Russians have the chance to pick the greatest Russian in history during a 13-part TV series that began airing there this month. Internet voting has already generated controversy by temporarily putting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the top of the list.
State-controlled Russian television is billing it the "project of the year." Once a week until the end of December, a panel will have an on-air debate over who is the greatest figure in Russian history. Almost everyone on the panel is a well-known conservative, and on the first program, an Orthodox Church bishop named Metropolitan Kirill argued for medieval ruler Alexander Nevskii. Nevskii's legendary battlefield victories over Swedish and Germanic knights had saved Russia from annihilation, the bishop said.
Kirill compared Nevskii's battles to Russia's invasion of Georgia in August, saying both had signaled Russia's rebirth as a great power.
The show's host, Alexander Liubimov, says such historical comparisons are particularly instructive to Russians today, when relations between oil-rich Moscow and the West have sunk nearly to Cold War levels.
"As a host, I want to make this show strictly connected to today's politics," Liubimov says. "Is today's problems of Russia with NATO different to what Alexander Nevskii was about?"
Voting for the greatest Russian began on the Internet earlier this year. Liubimov blames computer hackers for the fact that Stalin for a time came in at No. 1.
"That all brought us publicity. It gave us good promotion," he says. "Real people, they don't believe this kind of Internet voting means anything."
But Stalin — who wasn't Russian, but was actually from Georgia — is still on the list of 12 finalists now under consideration for the top spot. Stalin's totalitarian regime is believed to have killed about 20 million people, but a recent poll showed that a majority of Russians support the dictator's policies.
Igor Stepanov, who was on Moscow's main shopping street, says whatever one's opinion, Stalin's candidacy for the greatest Russian deserves serious consideration.
"Whether the consensus decides that Stalin was good or bad for Russia will have to be seen," Stepanov says. "But it wouldn't be right to ignore his role in history."
Lenin is also on the list, as are Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. Of the 12 finalists, eight are former Russian leaders.
Critics point to Russia's list of writers and scientists, who have had little support. Yan Rachinsky of Memorial, a human rights organization that documents Soviet crimes, says the show will only harm viewers' understanding of Russia's past.
"That kind of program is fine in democratic countries, where historical archives are open and the problems of history are freely discussed," Rachinsky says. "Russia is not that kind of country."
Rachinsky says the show is helping to perpetuate the traditional view that Russia's history consists of a string of great victories by strong leaders. The Kremlin, he says, encourages that because it helps convince the population it has no influence on the will of the state.
"The only thing left to do," Rachinsky says, "is to hope is for a good czar."