The Magazine

The Great Man Theory of History

Russian style.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By CATHY YOUNG
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William Faulkner once said that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past--and that's certainly proving true in post-Soviet Russia. Vladimir Lenin still lies in his grand mausoleum on Red Square. And meanwhile, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, murdered by Lenin's revolutionary government, were lavishly commemorated last summer in churches and the state media on the 90th anniversary of their deaths.

So when a television production called "Name of Russia," a knockoff of a 2002 BBC series, invited viewers to select the greatest Russian in several rounds of telephone and Internet voting, it's no wonder the project quickly became a minefield.

Controversy first erupted last July with the news that Joseph Stalin, arguably the biggest mass murderer of the 20th century, was leading in the semifinal vote. Most of the media reacted with dismay. Series producer Alexander Lyubimov issued an appeal to the public to say no to Stalin by voting instead for Nicholas II, who briefly took the lead. Yet mere days later, Stalin was back in first place.

Eventually finalists were chosen, and a series of debates on these 12 was televised. The winners were announced on December 29. Top honors went to Alexander Nevsky, the 13th-century warrior prince, saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, and hero of Sergei Eisenstein's eponymous 1938 film. The two runners-up were Petr Stolypin, the reformist prime minister assassinated in 1911--and Stalin.

The common view in Russia is that the vote was rigged to produce a socially acceptable result. The Communists are convinced that Stalin really won, and pessimistic liberals assume so too. But even the official results are hardly encouraging, at least for anyone who wants to see Russia move toward freedom, limited government, and individual rights.
Take the semi-mythic Alexander Nevsky, whose military exploits against Teutonic crusaders were probably greatly exaggerated by Russian chroniclers--and who collaborated with another invading force, the Mongol-Tatar Horde. Alexander received his principality from one of the Mongol khans and brutally suppressed rebellions in Russian cities that refused to pay tribute to the Horde. His defenders explain that Alexander made his deals with the khans out of necessity and saved Russia from devastation; other historians argue that he used the Mongols to gain leverage against rival Russian princes.

The vote for Alexander Nevsky, moreover, can be read as militantly anti-Western. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized Alexander as a defender of the faith because he reportedly turned down an offer of alliance with the Catholic Church against the Mongols--a decision that helped usher in 200 years of rule by the Horde, viewed as disastrous to the tradition of liberty in Russia by both Russian liberals and pro-Western conservatives. Perhaps the best-case scenario is that the people who chose Alexander as the "greatest Russian" were simply voting for a charismatic movie hero symbolizing Russian might and patriotism.

Runner-up Stolypin is a more complex case: A genuine reformer, he tried to modernize Russia with far-reaching political and economic measures that promoted local self-government and family farming. Indeed, many historians believe that if Stolypin's reforms had not collapsed under pressure from both left and right, the 1917 revolution might have been averted. Yet his name is also associated with authoritarianism and repression. He repeatedly tried to bully the recently instituted Russian parliament, and he responded to a wave of revolutionary violence by setting up tribunals whose sentences were carried out in 24 hours without appeal; 1,000 to 3,000 people were executed over a six-month period, and the hangman's noose became known as "the Stolypin necktie."

Interestingly, some media reports claimed that Prime Minister Putin had privately endorsed Stolypin in the contest. Indeed, Stolypin's advocate in the TV debates was film director Nikita Mikhalkov, a friend and strong supporter of Putin. And Stolypin's biography on the "Name of Russia" website seems to emphasize parallels to Putin, from a background in the "security services" to harsh action against "terrorists" to the claim that his reforms were known as "the Stolypin Plan" (the ruling United Russia party touted its "Putin Plan" in the parliamentary elections of 2007).

As for Stalin, the death toll under his rule--counting the terror-famine of 1932-33, the firing squads, and the millions worked and starved to death in the camps of the gulag--has been estimated at 20 to 40 million. One posting on a Russian online forum noted that for Russians to choose Stalin as the greatest man would be akin to Israelis' giving that honor to Hitler.

No less depressing is the fact that the historical figures associated with Russia's frail tradition of liberty fared quite badly in the "greatest Russian" vote. In the semifinals, the physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov received about 275,000 votes, dwarfed by Stalin's more than a million. In the final round, the most "liberal" of the candidates--Tsar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom and made the first attempt at broad liberal reforms in Russia--came last.

While the "greatest Russian" vote was in no way scientific, serious polls have found that about half of Russians view Stalin's role in history as mostly positive (though fewer than one in ten say the terror was justified). He is widely credited with defeating Nazi Germany in World War II, one of Russia's few genuine achievements in the 20th century--even though Russia's horrific losses in the war can be blamed largely on Stalin's failure to prepare for the German invasion and his prewar purges, which decimated the officer corps. Many Russians also see Stalin as the man who turned the Russian state into a leviathan feared around the world--even if it was equally feared by Russians themselves.

In today's Russia, plainly, the Stalin legacy is ambiguous. Stalinism and its crimes stand officially condemned; in July, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to lay a wreath at a memorial to Stalin's victims. Yet at the same time, there is a strong trend in official propaganda, from the media to history textbooks, to treat Stalinism as a mix of bad and good: terror on one side, industrialization and the victory in World War II on the other.

The growth of Stalin's popularity has been partly a response to the economic and social chaos of the 1990s. But in the Putin era, state propaganda is feeding the trend--emphasizing Russia's greatness and imperial power and cultivating the image of "Fortress Russia" surrounded by enemies, while downplaying the idea, embraced under Yeltsin, that the totalitarian Soviet past should be rejected as evil. The semi-exoneration of Stalin was evident, for instance, in June when the national NTV channel aired the program Who Was 'Asleep at the Wheel' at the Start of the War?, challenging the notion of Stalin's responsibility and presenting him as a wise leader whose decisions were undercut by feckless underlings.

In early December, Russia hosted its first-ever scholarly conference on Stalinism, which drew both Russian scholars and Western historians such as Hélène Carrère d'Encausse. Such an event, supported by official institutions, could be seen as a positive step. Yet the conference also generated some disturbing news. According to a report by Nikita Sokolov on Grani.ru, the panelists included two high-ranking Russian academics who acted as near-apologists of Stalin. One observed that many Roman emperors also did evil things but nonetheless built a great empire; the other noted that Stalin's nationalities policy resulted in the survival of virtually every small ethnic group in the Soviet Union, in contrast to the near-extinction of Native Americans in the United States. The Russian minister of education defended a textbook that whitewashes Stalin on the ground that it meets demand from both instructors and students.

For that matter, even if the organizers of the "greatest Russian" project were eager to distance themselves from their bronze-medal winner, there were signs that officialdom was not entirely displeased with Stalin's success in the vote. The series' segment on Stalin was introduced by Mikhalkov, who noted that the very fact of a public debate on Stalin was "a victory for society"--presumably an improvement on unambiguous condemnation--and then spoke of Stalin's "magic" and the reverence he inspired.

The day after the results of the vote were announced, the pro-government paper Izvestia ran a "pro and con" feature on Stalin's third-place finish. For the "pro" side, the newspaper's deputy editor in chief, Elena Yampolskaya, argued that, awful though the late tyrant may have been, the vote was not an endorsement of "blood, paranoia, and barbarism," but a rejection of liberalism, political correctness, and consumerism and an embrace of "victory, power, indifference to monetary gain, statecraft, and imperial ambition (a phrase that is, at last, no longer considered pejorative)."

The Stalin who today enjoys semi-official approval, then, is not so much a Communist leader as a great Russian nationalist, a patriot who rebuilt the strong state torn down by internationalist Communists. Many of Stalin's supporters also praise him for restoring the nearly exterminated Russian church in the war years; on the fringes of Stalin worship, a small, bizarre cult regards the Communist dictator as a closet Christian and even advocates his canonization.

Today, when economic crisis looms over Russia, there is a widespread sense that the Putin era has truly ended, its "stability" having collapsed with the price of oil. If this is true, Russia may soon find itself once again at a crossroads, facing a choice between integration into the free world and authoritarian isolation. Perhaps it could start by exorcising some of its undead heroes.

Cathy Young, a contributing editor to Reason, is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989).