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Leonid Bershidsky

Who Are Russia’s Heroes? You Might Be Surprised.

Asked to pick the names of famous compatriots for airports, Russians chose poets and pilots over generals and ideologues.

A leader, but not a hero.

A leader, but not a hero.

Photographer: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Russia has rarely gotten a chance to elect its pantheon: Heroes have often been imposed on it from above in fits of historical revisionism and through propaganda. Recently, however, Russians have been allowed to pick the names of revered compatriots for the country’s 47 important airports. The popular vote, which ended on Tuesday, wasn’t free from government tampering, but it produced a surprising list that shows ordinary Russians tend to be apolitical and quite propaganda-resistant – but also culturally indifferent.

The idea of the airport renaming campaign belonged to Metropolitan Tikhon, a senior Russian Orthodox priest who has been called President Vladimir Putin’s confessor. It was backed by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, who has spearheaded Putin’s drive to create a new national ideology for modern Russia, and a number of Kremlin-backed non-governmental organizations. The Public Chamber, a body set up by Putin to maintain ties between the Kremlin and a tame “civil society,” ran the vote.