Chance to Escape From Thousand-Year Dream

Not long before the beginning of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, I became editor of a provincial newspaper. And, in accordance with the order of things at that time, I automatically assumed many of the social responsibilities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Before the approaching elections, I was called on to oversee the voting process in one of the rural territories.

I was already at the polling station at 5 a.m. on the day of the elections where, within an hour, tractor drivers, milkmaids, village teachers and pensioners were supposed to begin voting. I was obliged to communicate with the regional committee of the Communist Party every half hour in order to "inform them about the course of the vote."

When, by 9 a.m., 40 percent of the electorate in my district had already voted, the regional committee took me to task saying, "The neighboring districts are doing better. Pull yourself up." The Party secretaries made sure that buses which took people to the farms first went to the polls, where people were voting almost on the run. Some people looked at the bulletin out of curiosity, wondering, "Who are we going to vote for?" They were urged on by others: "What difference does it make to you. Work is waiting."

At 11 a.m. they reported to me that the ninth farm had not appeared. Since I was tired of answering empty questions from the regional committee, I got in my car and drove to the farm. It was a small, remote settlement where some gypsies lived. A bus with the ballot box followed behind me. A voting commission representative, who was a specialist on elections, sternly reprimanded the driver, "We must re-count the voters."

When we arrived at the settlement I was surprised there wasn't a single human trace on the snow in the courtyard. And it was getting late. There was a naked boy in the wide-open window of the nearest house. Inside, people sat around a table in lively discussion.

I was immediately invited to sit down at table, poured a glass of wine and offered a pot of mangel-wurzel. "Be our guest, chief! Let's drink to the holiday!" Are they going to vote? "Well, we're illiterate," the old woman in a bright dress said with a smile. "Hand over the paper to us." The driver, who had come with the sealed ballot box, threw the voting paper to them. Only one thing concerned him: that the number of ballots cast corresponded to the number of registered voters in this settlement. Strictly speaking, this -- and only this -- was what the voting commissions from the regional to central levels were concerned with. Until evening, we were involved only in rounding up people to take them to the polling station. Some had forgotten, others were obstinate and resentful: "Twenty years ago, I asked for my roof to be fixed. They haven't done it. I won't go to vote." There were no more than 10 such people in the district; their names were known. And we continued to have lunch and dinner -- with vodka and refreshments at the expense of the local kolkhoz, which had large debts.

Late in the evening, when the ballot boxes were opened and the votes were counted, the ballots with inscriptions were collected. This was very important: Some voters wrote on the back of the ballot, "Glory to the Communist Party" or "Help me buy a car," or something to that effect. After the inscriptions were edited, to the point of not being recognizable, they were published in newspapers. If people came across "malicious attacks," they would try to report them to the Communist Party and KGB -- "for further work." As a rule, these were not enemies of the authorities, but poor people who, out of despair and a sense of injustice, tried in any way they could to cry out with a "no."

The electoral machine at that time worked effectively.

No one -- neither the authorities nor the voters -- disturbed the dead, formal character of the elections, which as everyone was convinced, was a game for others -- for the West, which for some reason cared about various stupidities like democracy, freedom of speech or freedom of conscience.

No one ever put any hope in elections: The invincible communist bloc as well as non-party members, some collective hero and a plastic "we" who were alien to the interests of a private person, would win in any case.

It was thus a great shock when under Gorbachev it suddenly became apparent: Something depends on me.

How new this was -- and how strange: to turn out to be an actor on the political scene and not an extra. Such a prospect made one's head spin. And although in the past there were many people from whom nothing was expected, more and more of them experienced a strange, unfamiliar and disturbing feeling, which could be called responsibility. These people became voters.

The formation of a real electorate directly depends on the pace and quality of reforms, which create the basis and conditions for independent and responsible Russian voters -- unprecedented figures until now. Today, people will have gone to the polls as if through a fog and directed themselves toward several bright figures who symbolize some kind of idea. By the way, this is entirely natural for a country where, for 1,000 years, the individual person was not taken into account.

Among some of my friends, many of whom are writers, artists and musicians, it has even become fashionable to support "normal communists." They refer to Poland and Lithuania, where the left has come to power, but forget that the Catholic discipline and the longstanding orientation toward the West of these countries is not the same thing as the Orthodox contempt for social life and for individuality and the "neurosis of national originality," which have been appropriated by the Russian left. The Russian left has no experience other than that of the gulag, although this does not necessarily mean the rise of a new totalitarianism should it come to power.

But when Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov says, "We are different, believe us!," I want to respond, "We are not in a church but in history." Unfortunately, however, it will take a long time before this simple truth is understood.

Today, some people say that to vote one's conscience means to vote for Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky or Gorbachev, and to vote for the lesser evil means to vote against Zyuganov and, alas, for President Boris Yeltsin.

But to vote according to one's conscience indeed means to choose the lesser evil -- at least, for those who wish to live in a real country, however difficult it may be, and not in a country of dreamers, which is what it has been for 1,000 years.

Yury Buyda, a writer, is on the editorial board of Novoye Vremya and Znamya. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.