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Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Stalin's new status in Russia

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

Screenshot of Name of Russia website on 23 December
The poll was conducted online and by phone and text message

The former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin may have killed millions of his own people but this weekend he could be chosen by Russians as their greatest-ever countryman.

Inspired by the British competition 100 Greatest Britons, one of Russia's biggest television stations Rossiya has been conducting a nationwide poll for much of this year.

From an original list of 500 candidates now there are just 12 names left from which viewers can select their all-time hero.

The winner will be announced on Sunday.

More than 3.5 million people have already voted and Stalin - born an ethnic Georgian - has been riding high for many months.

In the summer he held the number one slot but was knocked down several places after the producer of the show appealed to viewers to vote for someone else.

Amongst the others on the list are Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Catherine the Great and Alexander Pushkin.

Mistakes 'forgiven'

The fact that Stalin has been doing so well comes as no surprise to members of the Communist Party, which remains one of the biggest political parties in the country.

TOP FIVE CHOICES IN POLL
Pyotr Stolypin, pre-Revolutionary statesman - 426,300
Alexander Nevsky, medieval warrior prince - 418,200
Alexander Pushkin, poet - 397,100 votes
Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator - 397,000
Vladimir Lenin, Revolutionary leader - 342,400
data correct as of 1400 GMT 27 December

"Stalin made Russia a superpower and was one of the founders of the coalition against Hitler in World War II," says Sergei Malinkovich, leader of the St Petersburg Communist Party.

"In all opinion polls he comes out on top as the most popular figure. Nobody else comes close. So for his service to this country we can forgive his mistakes."

Not only is Mr Malinkovich prepared to forgive Stalin's "mistakes", he also wants the man who is regarded as one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants of the 20th Century to be made a saint.

As I was interviewing him, he held a small neatly framed icon of Stalin's face.

Last month an Orthodox priest also displayed an icon of Stalin in his church near St Petersburg.

Although he was eventually forced to remove it, he vowed he would not be silenced and went on to describe Stalin as his "father".

Many in Russia do still revere Stalin for his role during World War II when the Soviet Union defeated the forces of Nazi Germany.

But now there is a much broader campaign to rehabilitate Stalin and it seems to be coming from the highest levels of government.

Archives seized

The primary evidence comes in the form of a new manual for history teachers in the country's schools, which says Stalin acted "entirely rationally".

Joseph Stalin in a photograph from 1930
Stalin's profile on the poll's website does not shy away from his crimes

"[The initiative] came from the very top," says the editor of the manual, historian Alexander Danilov.

"I believe it was the idea of former president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

"It fits completely with the political course we have had for the last eight years, which is dedicated to the unity of society."

But the campaign goes further than reinterpreting history for schoolchildren. It is also physical.

Earlier this month, riot police raided the St Petersburg office of one of Russia's best-known human rights organisations, Memorial.

Claiming a possible link with an "extremist" article published in a local newspaper, the police took away 12 computer hard-drives containing the entire digital archive of the atrocities committed under Stalin.

Memorial's St Petersburg office specialises in researching the crimes committed by the Soviet regime.

"It's a huge blow to our organisation," says Irina Flige, the office director.

"This was 20 years' work. We'd been making a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names.

"Maybe this was a warning to scare us?"

Irina Flige believes they were targeted because they are now on the wrong side of a new ideological divide.

New nationalism

The new ideology is "Putinism" which, she says, has evolved over the past two years and is based on a strident form of nationalism.

What we have now [in Russia] effectively is the KGB in power
Orlando Figes
British historian

It seems Russians are to be proud of their history, not ashamed, and so those investigating and cataloguing the atrocities of the past are no longer welcome.

"The official line now is that Stalin and the Soviet regime were successful in creating a great country," says Irina Flige.

"And if the terror of Stalin is justified, then the government today can do what it wants to achieve its aims."

The outrage at what has happened to the Memorial archive spreads beyond Russia's borders.

The British historian Orlando Figes worked with Memorial when he was researching his latest book The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia.

"By conservative estimates 25 million people were repressed in the Soviet Union [under Stalin] between 1928 and 1953," he says.

"That means people executed, arrested and sent to prison camps or turned into slave labourers or deported.

"Virtually every family was affected by repression."

"What we have now [in Russia] effectively is the KGB in power," he adds.

"Opposition forces and awkward historians reminding the Russian population of what the KGB did 50 years ago is inconvenient for these people."

So it seems whoever is voted the country's greatest citizen on Sunday, it is Joseph Stalin who is the biggest winner this year as he is rehabilitated in Russia's brave new world.



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