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Stalin vies for top spot in 'greatest Russian' TV contest

Brutal Soviet dictator has a chance of being named later today as the country's greatest historical figure

He massacred millions of his own people, enforced a system of terror that plagues Russia to this day and, to top it all, he was Georgian. But Joseph Stalin, the former Soviet leader, has a strong chance of winning the mantle of Russia's greatest historical figure.

More than two million votes have been cast in state-run Rossiya television's Name of Russia contest, modelled on the BBC's Great Britons, with the result to be announced today.

Stalin has hovered in the top three for months: just before Christmas he was in second place, fewer than 10,000 votes behind Alexander Nevsky, a medieval military hero, and more than 27,000 ahead of the poet Alexander Pushkin.

A Stalin victory would be controversial by any measure. In recent years the authorities have sought to highlight his Second World War leadership and his economic planning, but the purges, deportations and brutal labour camp system over which he presided are estimated to have cost 20 million lives. Nor was he even Russian. The future dictator was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili and raised in Gori, a Georgian town that was overrun by Russian tanks during the two countries' war in August this year.

The contest's organiser doesn't appear concerned – and says he has even gained a new understanding of Stalin. "He won't win," said Alexander Lyubimov, a journalist who rose to prominence in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union began to crumble. During a previous round of voting, Mr Lyubimov helped to rally support for an alternative, Tsar Nicholas II, but says that won't be necessary this time.

Now deputy head of VGTRK, a state radio and television company, Mr Lyubimov claims to understand the backing for Stalin, saying he should be known for more than his repression. "He had no other choice," he said. "He was surrounded by enemies, and domestically it was also full of enemies of Bolshevism."

That's the line promoted in modern Russia. A new government-approved textbook teaches children that Stalin had to resort to violence to modernise the Soviet Union.

Mr Lyubimov is proud that the TV contest is doing its part. "Five or 10 years ago, this wouldn't have been possible," he said, referring to Stalin's place in the poll. "We're creating historical distance, so it doesn't touch us as much emotionally. This is the first brick in the wall toward trying to forget."

Viktor Perov, a member of a Communist Party splinter group in St Petersburg, doubts the contest organisers will allow a Communist to win. "It's all lies," he said. His group, which has gained publicity for protesting against the representation of Soviets in films such as the Indiana Jones series, has thrown its support behind another contender in the poll, Vladimir Lenin. Stalin's predecessor is lagging in sixth place, but Mr Perov thinks he still has a chance. "The masses will wake up in a time of financial crisis," he said.