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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Ersatz Elections



When I was a child, my parents took me along with them when they voted. They would hand me a blank ballot and say, "You can draw whatever you want on it." I wondered, "Why is this so?" As I got older, my questions became more interesting. I asked myself: "Why is there only one candidate in our district? How can he win if he has no competitors?" In 1984, even 12-year-olds knew that the man running for the parliamentary seat from our district, Communist Party General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, was on his deathbed.

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Now, many years later, I have answers to those childhood questions as well as new questions in their place. For example, Why did the Soviet Union hold elections at all?

Not only political analysts but every one of us can come up with his answer to this question. Politics is like soccer or medicine in this regard -- everyone thinks he is an expert. Nevertheless, I would like to offer one more theory.

But before doing so, let's go back in time one generation to the U.S. Trade and Cultural Fair in Moscow's Sokolniki Park in 1959. This was a very important event, as evidenced by the fact that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon opened the exhibition. For Soviet citizens, the fair offered a glimpse into a world from which they had been isolated for forty years. My father recalls that the exhibition's organizers had come up with the idea of displaying "typical" U.S. and Soviet kitchens. The American kitchen included a washing machine and an electric juicer, an item Khrushchev found particularly fascinating. By the late 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Americans already owned washing machines and televisions, but these items remained "exotic" and beyond the reach of most Soviets. One would think that the advantages of capitalism over socialism would have been obvious to anyone, even to my father, who was only 14 years old at the time. Nevertheless, my father recalls that the "typical" Soviet kitchen shown at the exhibition was roughly equivalent to the U.S. kitchen display. The only problem was that many Soviets saw these appliances for the first time in their lives at the exhibit. Since both model kitchens were equally alien to the daily lives of Soviets, my father and many others assumed that the U.S. kitchen was as much a fake as the Soviet display.

The same thing was true of Soviet elections. So what if Ronald Reagan, a conservative, was vying with Jimmy Carter, a liberal? Did the West think we didn't know what elections were? Soviet authorities did not stage their ersatz elections to try to give a semblance of legitimacy to the regime; voters knew that the whole thing was a sham. The authorities' goal was to convince Soviets that elections in other nations were no better.

In post-Soviet Russia, Kremlin assertions that things in the West are just as bad as they are here can be easily refuted by anyone. Commentators on state-run television tell us that the current U.S. election campaign is a contest between members of the elite and that the candidates' numerous debates and meetings with voters are staged events at which they never discuss anything of substance. But all you have to do is turn on CNN, MSNBC, YouTube or other sites that post such material. There you can see for yourself the difficulty of the questions posed to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the real depth of the debate.

Why is it important to know what is really happening in the U.S. political campaign? To see that political systems in other parts of the world are different and that ours could have been different as well.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.