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Poll finds Russia's surprise hero
  Written By:  Alan Fisher in Reykjavik
  Article Date:
December 15
, 2008 


One of the most popular television programmes in Russia this winter has been a series which asks viewers to vote for who they believe to be the country's most celebrated historical figure.

With hundreds of thousands of people casting their votes by email, text and phone, Alexander Nevsky, a name little known to outsiders, has emerged in first place so far.

Nevsky was an early Russian hero who is now revered as a saint.

In second place is perhaps the predictable favourite, Peter the Great. However, the third place winner is a historical figure which will surprise many outside Russia: Joseph Stalin.

This was a man who presided over the murder of millions of his own countrymen, who had thousands shipped off to forced labour camps for an attitude adjustment or just because they displeased him. 

He shattered families and lives, and yet to many in Russia, he is still considered a hero. He ensured victory for Russia in World War Two, a defining moment in the Russian national psyche. 

He turned the country from its rural, agricultural - almost backward - ways into an industrialised giant with global power. 

He also built Soviet influence around the world as the dominant figure in Russian life for 31 years. 

The television poll closes on December 28.

Young mischief-makers?

Alexander Lyubimov, the man behind the television programme, has been a TV host for more than 20 years and believes the support Stalin received is perhaps due to an anti-establishment campaign launched by young, internet-savvy mischief-makers. 

However, he also accepts there are many people around the country who revere the former dictator.

That surprises Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She believes that her role as a liberal academic would have made her a target for the Stalinist police. 

"What you have when you see this poll is the butchered, the murdered pushed aside and almost forgotten. It's as if there were no killings, no disappearances, and no labour camps," she said.

"People only see the war hero, the reformer and that is the story that's now beginning to creep into a lot of history books."

Man for the times

Al Jazeera asked Russians on the streets of Moscow what they think about the list of historical figures and the winners. One man told me: "I would vote for Peter the Great, [but] I could never support Stalin, he was evil."

However, one smart young woman is more considered; she, too, would like Peter the Great to win but said: "Russia needed someone like Stalin at that time, someone to move the country forward. If it had not been him it would have been someone else with all the horrible things that brought."

It is hard to find statues of Stalin anywhere in Russia any more. However, in an isolated corner of a very quiet park is a statuary graveyard. 

The statues are brought here when the historical figures they represent are no longer welcome on the squares and in the streets. 

And at the back sits Joseph Stalin. There are two busts of him; one is tall and grand but the nose has been violently broken off while the other is made of white marble, now looking weather-beaten and worn. 

Stalin might be hidden away and almost forgotten but this poll shows there are thousands more who still believe he is a true Russian hero.

Source: Al Jazeera