rossiya TV channel will broadcast shows in the fall about each finalist, and voters will choose a winner in December.

Stalin took an early and large lead in the contest but was narrowly overtaken by Nicholas II on Monday as thousands of monarchists and anti-communists organized an anti-Stalin "clickathon." Nikolai Lukyanov, chairman of a large monarchist group, said a Stalin victory would shame Russia internationally. He said the "clickathon" was organized to show that Russians "are no lover of Stalin, disgrace and blood."

Nicholas II's narrow lead comes as monarchists prepare to mark the 90th anniversary of his execution by the Bolsheviks. Mr. Lyubimov says Russia's last czar is unlikely to win. Though Nicholas II is revered by the Orthodox Church, which canonized him, his detractors say his reign was marred by anti-Semitic pogroms, two disastrous wars, a civilian massacre and the near-collapse of the country.

But it is Stalin's popularity that has stirred greater anger. Liberal historians accuse the Kremlin of rehabilitating him in recent years, saying it has sought to reclaim the country's Soviet past to bolster its mantra that Russia is a great power.

"The authorities have opened Pandora's Box . . . and out jumped Stalin," says Arseny Roginsky, head of the human-rights group Memorial, which is devoted to exposing Soviet-era repression.

Stalin wasn't actually Russian: He was an ethnic Georgian whose original surname was Dzhugashvili. He has long enjoyed solid support here, though, as the man who won World War II for the Soviet Union and transformed the country into an industrialized superpower.

For much of the Soviet period, there was little examination of the darker side of his rule. This only began in earnest in the twilight days of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev and in the early 1990s when human-rights groups began talking about Stalin's millions of victims.

Mr. Lyubimov, the Rossiya executive, got his start in national television at the time on a program that specialized in historical exposes.

But interest faded quickly as Russians clamored for Western consumer goods, South American soap operas and higher living standards.

As the Kremlin has adopted a feel-good brand of strident nationalism in recent years, Stalin has been revived. Historians say the Kremlin has skirted awkward historical moments that might spoil a message of Russia's greatness. The 70th anniversary of the Great Terror, which saw as many as two million people killed, passed last year without official ceremony. Then-President Vladimir Putin told history teachers the purges weren't as bad as atrocities perpetrated by other nations, notably the U.S.'s use of the atomic bomb.

New textbooks hail Stalin as an effective manager, and TV documentaries stress his achievements and alleged selflessness. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov hailed Stalin's popularity this week, saying he could solve Russia's problems today "in one day."

The Kremlin has balked at others' attempts to besmirch its Soviet past. When former Soviet republic Lithuania banned the public display of Soviet symbols this year, the Kremlin called the move a distortion of history.

Sergey Kovalyov, a former dissident who spent seven years in Soviet labor camps and three years in internal exile in Siberia, said the popularity of Stalin was "very sad."

"How many people did he take away?" said Mr. Kovalyov, his voice trailing off.