Lenin and Nicholas II look-alikes pausing between pictures with tourists near Red Square on Monday. "Nicholas II" said he was rooting for his doppelganger.
Now Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Tsar Nicholas II, the country's last monarch, are running neck and neck in a contest sponsored by state-run Rossia television called "Name of Russia," a Russian version of the BBC show "Great Britons" aimed at selecting the country's most significant historical figure.
As of 9 p.m. Monday, more than 2.3 million votes had been cast in the Internet poll, which had Stalin in first place with 252,360 votes, narrowly leading Nicholas II, who had 252,262 votes, according to the contest's web site, www.nameofrussia.ru.
Trailing the two front-runners were Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, with 171,224 votes, followed by gritty-voiced folk singer Vladimir Vysotsky, with 150,405 votes, and Peter the Great, with 115,115 votes.
Until Monday, Stalin, an ethnic Georgian and one of the bloodiest tyrants of the 20th century, had been dominating the poll. Nicholas II shot past Stalin for several hours Monday, however, thanks perhaps in part to a campaign organized by the contest's producer.
"I arranged a flash mob for [Nicholas II] on Odnoklassniki.ru," Alexander Lyubimov said Monday evening, referring to the popular social networking site.
Lyubimov, a groundbreaking television host during perestroika, admitted that the poll was ripe for manipulation since it allowed an unlimited number of votes from the same computer.
The site was attacked over a three-day span last week, and a flood of incorrect requests caused the system to break down several times and stop counting votes, Lyubimov said in a statement last week.
At the same time, "mass voting for Stalin was being organized from several Internet resources," Lyubimov said.
With Saturday marking the 90th anniversary of the execution of the tsar and his family by the Bolsheviks, it seems that monarchists are fighting back. Nikolai Lukyanov, head of the All-Russia Monarchist Center, said his organization was rallying Internet support for Nicholas II as well.
"More than 400,000 users of [the social networking site] Vkontakte.ru consider themselves monarchists, and we are asking them to vote in support of our last tsar," Lukyanov said.
Princess Maria Vladimirovna, the self-declared heir to the imperial throne, is not giving any direct support to the campaign, her lawyer, German Lukyanov, said Monday. He added, however, that he was pleased with the tsar's surge.
Nikolai Savelyev, who has been impersonating Nicholas II for 12 years, said he was happy that his doppelganger is doing so well in the poll. "I really like him," Savelyev said Monday afternoon while loitering near Red Square waiting for tourists seeking souvenir photos. "He was a very good person: kind but spineless. That was a big minus."
The top 50 in the contest include writer Anton Chekhov and poets Alexander Pushkin and Sergei Yesenin. The first man in space, Yury Gagarin and the father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolyov, also make the list. The first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, is currently at No. 12. There's no Vladimir Putin, though, since the list does not include living people.
The show's organizer, Lyubimov, also downplayed fears that Stalin would win. "Research says that the choice of Stalin as Name of Russia is not possible," he said.
Stalin is revered by many for, among other things, leading the Soviet Union during its defeat of Nazi Germany.
Lyubimov predicted a backlash of anti-Stalin sentiment in September, when the top 12 figures will be discussed in television debates.
"The majority will be affected by this show only when it's on the air," Lyubimov said. "When they watch the show and see that Stalin is winning, imagine how many people will vote and start being engaged with the show."
One group, the Communists of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region, is urging its members to vote for Stalin and Lenin.
"The regime, which is against the people, hopes the winner will be Nicholas II, bloody Yeltsin, [White Russian leader Anton] Denikin or the dissident [Andrei] Sakharov," the group said in a statement published on its web site last week. "We must destroy the plan of the pro-Kremlin forces."
Veronika Klinovitskaya, a spokeswoman for the group, said she voted for Stalin, though both he and Lenin were "undoubtedly outstanding people."
"They did a lot to create the Soviet Union and make it develop," she said.
Asked about the darker side of the Stalin regime, Klinovitskaya said "every regime has negative sides" and that his actions were "expedient in the situation."
She predicted that Lenin would win, since very few lived under his rule, and "people tend to idealize those whom they know less about."
Well-known Lenin impersonator Anton Karbushev is not one of those who will be supporting the man whose visage he uses to make money off tourists. Karbushev, who has been a Lenin impersonator for 13 years, said he would vote for Sakharov, the dissident and Nobel Prize winner. "He is more likely to understand and express the problems that now exist in Russia," Karbushev said.
The pro-Kremlin youth group Young Guard, which is encouraging its members to vote in the contest, said "grandmothers" nostalgic for Soviet times were responsible for Stalin's fast start, despite the fact that pensioners are a social group with comparatively limited Internet access.
"Naturally, we don't like the fact that Stalin is coming through in first place," Young Guard activist Maria Sergeyeva said, attributing his high rating to "a lot of mentally inadequate people."
"We don't think people are voting for Stalin with a full understanding of what they're doing," Sergeyeva said. "Maybe it's a provocation by someone or it's actually being organized."
Sergeyeva said she voted for the political reformer and pre-Revolutionary Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.
Alexander Prokhanov, editor of nationalist newspaper Zavtra, said it was hardly surprising that Stalin was doing so well.
"Fifty percent of the Russian population are Stalinists," Prokhanov said. "If you put Stalin and Vysotsky on a competitive basis, or Stalin and [pop star] Alla Pugachyova, of course there will be a huge number of people for Stalin. That isn't surprising."
Prokhanov called the vote "a probe of public opinion" and said he was interested in taking part in the televised debates.
The poll studies "what kind of people live in Russia," Prokhanov said. "Whether, for example, it's possible to throw Lenin out of the mausoleum, whether it is possible to destroy Soviet symbols, and what will happen if they start knocking the emblem of the Soviet Union off the State Duma building."
Stalin's high rating "corresponds to all previous votes and polls," said Boris Belenkin, a member of Memorial, a human rights group that campaigns to publicize Stalin-era atrocities and support the victims. "It's not unexpected," he said, adding that he was "ambivalent" about the poll.
The result could be interpreted as the acknowledgement of Stalin as "the most terrible, bloody, repulsive figure" in Russian history, Belenkin said.
"You pronounce the word Russia and the first association is that bad name, isn't it?" he said. "Here the answer is honest. We don't associate it with Sakharov or [poet Alexander] Pushkin."
Belenkin added, however, that the contest probably showed something else: that people genuinely see Stalin as a hero. "Such is the level of self-identification, such is our historical memory, such are our ideals," he said.
Lyubimov, deputy head of the state radio and television company VGTRK, said he deliberately decided not to use the word "great" in the title.
"If you name this show 'Great Russians,' you actually are almost forced to deny Stalin and Lenin being part of that," he said. "On the other hand, that makes the picture of your country biased by your political approach, and that doesn't leave any discussion for the show."
The initial list included Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet-era secret police, although he has now been eliminated.
In an analogous contest in Germany, Adolf Hitler and all Nazi figures were excluded from the initial list of names up for public vote.
Lyubimov said he welcomed the voting controversy. "Any reaction is healthy," he said. "Our mission is to attract more attention of the general audience to Russian history."
Nevertheless, Lyubimov acknowledged that there had been some censorship of the vote.
Mass voting by Ukraine-based Internet users placed two Ukrainians, anarchist leader Nestor Makhno and uprising leader Bogdan Khmelnitsky, in the top two places in June.
"These two were deleted because that attack happened from the Ukrainian part of the Internet, and that was picked up," Lyubimov said.
Asked if this was democratic, he said, "This is a game, and I set the rules."
Yelena Shuster contributed to this report.