This is tmatt, falling out of his chair

stalin narodovI don’t know if there is a publication in Russia that is similar to The Onion, but GetReligion reader Lars Doucet sent me a story the other day that had me going, thinking that it was some kind of cruel satire or parody. But this story wasn’t from a Russian publication, it was from The Telegraph.

Here’s the set-up for the unbelievable finish, in this short news report from Moscow about a contest called “Name of Russia.” This contest is based on a BBC project called “Great Britons.”

The goal, obviously, is to pick the ultimate, the archetypal, Russian leader.

To cut to the chase, the infamous Joseph Stalin is currently in second place and, it seems, on the rise — with the fervent backing of the Communist Party of St. Petersburg. At the moment, the last czar — Nicholas II — is in first place.

Now Joseph Stalin is, of course, best known for his bloody purges and other policies that led directly to the deaths of about 20,000,000 to 45,000,000 people, depending on how you calculate the starvation and bloodshed. The Telegraph used a 15,000,000 figure, which is lower than the usual estimates found in textbooks and various websites. Suffice it to say, that millions of those who died were Orthodox bishops, priests and believers who died rather than submit to the authority of Stalin’s corrupt, crushed version of their faith.

Thus, it’s stunning to read the following near the end of this report (although the newspaper focused on this angle in the headline). The Communists want to have Stalin declared an Orthodox Christian saint. Honest.

“Stalin is the most popular name in Russia,” said Sergei Malinkovich, the Communist party leader who is driving the Stalin canonisation campaign. “The people have forgiven him for the repressions, the collectivization, the elimination of cadres of the Red Army and other inevitable errors and tragedies of those cruel military and revolutionary times.

“Stalin has become the true national leader of Russia. He turned a backward country into an industrial giant.”

Yet the idea of tuning Uncle Joe into Saint Joe has so far won little official backing from the Orthodox Church, which was one of Stalin’s chief victims. Seeking to establish atheism as the Soviet Union’s official creed, Stalin destroyed thousands of churches and sent tens of thousands of priests to the gulags and their deaths.

Despite the church’s reluctance, St Petersburg’s Communists are convinced their vision will come to pass. They have already commissioned religious icons depicting Stalin with a halo round his head that have reportedly sold very well around the city.

“By the end of the 21st century, icons of St Josef Stalin will be in every Orthodox Church,” Mr Malinkovich said.

I know it is wrong to keep knocking mainstream news reports by saying that they are incomplete. But, oh my God, there really should be at least a paragraph here that explains the very organic, ground-up way that women and men are hailed as saints in the Orthodox tradition. It is much less formal than the Roman Catholic system.

But the key is that believers in ordinary churches and monasteries begin hailing people as saints because of their holy lives and, after several generations, one of the national churches of Orthodoxy makes the verdict office. Click here to read about one example — St. Raphael of Brooklyn — here in America.

Now, it is true that the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad made the decision to canonize Nicholas II and the other members of his family who were killed by the early Communists. I wrote about that issue a decade ago and the issue of the family’s remains was recently back in the news. Here’s a piece of my column on the las czar:

In his lifetime, Nicholas II was cursed as a bloody tyrant, while others said he was too weak. Today, many say he was merely inept or trapped in a tragic role — an articulate, gentle man better suited to be a symbolic leader than an absolute monarch. But for some Russians, these temporal disputes have little or nothing to do with an larger, eternal question: Should the Romanovs be venerated as saints?

“Yes, Nicholas II was the czar. That’s important and that made his death highly symbolic,” said Father Alexander Lebedeff of Los Angeles, a Russian Orthodox Church Abroad historian. “But it really doesn’t matter if he was a great czar. The important question is whether he died as a martyr for the faith. We believe that the Romanov family became an extraordinary example of piety and submission to the will of God. They died praying for Russia and for their persecutors.”

So why Nicholas II and not Stalin? Well, Nicholas and his wife and children died as martyrs, in the eyes of many Orthodox Christians. For many, that is a very big step toward sainthood.

Stalin, on the other hand, created millions of martyrs. There’s a difference.

What a strange, strange and radically incomplete story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    has so far won little official backing from the Orthodox Church,

    So there has been some official backing? If not, would not the proper word be none?

  • Stephen A.

    Question: Wasn’t Stalin rather well known for blowing up Orthodox churches in the 1930s and clearing the way for parking lots and hideous grey office buildings? And shouldn’t the point of the story be: Let’s get to the bottom of why the Russian people seem to have forgotten that history? Western Europeans also seem to glamourize this murderous thug as well. Why?

    In other news, did anyone else hear about the 25-foot statue of Hitler that their erecting in Jerusalem?

    The Onion, indeed. (“Dictator Slays Millions In Last-Minute Push To Be Time’s Man Of The Year” )

    Here’s another blog posting on it, describing the contest in detail: (link)

    Apparently you can vote and see all the contenders at Nearly 9 million people have voted! There seem to be some actual saints in contention. And also Nikita Khruschev!

    My cyrillic is very poor, but I believe Stalin is falling back to third place, behind Yuri Gagarin and Lenin: (link)

  • Jerry

    Such stories illustrate how little meaning is attached to the word saint amongst some. That’s similar to how Avatar does not mean the incarnation of God into human form but rather is trivialized to be an image representing a character in a virtual reality site.

  • Michael

    I’m sure it’s hard to write a short article covering all the ins and outs of absolute insanity. I’d really like to know how widespread the view that Stalin should be canonized is among Russians who, you know, believe in God.

    How can the media or anyone else get Russia?

  • Martha

    I wonder if some of the support is not based on Stalin as leader during the Great Patriotic War?

  • Dave2

    In case the Cyrillic-challenged are curious, here’s the current top 14. USSR nostalgia is still running wild:

    1. Yuri Gagarin
    2. St. Alexander Nevsky
    3. Lenin
    4. Stalin
    5. Nikita Khrushchev
    6. Vladimir Vysotsky
    7. Georgy Zhukov
    8. Sergey Korolyov
    9. Nicholas II
    10. Konstantin Rokossovsky
    11. Sergius of Radonezh
    12. Alexander Pushkin
    13. Peter the Great
    14. Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Chris M

    I’m waiting for some nutcase story about neo-nazis putting forth Hitler’s name for canonization by the Catholic Church. You’re right, this is fall-out-of-chair bad!

  • Chris Bolinger

    I saw Lenin back in 1993, when he still was on display. He looked pretty good for a guy who had been dead for decades.

    Yes, Michael, the media can get Russia if the media invests in studying Russia or relies on people who are intimately familiar with that very interesting country. The media seems to invest a fair bit in people who get sports but less in people who get other subjects, such as Russia…or religion.

  • James

    I recall visiting an art museum in central Russia that was housed on one of the churches seized by Stalin. The only portrait of Stalin was in a closet, behind a curtain. The curators and the city’s citizens were adamant he deserved no such honor as to have his portrait in public.

    This was by far the most typical attitude I came across.

  • Stephen A.

    I wonder if some of the support is not based on Stalin as leader during the Great Patriotic War?

    I think Martha’s onto something. A lot of older people still revere him (in all senses of that word, because he brought them through the War.

    I also read somewhere online that Stalin “brought back” a lot of churches during the war, using them for his own purposes, of course (think: today’s Chinese-sponsored Catholic Church, or the Chinese Dalai Lamma.) So maybe some older priests have *some* feeling for the man, though I cannot see how.

    Thanks, Dave2, for posting the list of names! Pr. Alexander Nevsky sure has moved up, above Lenin and Stalin, and he’s surely not from the USSR era. Just 20 years ago, Nicholas II would obviously not be on that list.

    It makes me wonder what kind of “national conversation” about religion, politics and history this poll is sparking in Russia right now. I’d like to see some reporting on that.

    Just a note: Almost a MILLION people have voted in this poll since I posted here last night at 11 pm ET!

    Another thought occurred to me. If it wasn’t for the added element that the “winner” would become a candidate for “sainthood,” this poll would resemble the TIME magazine choice for “person of the year.” That choice is based not on how GOOD that person was, but how he/she influenced events. In that case, Stalin (with Lenin in second place) is far and away the one who influenced Russia the most in the 20th century.

  • russian at heart

    Stalin is still #2, as of this afternoon. #1 is St. Sergei Radonezhskiy, leading by 83,000 votes.

    However, there is a note on the main page that the site has had problems with hackers submitting large numbers of votes, first for Stalin, then Lenin, and now Sergei Radonezhskiy. The announcement also says that the site’s organizers may change the rules of the contest this week due to their inability to block all the hackers’ programs.

  • Isa Almisry

    Yes, the Romanovs have been canonized by the Patriarchate of Moscow, but note: the canonization of the Church in Exile (since reunited to Moscow) was not accepted. They were canonized as “Passion-Bearers” (someone who accepts passive resistence rather than the sword to assert their rights). The accounts of their final years shows that Czar Nicholas refused a few opportunities to leave the country, taking the rejection of assylum by King George as a sign that the imperial family was to suffer with the Russians to pay for the sins of the ancient regime.
    As for canonizing Stalin, the hailing has to be from the Faithful. Atheist communists don’t count.

  • Bp. Basil

    There is an Orthodox humor site called

    that has a lampoon about glorifying Joseph Stalin.

    Could this be the source of this rumor?

  • tmatt

    Is this Bishop Basil of the Antiochian Orthodox Church here in North America?

    The Stalin as saint issue is not a rumor, but it’s clear that the whole poll is being rethought.

    The Onion story is here: