Browsing the archives for the History category.

Photo fragments from communist Hungary

Culture, European culture(s), History

This post was originally published in April 2009 on a blog that’s now dead, where it’s no longer online. Turns out I still had a draft saved here, so I thought I might as well republish it.

Or: a collection found on the street tells the story of minor apparatchiks in love.

Once every couple of months it’s big garbage day in my district. This means everyone takes out all the shit they don’t want anymore and dumps it on the sidewalk. It’s like Queen’s Day in Holland, except nobody’s selling anything. Mounds of stuff, discarded sofas, broken cupboards, old books, soiled shirts, cardboard boxes and piles of random garbage heaped onto the pavement in clusters.

This means lots of activity. Early in the morning the diggers trek into the neighbourhood. Elderly people, Roma. Stuff gets carted into car trunks, folded into plastic bags. Trabants with trailers that are stacked full take off to the suburbs.

In Holland you had rag and bone men until the sixties or so I think, who would come by to collect stuff that’s nowadays hauled off by the municipality’s “big trash” service on request. This is like that – just on a really large scale. Mostly it just means a lot of trash you have to circumnavigate when you walk down the street, but at its best, or worst, it has a near-Third World feel. A bony old man pulls a makeshift platform on wheels with cardboard stacked up a meter high down a busy road, passing cars swerving around him.

One of those days, a couple of months ago, we took a walk and rummaged through the piles out of curiosity. Found some dumpy Hungarian textbooks, a couple of novels in seventies covers. And photos. Not once, but twice, we found photos. One pile of photos sprawled over the pavement in Nyár utca, dirtied by shoes, some still shoved into a box along with other papers; postcards too, Christmas cards, holiday greetings from Slovakia. The other, larger pile at the beginning of Dohany Street, across from the synagogue, in a box in between newspapers, random stuff.

Budapest and Dunaújváros

I’ve dubbed the first collection “The apparatchik”. These photos belonged to a couple called Lajos and Zsuzsa Dömötör (I googled them, but found no leads). I assumed at first that Lajos had been a minor official, back under the old regime – but going through the photos and translating the texts of postcards with the help of fellow Flickr members (in particular GCsanadi), it turns out that it was Zsuzsa who must have been the apparatchik. Unfolding the story locked into these photos and postcards turned out to be fascinating – if like me, you’re the kind of person who finds fragments from the past’s quotidian life the most interesting thing.

The oldest photo in the set shows a group of young men and women at the shore of the Danube, in Budapest. Students? Were the Dömötörs among them, unmarried yet? Or just one of them? Handwritten on the back: March 1967, Budapest. On the left, in the background, is the Matthias Church on the Castle Hill – unframed, still, by the mirrorring windows of the Hilton hotel that was built right next to it later.

Whether one, or both of them were just visiting Budapest when this photo was taken or living there as a student, their hometown, once they were married, would soon be Dunaújváros. They lived there for a long time – judging on the postmarks, at least until 1984.

Dunaujvaros is a mid-sized industrial town some 35 miles south of Budapest, but not your typical one. It was built from scratch in the 1950s as a communist model city of sorts – except back then, it was called Sztálinváros, “Stalin City”. It had the country’s largest iron and steel works. Foreign visitors like Yuri Gagarin and President Sukarno were proudly shown around the town. By 1980, the city had some 60,000 inhabitants. But the collapse of heavy industry in the postcommunist era hit the town hard and now there are fewer than 50,000 left.

The apparatchik

What did the Dömötörs do there? Lajos, as this photo illustrates, appears to have been something official. Maybe he, too, was a minor apparatchik. Maybe he was just a teacher, or a supervisor in a factory. One of the two was a photo enthusiast: some of these photos were home-developed, and printed back to back on photopaper. Think small: this one’s less than 9×6 cm…

We do know a little more about Zsuzsa’s work, as she sent hom this postcard to her man:

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Posting elsewhere: Mapping election results in Budapest; photos of New York City, then and now

European Politics, History, International Politics, US culture

Elsewhere online:

  • Between the tower blocks and family houses: what mapping election results taught me about Budapest
    Socialist pensioners in high-rise estates. Far-right voters in other, less fortunate estates. Romanis in crumbling courtyards who don’t come out to vote. Upwardly mobile green voters in newly-built housing developments that have popped up in the suburbs. Prosperous Fidesz voters in the city’s wealthiest parts, doubtlessly doing well off the government’s business schemes. Fidesz voters who just get by, in modest family houses with small gardens. It’s a big city, Budapest, and … (more)
  • New York City, a bit of then and now
    When I was a teen, my dad took me to America — the only time I’ve ever been there. For him, it had been over thirty years. The previous time, he’d gone by boat. … (more)
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The geographical (and historical?) divisions underlying Ukraine’s political strife

European Politics, History, International Politics, Politics

As Washington Post blogger Max Fischer illustrated with what he called “the one map you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis”, the current protests and revolts in Ukraine are fierce, but largely limited to the north and west of the country, which is right in line with the pattern revealed in the 2010 election outcomes. It’s no secret that the same broad geographic divide appeared, time and again, in most of the elections since 1991, when Ukraine gained independence.

Ukrainian election maps, 1991-2012

Ukraine: Election maps for all the main elections since 1991

For convenience’s sake, I gathered electoral maps for all the presidential and parliamentary elections in those twenty years (as well as the 1991 independence referendum), in one big overview file. All of those maps are from Wikimedia/Wikipedia.

(One contestable editorial decision I made for the 2012 parliamentary elections was in choosing the map that showed the leaders in multi-member districts by constituency, rather than the one showing the leaders in single-mandate constituencies, which includes a lot of independents and is therefore less clear. I also couldn’t find a map of the results for Gorbachev’s All-Union referendum in 1991.)

Oddly, the candidates actually running for presidential office sometimes seemed irrelevant to the geographic divide itself. In 1991, the former dissident Viacheslav Chornovil was the worthy but politically weak candidate who won only in the Galician northwest of the country, while former apparatchik Leonid Kravchuk based his landslide victory on wide support in the south and east. But in 1995, the roles were reversed: Kravchuk won constituencies across the north and west when he lost his reelection bid against Leonid Kuchma, who swept the vote in the south and east. Those elections marked the first real time that the electoral map showed a dividing line right down the middle of the country that would start marking election maps again in every major election after 2002. But it gets stranger still: move on to 1999, when Kuchma faced a Communist Party candidate as opponent in his reelection bid — and it was Kuchma who won almost all of the north and west, while support for the communist candidate was based mostly in the south and east.

Considering Chornovil’s, Kravchuk’s and Tymoshenko’s losses, and the gritted teeth with which many voters in Kiev and the northeast must have voted for Kravchuk in ’94 and Kuchma in ’99, it’s hard to elide the thought that this pattern illustrates how the real political power in the country has lain in the south/east. The voters in the north/west have had to choose between voting for the lesser evil or rebelling in the streets. Yushchenko’s victory would be the only exception, and that took a revolution. I doubt that Viktor Yanukovich will ever switch to being the northwest’s candidate, though …

There is one further geographic wrinkle of note in these maps, and that is how the Transcarpathian/Ruthenian region constitutes a bit of an outlier within the northwestern half of the country. That’s the region midway on the left side, where the country’s borders take a turn east to curve around Romania, which is often coloured differently from all the surrounding territories. It can’t be a coincidence that the historical background of that region is wholly separate. Whereas the rest of northwestern Ukraine used to belong to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and much of it to interbellum Poland as well, this region was belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1, and to Czechoslovakia between the two world wars.

When it comes to elections, history can be destiny. A map overlaying the borders between Imperial Russia and Imperial Germany on the Polish election results of 2007 has done the rounds online among map geeks for a few years because of the striking correspondence it reveals. And on a Reddit thread about these Ukrainian election maps, commenter Martin Keegan pointed out that “the boundary is where the old Polish-Lithuanian – Russian border used to be,” an idea he previously proposed on his blog. That piqued my curiosity, so I ventured on an effort to do a similar overlay to the Polish one: how do the old Polish and Lithuanian borders with Russia overlap with Ukraine’s current political polarization?

It was more of an effort than I’d have thought. But here is the result, overlaying different historical borders on the 2010 Presidential election results. It turns out that Keegan wasn’t entirely correct about the old Polish-Lithuanian – Russian border – but he definitely had a good point about the continuing salience of historical borders. Check out how the territory that still belonged to Poland in between the two world wars overlaps with the most overwhelming support for Tymoshenko (click the map to enlarge).

 

Historical borders and the 2010 Ukrainian election map

History as destiny? Historical borders superimposed on the 2010 Ukrainian election map

Moreover, Keegan’s point appears more vindicated when looking at the 1991 referendum results, though the division there was merely one between a large versus a near-unanimous majority in favour of idependence, or, especially, the 1994 presidential elections. Here is what the historical overlay looks like for the latter:

 

Historical borders and the 1994 Ukrainian election map

History as destiny, Pt. II? Historical borders superimposed on the 1994 Ukrainian election map

 

There are, however, also ways in which history is conspicuously not destiny. Or at least not in ways that are immediately obvious or make sense intuitively. Check out this map of the Holodomor – the genocidal, man-made famine that struck large parts of Ukraine, which is often blamed on indifference or outright malice on the part of Stalin and his regime. Compare it with the post-independence electoral maps, and any overlap is … hard to see. If anything, the Holodomor was most devastating in areas that now habitually side with Russia-friendly politicians like Yanukovich. Which doesn’t immediately make instinctive sense.

Methodological note:

The historical borders are approximate, though I did my best to be precise. As source material I used a map of Northeastern Europe around 1700; a Wikimedia map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth anno 1789; a Wikimedia map of Poland after the Second Partition of 1793; the detailed 1794 Laurie and Whittle map of the Kingdom of Poland; and an administrative map of Interbellum Poland in 1930. In addition, I used the Wikipedia page and subpages on the administrative raions of Ukraine,  and a detailed Ukrainian Wikimedia map of the electoral multimandate raions of the country. Delineating the far eastern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a bit difficult since some settlements like the erstwhile Krylov that were right on the border back then have long been submerged in the Kremenchuk dam reservoir. In the south, the problem in defining how the historical border overlaps with current territories, lacking more detailed maps, lies with the transfer of Transnistria to Moldova.

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I Got 95 Theses But A Pope Ain’t One

Culture, Funny, History

This was made last year, but I’d never come across it before, and it’s bloody brilliant.

It’s 1517, and Luther’s got some dope shit:

The lyrics are on the 95thesesrap.com website. The whole thing was directed by a senior history major at Yale, Alexander Dominitz, and produced by a junior at Yale, Kate Maltby. More info also in an item she posted on the Iqra’i blog.

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Russia’s gradual embrace of Stalinism

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

When it comes to Russia’s creeping rehabilitation of Stalin, a good follow-up read was published last month in openDemocracy: The Embrace of Stalinism. It was written by Memorial’s founder Arseny Roginsky, apparently on the eve of the police raid. It starts off slow, but ends up sketching an instructive panorama of the current junction in Russia’s development.

The urgency of the moment when it comes to determining historical memory reflects the same tragedy as Spain’s; any opening is about to be too late. The terror is “a passing memory. There are still witnesses, but they are the last of their kind, and they are dying, taking with them the personal memories and experiences.”

The difference, of course, is that Spain is witnessing a last-minute rush to uncover stories and records from the totalitarian past, while the last opportunities to do so in Russia are rapidly being clamped down on. All the signs point the other way – as was poignantly underlined by the raid on Memorial and the further assassinations of dissidents this month.

So why is today’s Russia romanticising the memory of Stalinism, Roginsky asks – and proceeds to walk the reader through the ingredients:

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Updates: Follow the links

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Media / journalism, Politics, US Politics

Re Spain’s orphaned children of the revolution: I found the photo of the Women’s prison Les Corts in Barcelona on Flickr, but the original source must be this site: Memòria de les Corts, prisión de mujeres, a site of the Catalan government. There’s many more.

Re: the raid by armed Russian police on “Memorial”: only after writing that post did I find two openDemocracy articles about it. Russia: raid on Memorial HQ has the official statement from “Memorial” from 4 December, outlining that “the confiscated discs contain databases with biographical details of tens of thousands of victims of the Stalinist repressions [which] has taken “Memorial” 20 years to collect”. In Eleven hard disks, “Tatyana Kosinova itemises the material, which includes Memorial’s massive project for a Virtual Gulag Museum” and the whole of its electronic archive of oral history.

Re: Speech wars and past inaugural addresses: for a comparison of the words used by GWB and Obama in their speeches, check out this mysterious webpage. It lists the “words which appear in one speech, but not the other, in decreasing order of number of times mentioned”, with words of less than 4 letters and themost frequently used words excluded for clarity.

Re: reasons to hate Chris Matthews, read this hilarious account of watching Mathews present the inauguration: Chris Matthews’ Inaugural Jib-Jabbery. Money quote is right at the beginning:

Nobody in TV news stir-fries his ideas and serves them to the audience faster than MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. Drawing from a larder filled with old anecdotes, unreliable metaphors, wacky intuition, and superficial observations, the always-animated Matthews steers whatever’s handy into the hot wok that is his brain. The sizzling free-associations skitter through his limbic system, leap out his mouth, and look for a resting spot in the national conversation, where they steam like fresh lava in untouchable heaps.

When I ranted about Matthews, I mentioned his mindblowingly shallow stupidity, but mostly I focused on the way he “turns with the wind with the self-evidence of someone who is so obliviously vain and unreflective, he wouldn’t even be able to recognize that he’s doing it.” But what strikes me in Shafer’s account is the man’s enduring love for authority, or maybe it’s celebrity. His knees go weak in the presence of celebrity – not the best trait in one of the country’s premier pundits.

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Reenacting their parents’ revolutions as farce?

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics
May Day march of the Greek communists (KKE and allies) in 2008. Image used under CC license by xamogelo.

May Day march of the Greek communists in 2008. (Image shared under CC license by Flickr user xamogelo.)

“You can only imagine the bitterness this must have left in families [with] Republican, anarchist or socialist traditions,” I wrapped up my previous post about the lost children of Franco’s Spain. This might be something to keep in mind when eyeing the still vibrant leftist countercultures in the Mediterranean.

In Germany and Holland, countercultural hotbeds in the eighties, even the parties furthest to the left have long embraced classic social-democratic programmes that are more redolent of Willy Brandt than Karl Liebknecht. But in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal there are still significant constituencies waving the red or black flags of revolutionary communism or anarchism. Maybe stories like those of Spain’s lost children are part of the explanation: the political emotions go deeper, are rooted in more personal stories.

This is what an IPS report on the Greek riots last month posited. Explaining the sheer intensity of anti-police violence, Apostolis Fotiadis reported:

Many [of the young people who joined the demonstrations] were joined by their parents, who experienced military dictatorship between 1967 and 1973. “I came because I felt responsible for the stalemate we left to these children to deal with [..],” said Tania Liberopoulos, a middle-aged accountant.

The protests were fed by the political memory of a history of social and political struggle. Almost by instinctive conscience, many people in Greece distrust the state. The latent Greek dislike of the police, which erupted so volcanically, has its roots in the old dictatorship when the police functioned as the colonels’ enforcers against the citizens.

Constant misuse of the police for anti-social purposes has led to its dehumanisation; officers are met with hate and contempt, and they hate back.

I’m not sure I buy into this – or at least, I’m not sure whether it works as much of a defense.

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Spain’s orphaned children of the revolution

Culture, European culture(s), European Politics, History, Politics

A heartbreaking story in The Times this month underlines the sheer, unprecedentedly ideological cruelty of the 20th century – and the lasting traumas it left behind, like so many time bombs:

Find General Francisco Franco’s stolen children of the Spanish Civil War, says court

She was 54 when she first got to know her mother, but Antonia Radas was one of the luckier ones. Taken away when her mother, Carmen, was imprisoned after the Spanish Civil War for her father’s Republican links, Mrs Radas’s adoptive parents lied to her, telling her that she had been abandoned, and changed her name to stop relatives tracing her. Mother and child were finally reunited in 1993, 18 months before Carmen died.

Now 71, Mrs Radas is among an estimated 30,000 children who were separated from their parents on the orders of General Francisco Franco. Many of them never knew who their real parents were.

Their cause was taken up by Judge Baltasar Garzón, the man who went after Pinochet and officers from the Argentinian junta:

Garzón [..] has claimed that Franco and 34 henchmen were guilty of the systematic killing or disappearance of at least 114,000 people during and after the civil war.

Among the victims were children of Republicans who were adopted by Franco sympathisers to prevent them coming under the influence of Marxism. Others, whose families fled abroad, were lured back to Spain under false pretences. “Child refugees were also kidnapped in France by the repatriation service of the regime and put in state institutions,” Judge Garzón wrote. [..]

Julián Casanova, a historian, claims that the aim was to “reCatholicise” the children of “Reds”. He said: “The Church was responsible for the theft of these children, from Red families. It wanted to purify them.”

The stories are all the more tragic because it’s too late now, for all but a few victims. The children who were robbed from (and of) their parents are in their old age. Their parents will almost certainly be dead, so there is no prospect of a cathartic reunion.

Womens prison Les Corts in Barcelona, 1952 (Image shared under CC license by Jaume dUrgell). Google Books allows for a peek in Prison of Women, by Tomasa Cuevas and Mary E. Giles, which has testimonies from this prison.

Women's prison Les Corts, Barcelona, 1952 (shared under CC license by Jaume d'Urgell). Google Books provides a peek in "Prison of Women" by Tomasa Cuevas e.a., which has testimonies from this prison.

Moreover, Garzón last November had to relinquish “what had promised to be the first criminal investigation of wrongs committed by Franco and his allies”. He was forced by state prosecutors to concede jurisdiction to regional courts, “who now have the authority to decide whether or not to take up these controversial cases”. He also had pass the responsibility “for opening 19 mass graves believed to hold the remains of hundreds of victims” to regional courts.

Xenu Ablana, 80, holds little faith in the proceedings. “The courts are still run by Francoists. These people have a lot of influence,” he said. His story is one of the heartbreaking ones:

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Washington DC, the inaugural address – ninetynine years ago

Culture, History, Politics, US culture, US Politics

The inauguration speech, to the year one century ago:

Hence it is clear to all that the domination of an ignorant, irresponsible element can be prevented by constitutional laws which shall exclude from voting both negroes and whites not having education or other qualifications thought to be necessary for a proper electorate. The danger of the control of an ignorant electorate has therefore passed. With this change, the interest which many of the Southern white citizens take in the welfare of the negroes has increased. The colored men must base their hope on the results of their own industry, self-restraint, thrift, and business success, as well as upon the aid and comfort and sympathy which they may receive from their white neighbors of the South. [..]

There is in the South a stronger feeling than ever among the intelligent well-to-do, and influential element in favor of the industrial education of the negro and the encouragement of the race to make themselves useful members of the community. The progress which the negro has made in the last fifty years, from slavery [..], is marvelous, and it furnishes every reason to hope that in the next twenty-five years a still greater improvement in his condition as a productive member of society, on the farm, and in the shop, and in other occupations may come.

This, it should be noted on behalf of William Taft, from a speech that spoke both of and for America’s blacks as no inaugural address before had done, and must to contemporary standards have pressed hard for their case.

America – as they say … you’ve come a long way, baby.

P.S. Explore past inaugural addresses with this nifty word analysis tool. “Locusts,” alas, appears only once, as in “We are stricken by no plague of locusts”.

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David Palmer, Barack Obama

Culture, History, Media / journalism, Presidential Elections, US culture, US Politics
Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer, President

Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer, President

The New York Times has an article today called, “How The Movies Made a President,” (which includes a cool slide show). It examines various black archetypes in movies and TV and how they may have helped to prepare the ground for the ascendancy of Barack Obama. I had similar thoughts a few months ago but never got around to making a blog post out of ’em (I know, all the bloggers say that, right?). The article mentions Dennis Haysbert and the show “24” in passing — that was the starting point of my train of thought earlier.

I think the significance of that show is not only that it was popular and that the black President Palmer was a good guy, someone the audience is rooting for, but that Keifer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer is a pretty Republican character, at core. He’s all about stoppin’ those damn terrorists by any means necessary. This wasn’t some lefty liberal show, at all.

I started thinking about this after seeing a Dennis Haysbert commercial for State Farm. He’s all calm, reassuring authority. I saw the commercial soon after some sort of political television — a debate, perhaps — and I thought at the time that it had to help Obama. There are just all sorts of resonances there. The phrases I transcribed from the commercial at the time were, “If this isn’t a recession, it sure feels like one,” (spoken wryly but seriously by Haysbert, standing in a grocery store) and then the standard State Farm tagline; “Are you in good hands?” Haysbert’s hands, the commercial clearly implies, are very good ones.

As of a year ago, Dennis Haysbert was willing to take some of the credit, too:

“As far as the public is concerned, it did open up their minds and their hearts a little bit to the notion that if the right man came along… that a black man could be president of the United States,” Haysbert, who believes that Obama is the “right man,” said in the January 21 [2008] issue of TV Guide. “People on the street would ask me to run for office… when I went to promote [24].”

[…]

“I think we both have a similar approach to who and what we believe the president is,” Haysbert said in another interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Barack doesn’t get angry. He’s pretty level. That’s how I portrayed President Palmer: as a man with control over his emotions and great intelligence.”

I don’t think anyone’s claiming that there is a direct line from one to the other; that if these black fictional representations hadn’t existed, Barack Obama wouldn’t have won, or that the fictional representations meant that any black politician could make it that far. Obama’s achievement is significant and singular. I do agree with Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, though, authors of the NYT article, that

The presidencies of James Earl Jones in “The Man,” Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact,” Chris Rock in “Head of State” and Dennis Haysbert in “24” helped us imagine Mr. Obama’s transformative breakthrough before it occurred. In a modest way, they also hastened its arrival.

(Another thought I had while reading the NYT article — Michelle Obama is SO Clair Huxtable, isn’t she? Smart, polished, down-to-earth, nurturing, funny…. Is this not a total Clair Huxtable moment?)

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“Doing the minutes” as artifact of democracy

Culture, Funny, History

A rather offbeat, but lovely observation from Shivaji Das in Singapore. One to file and read again the next time it’s your turn.

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Burying Perestroika

Culture, European culture(s), History, International Politics, Media / journalism, Politics
Memorial

Memorial had its digital archives seized in a police raid last month. "This was 20 years' work. We'd been making a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names."

The BBC last week took on the story Dagmaraka started telling here three months ago, picking up roughly where she left off. Rossiya TV, one of Russia’s biggest TV channels, last year launched a show that, over the course of the year, grew into much more than just another TV program: vote for the Greatest Russian in history!

In the first round, no less than fourtyfive million votes were cast for the initial fifty candidates. In the second round for the top 12 vote-getters, another four and a half million votes were phoned or texted in or cast online by the time the vote was concluded last weekend. But there was a problem. Throughout the year, those pesky viewers kept voting Stalin to the top of the list.

Anxious to avoid embarassment, the organisers tried to change the ranking by hook or by crook. The producers appealed to viewers to vote for someone else and, as Dagmaraka recounted, at one point claimed a massive hacking incident to remove one million votes for Stalin. But he kept bouncing right up again.

When the BBC reported the story on Saturday, Stalin was in fourth place. In the final tally, he still passed Pushkin and came in third. He missed the top spot only by a hairwidth: Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin beat him by just six and five thousand votes respectively. Lenin didn’t do badly either: he came in sixth, squeezed in between Peter the Great and Dostoyevski.

Now the success of the show in itself is striking. It’s tempting to speculate that it must have something to do with how Russians don’t have many opportunities anymore to vote on a wide-ranging ballot of candidates, but earlier versions of the show in the UK and Holland saw a similar mass participation (and the Dutch version triggered a similar controversy). The BBC report, however, takes the story into a different direction, and places Stalin’s success in the poll in a context of progressive efforts by the Putin-era state to rehabilitate him.

It may be a little all too embarassing to have Stalin right at the top of a list of Russian heroes, but his showing is actually right in line with the state’s recent push to take him out of history’s doghouse:

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”.

“[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.”

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