Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 11:36 UK

Moscow Diary: Resurgent Reds

The BBC's James Rodgers asks what a recent popular poll reveals about Russia's relationship with its past. His diary is published fortnightly.


Stalin is back. For a while, it looked like Nicholas II, Russia's last tsar, might resist the Bolshevik threat - achieving in death a victory which eluded him in life.

Now the Reds have seized control once again. Stalin has first place, the Tsar is still holding on to second, but then Lenin comes in third, like a second revolutionary wave waiting to sweep away the monarchy once more.

A Russian woman carries a portrait of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in a Victory Day celebration in Moscow on May 9, 2008
Top of the Pops: Why do the Russians still rate Stalin so highly?

The "Name of Russia" is still in its early stages. The online poll was inspired by the BBC series "Great Britons". At present, Russians have 50 people to choose from. From September, only the top 12 will remain in the contest. The winner will be chosen at the end of the year.

Stalin's strong showing has prompted suggestions that organised voting has pushed his rating artificially high. It has also prompted some soul-searching.

"How are we going to look in the eyes of the West?" asked the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets last week.

"The way we already look in the West," the paper wailed in answer to its own question: "Stalin, vodka, frost, bear".

These, of course, are outdated stereotypes. Contemporary stereotypes would have to include the excesses of the oligarchs buying up large swathes of the south of France, and behaving badly in ski resorts.

Stereotypes, and vote-rigging, aside, the "Name of Russia" shows how Russia is divided and confused over its 20th Century history.

From his death in 1918, until the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991, the Tsar was reviled as a tyrant and an "enemy of the people". Now he is a saint - canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Even by the standards of the changes this country has been through in the last 100 years, it is an astonishing transformation.

A religious image duing a monarchist demonstration in Moscow
There is no prospect of a tsar ruling the country once again

"Real Russian patriots mark this day with services, prayers, and by remembering," said Pyotr, who wore a Cossack's uniform as he took part in a monarchists' demonstration on the 90th anniversary of the killing of the royal family.

The monarchists were few in number, perhaps a couple of hundred at most.

In the 1990s, there was some talk of restoring the monarchy. But then in Russia in the 1990s almost all ideas were discussed at one time or another. This never gathered widespread support. Despite Nicholas II's strong showing in the "Name of Russia", there is no prospect of a tsar ruling the country once again.

The Tsar's rival for top spot, Stalin, seems increasingly to be remembered as a wartime leader, and little else.

If you don't know your history, you practically haven't got any. Each people should know and honour its history
Pyotr, monarchist
In 2005, the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, the RIA-Novosti new agency published a photo gallery on their website: "Stalin: the leader and the person".

There was no mention of the labour camp system where thousands of his enemies, real and imagined, were sent to their deaths.

There is a part of public opinion here which sees ideas of human rights as a Western concept - irrelevant, alien, and even dangerous to Russia.

The 70th anniversary of Stalin's "Great Purge" fell last year. The commemorations were comparatively small-scale. The former and present members of the secret police who wield such power in Russia today were perhaps reluctant to criticise their predecessors.

"If you don't know your history, you practically haven't got any. Each people should know and honour its history," the monarchist demonstrator Pyotr insisted.

Does Stalin's strong showing mean that people know he was responsible for thousands of deaths, and honour him all the same? Does the fact that the Tsar is his closest challenger mean this country just can't decide what to make of its past?

Perhaps. Or perhaps this is just another Russian election which critics will say was rigged.

There are some less controversial figures among the front-runners. At the time of writing, the poet Alexander Pushkin is in seventh place; the first man in space, Yury Gagarin, is ninth.

Oh, and Ivan the Terrible is 11th.

Your comments:

I can understand Russians voting for Stalin in the survey, people respect a strong man and Stalin was undoubtedly that by turning Russia in 30 years from a feudal backwater to a superpower.
Phil Brand, London, England

I'm usually against Russophobia that is omnipresent in Western media. Being a westerner living in Russia for the last few years, the "facts" are never actually the facts on the ground here. The truth is Stalin won this poll. But what kills me is that he's not Russian, he's Georgian. The loss of the nation's identity is rather pitiful.
Paul E, Moscow, Russia

This is a strange country, but strange in a negative manner. Ronald Reagan was right saying "The Evil Empire". Stalin, who destroyed more people than Hitler, is honoured here. Can you imagine Germans praising Hitler nowadays?
Oleg, Moscow, Russia

Shame on them. On the year that Ukraine marks the 75th anniversary of Stalin's horrendous genocide of seven million innocent Ukrainians - Russians continue to celebrate this tyrant. When will they learn? Not while they continue to have a government that aspires for a return to dominance over Eastern Europe.
Chrystyna Chymera, London, UK

Interesting article, however in a country where xenophobia seems to be on the rise, it would have been nice had you mentioned the irony of the fact that Stalin was Georgian!
Joseph Coyle, Telavi, Republic of Georgia

Russia needs to hold its own truth and reconciliation commission or come to terms with the atrocity and barbarity caused by Russia which occurred on its soil. South Africa and Germany have proved it can be done. Until Russia does so it will continue to take the ostrich position.
Vas, UK

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Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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