I 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.