MOSCOW – Ninety years after he was executed, Czar Nicholas II is leading a tight race to be named the greatest Russian in history.
His closest competitors? Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state that killed the last czar and his entire family.
The contest, sponsored by state-owned Rossiya television, is a Russian version of the 2002 BBC show "Great Britons," which was won by Winston Churchill.
A U.S. version in 2005 declared Ronald Reagan, the former president who had died the year before, to be the "Greatest American."
As of Tuesday, Nicholas II was ahead with more than 267,000 of the 2.4 million votes cast in the Internet poll.
Stalin, who like Churchill led his nation to victory in World War II, was close behind with about 263,000 votes. Lenin trailed with 187,000.
Until recently, Stalin was dominating the poll, despite his political purges that sent millions of his countrymen to their deaths. But as the anniversary of the July 18, 1918, execution of the imperial family approaches, monarchists have been rallying support for the martyred czar.
The Internet poll allows for multiple voting and thus can be easily swayed.
The top 12 vote-getters are to be discussed in televised debates in September, with one figure then chosen the "Name of Russia."
The top 12 now includes other former leaders: Peter the Great (No. 5), Catherine the Great (No. 7), Boris Yeltsin (No. 11) and Ivan the Terrible (No. 12).
Vladimir Putin, the extremely popular former president who is now prime minister, did not qualify for the contest because he is still alive.
He may, however, have given a boost to Stalin's candidacy. In helping to restore Russians' pride in their Soviet-era history, Putin's Kremlin played up Stalin's role in building a strong state while glossing over his bloody rule.
If Russians tire of the virtual political battle shaping up between the monarchists and Communists, they could always throw their Internet vote behind the fourth name on the list: Vladimir Vysotsky, the beloved actor and singer who died in 1980.