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Mirror, mirror ...

If Americans were asked to decide who was the greatest Russian, they might toss out names such as Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky or Peter the Great. Russians are being asked precisely that question, and they can’t decide between a czar whose rule was so disastrous that it prompted the Russian Revolution and a psychopathic dictator who killed, exiled or starved millions of his own people.

Rossiya TV, a state-controlled broadcaster, is running a contest it calls “Name of Russia,” in which online voters have culled 50 names from a list of 500 important historical figures. Now they are narrowing the field to 12, and this fall there will be an “American Idol"-style series in which viewers will choose a winner.

The whole affair is a silly idea -- it’s hardly possible to choose degrees of greatness among artists such as Anton Chekhov, pioneers such as Yuri Gagarin and leaders such as Ivan the Terrible -- as well as derivative. The concept was originated by the BBC, which in 2002 asked Britons to pick their greatest countryman (Winston Churchill got the nod). Yet aside from all that, the choices that are emerging reveal something important about the Russian national character, circa 2008: It’s a close contest between Czar Nicholas II and Josef Stalin for the top vote-getter.

There is a growing nationalist movement in Russia that has been encouraged from the Kremlin by the likes of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, but the nationalists are split between those who romanticize the czarist past and those who remember fondly the days of communist rule. Moreover, the country has had so many despotic rulers that choosing the best from among them is kind of like picking the most socially responsible rattlesnake. If it were up to us, we might pick the empire-building 18th century ruler Catherine the Great, who currently comes in at No. 7 on the list, but she has her share of baggage too -- like the fact that she was actually German.

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Still, it’s hard to believe that a country that produced Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Gogol and Turgenev is debating between a man who was completely incapable of coping with the social and military pressures that hit Russia during World War I and a bloodthirsty tyrant who successfully led it through World War II at the cost of its soul.

Of course, Americans have little right to criticize. A similar contest was held in this country in 2005, and the ultimate winner was Ronald Reagan. No disrespect to the Republican icon, but if that’s the best Americans could come up with after 230 years of producing world-changing thinkers, leaders and artists, we could stand to crack open a history book.


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