"To catch up and surpass!" That is one of slogans stuck in my memory since the obligatory Russian language classes in 1980s. There were also jokes about Russians having everything superlative: the biggest machine, the best rocket, the first woman in space, the fastest clock... But I digress.
Simply, we have an image that Russia always liked to keep up the pace and outdo the rest of the world. Recently, this trend has spread into the ever-growing frenzy of reality TV shows. Like the United Kingdom or the United States, Russia decided to give the populace a chance to elect a national hero in a Survivor-style elimination vote-off. So far so good. Stranger things have happened. But alas, all did not go as planned.
There are two lessons that can be learned from this experience. One is that good intentions can lead to undesirable consequences, and the other is that the way collective memory is made sometimes has little to do with either a collective or a memory.
On June 12, the gates opened to the voters. Soon enough, the text messages and online votes shot the despised and revered leader / dictator Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin to the top, where he floated on 2nd position for weeks. Much to the dismay of the organizers and human rights activists. Grassroot campaigns sprung up, pushing this or that other candidate up the ladder of this popularity contest. They succeeded on and off - the first place went to different personalities over the weeks. But Stalin clung like a louse under a scab, as we Slovaks say. The television channel changed the voting process in August, claiming that hackers were getting the better of it. Yet Stalin clung on. Very shortly before announcing the 12 finalists at the end of September, the organizers announced there has been a massive hacking incident, and removed one million votes from Stalin, sending him to the twelfth place. Still he clung on, making the cut and placing among the12 remaining contesters who will be defended in front of the Russian TV audience by experts and personalities of Russian political and cultural life in December, competing for the post of Russia's All-time Greatest Citizen.
The finalists, as of September 25, were:
1. Alexander Nevsky
2. Aleksandr Pushkin
3. Fyodor Dostoevskii
4. Peter the Great
5. Vladimir Lenin
6. Aleksandr Suvorov
7. Catherine the Great
8. Ivan the Terrible
9. Petr Stolypin
10. Aleksandr II
11. Dmitry Mendeleev
12. Iosif V. Stalin
(For more current results, where Stalin, by the way, figures on 2nd place again, visit www.nameofrussia.ru
Not that the choice of Nevsky is going to send a beaming optimistic message to the West, either. In Russian history (and mythology), he is famed as the ideal prince-soldier and the Defender of Russia. From the West. In the medieval times, he beat back the Swedes, the Germans, and the crusading knights, made peace with the Mongols (squashing an uprising against them here and there), and frowned at Catholicism. In fact, he was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church for his efforts. But then, the show was not put on for the West, was it.
When it comes down to it, it does not matter much whether hackers were or were not involved in the voting in the end anymore. Those who want to, will swear by the outcomes, those who don't, will swear that they were rigged. Most will forget and accept the results as results of an open and democratic popular contest. Analysts and observers will read into it any message they are looking for. And so history is made.