A recently completed six-month-long poll organized by one of Russia’s main TV channels, Rossiya, attracted 50 million participants in a quest to find the country’s most popular historic figure. Alexander Nevsky, the medieval prince who drove away European invaders and placated the Mongols to the east, came first. Appreciation for his efforts caused the Russian Orthodox Church to declare him a saint long ago. Second in the poll was Pyotr Stolypin, a prime minister who introduced agrarian reforms early in the 20th century and opposed revolutionaries in the time of Tsar Nicholas II.
But it was the choice of the third-place winner that caused most consternation, the more so because he had been in the lead for months. The Soviet Union’s Georgian-born leader, Josef Stalin (1878–1953), was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his fellow citizens through purges, labor camps and disastrous famine-inducing farm collectivization programs. Yet many present-day Russians have managed to discount this horrific history to rehabilitate him—some even suggesting his elevation to sainthood. Why?
The BBC reports that some believe Vladimir Putin’s emerging strident nationalism requires the doctoring of recent history. The Soviet experiment, it is said, created a great country, unified and powerful, capable of defeating Hitler’s regime. Why, then, focus on Stalin’s egregious record as one of the last century’s most vicious dictators? Surely he was a kind of savior. In a recent raid, therefore, state officials removed hard discs containing digital evidence of Stalin’s brutality from a human rights organization in St. Petersburg. Twenty years of painstaking work has disappeared.
Citing claims that new manuals for the nation’s history teachers completely reinterpret Stalin’s record and rationalize his actions, BBC Moscow correspondent Richard Galpin notes, “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.”
But it is impossible to hide what is already known and published outside of Russia about the Stalin years, and the facts speak for themselves. Many of these can be found in a related series of articles focusing on political messiahs like Stalin and the destruction they inevitably bring. Tracing the motivations of many such figures and examining their manipulation of religious belief, this analysis spans two thousand years and several continents. From Caesar to Napoleon to Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mao, the parallels are frightening, and recent events suggest that the desire of many for “The Leader” who will cure all ills remains.
In fact, the rehabilitation of Stalin is only one of many indications that there are still lessons to be learned and that even in our enlightened age nations are vulnerable to the influence of men who style themselves as secular saviors.