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.