Is Stalin or Nicholas the Greatest Russian?

Via normblog, the Russians are having a national poll on who’s the greatest Russian of all time.  The first of the two front runners, Nicholas II, was a racist and a bigot who regularly blamed Jews for his governments failings and incited pogroms throughout the empire.  The other, Joseph Stalin, developed the model for a totalitarian regime that murdered countless millions. 

[B]y 2000, when Mr Putin was elected president, the Russians were sick of humiliation, poverty and insecurity. Now they saw in Stalin a stern glory: he was a world conqueror who expanded the empire from Berlin to Ulan Bator, defeated Hitler, built and thought in imperial style and industrialised his country, leaving a nuclear superpower. To the West, he was a murderous monster, but without Stalinist Russia we would have lost the Second World War. Stalin appreciated this: when the US envoy Averell Harriman complimented him for taking Berlin, Stalin answered: “Yes, but AlexanderI made it to Paris.” Stalin loved running his pipe over his empire on maps: “Yes we haven’t done badly…”

But he would have been bemused by the presence of Nicholas II – and so would Nicholas himself. If Stalin wins the poll, it’s a crime; if Nicholas, a farce. Nicholas and Alexandra have won an absurdly good press because they had a loving marriage, an ill son, a tragic death. Nicholas is being canonised by the Orthodox Church.

But Nicholas was not romantically unlucky: he was a rigid autocrat, bigoted racist, clumsy warlord, an enthusiastic anti-Semite who sponsored, organised and financed the Black Hundreds and Cossacks in their pogroms that killed many thousands of Jewish women and children. Savage to those helpless victims, he was too lenient to revolutionaries. During both his disastrous wars – the Russo-Japanese and the First World War – he was callously inept. Alexandra was worse: foolish, hysterical, deluded, yet in the last years Nicholas allowed her far too much power. When they were in Bolshevik captivity, he and Alexandra read primitive anti-Semitic literature. A more capable Tsar would have avoided the tragedies of the Bolshevik terror.

In Russia, history is real and the blood is fresh: in the archives one can virtually smell it on the deathlists. The truth is a golden privilege; the past in Russia is still a secret place. The Russians have a Janus-like amnesiacal view of history: they acknowledge the killing as “mistakes” then they celebrate the triumph and