When the Soviets Voted

Americans could learn something from the care that people of the U.S.S.R. took with a privilege they would hold only briefly.

Boris Yeltsin campaigning in 1989.
Boris Yeltsin campaigning in 1989. (Wojtek Laski / Getty)

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Americans sometimes forget how blessed they are. I hope they remember today, regardless of their vote, that their Constitution is a miracle. I learned a lesson about this in, of all places, the former Soviet Union.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Sacred Ballots

Today we’re supposed to exhort our fellow citizens to vote, invoking the traditional words of the Founders and all the usual clichés (some of which have more truth in them today than in the past): “Vote as if your life depends on it,” “This is the most important election of our time,” and so on.

I’m not going to do any of that. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story and then offer you one simple guide for voting.

The story begins in 1989, when I was a young scholar who joined a small American delegation to the Soviet Union to carry out informal discussions on arms control with our Soviet counterparts. This was my third trip to the U.S.S.R. My first, just six years earlier in 1983, was during one of the coldest periods of the Cold War. A lot had changed by 1989, and the once-mighty Soviet Union was edging toward oblivion.

As part of his attempt to keep the country together, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev created a new legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. For the first time, Soviet citizens would have something like a real election; although the Communist Party insisted on its usual cut of the seats, Soviets in many places now had the chance to be actual “voters” instead of participants in a meaningless ritual. This election, for example, brought Boris Yeltsin back to Moscow after he was removed from the Kremlin and sent into the political wilderness two years earlier. Without it, Yeltsin might not have been in a position to help face down the Soviet coup of 1991.

Our delegation was housed on a boat that was taking us from place to place along a river, and at night, after our meetings were over, we would leave the boat and explore. Most things in the old Soviet Union were closed after 8 p.m., but we would walk and take pictures and chat with whoever would talk with us.

One night, very late, I was with some American friends on the outskirts of a major city. I saw a light on in what looked to be a school of some sort. On closer inspection, I realized that it was a makeshift polling station for the new elections. Voting was over, and the workers were counting ballots. I was young and brash, and my Russian was a lot better than it is today, and so I walked in as if I knew what I was doing. (I also had not yet developed a healthy fear of being arrested.) When I was stopped by one of the workers, I explained that we were Americans, that we were fascinated by the first real Soviet elections, and that we’d appreciate anything the local authorities could tell us.

It worked.

We were allowed to observe at a distance from the vote counters. What struck me was the reverence, the quiet seriousness, the sense of care in the room. The workers—mostly women, who did most of the many day-to-day things that made the Soviet Union function—were treating the ballots as if they were a sacrament. They handled them gently, counted them, marked sheets in their careful penmanship, wrapped the ballots with string, and gingerly placed them in boxes and sacks. No one spoke above a murmur. A few people looked up and smiled, and then it was back to business.

I felt a swell of hope watching all this. The city was a grimy, industrial place even by Soviet standards, but these people, who had never known anything like a real election, were engaged with the same calm seriousness that I have seen in every American polling place. I started to think that democracy really is universal, a gift there for the asking.

I wish I had a fairy-tale ending to this story. I do not. We were in Soviet Ukraine. The river we were on is now called the Dnipro. The city was Zaporizhzhia, which is now just miles from Russian-occupied territory. Democracy in the Soviet Union failed, and then it failed again in Russia. It is alive in Ukraine, despite Moscow’s attempt to exterminate it.

These Soviets, however, were acting with the utmost seriousness because they’d never before had the chance to vote. They had no idea if they’d ever be allowed to vote again. This is how you too should vote: as if you’ve never had the chance to do it, and with at least the thought that you might never be able to do it again. Try to imagine, when that poll worker hands you a ballot, that it’s the last one you’ll ever see. It’s a thought that focuses the mind.

I did promise a guide to voting, so here it is: Read the federal oath of office.

I swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion … so help me God.

Those about to take a job promise to “well and faithfully discharge” their duties—which should also apply to voting.

I realize that for many people, this oath means that they are obligated to vote for election deniers and other extremists. The so-called Oath Keepers now on trial for sedition selfishly interpreted the oath as a call to arms against enemies of their own choosing, especially other Americans who disagreed with them. But I doubt whether many people who have ever read the Constitution can read this oath and come away thinking that their duty is to smear our elections and threaten our fellow citizens.

America is now beset by shameful charlatans who have dishonored this oath, including almost everyone who worked in the White House for Donald Trump. That’s their burden to carry. But today, you can renew your oath to the Constitution. We are required to offer our “true faith and allegiance,” which means our trust and patience, our honesty, our willingness to put the common good above our own gripes and worries, and our commitment to the ideal that every voter is a fellow citizen who is no less and no more important than ourselves. That’s not a lot to ask, and the requirements of the oath are within the power of every American citizen—if they choose to honor them.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Ukraine announced that Russia is seeking ballistic missiles from Iran to use in the ongoing war. (Iran has denied plans to sell such missiles to Russia.)
  2. The DeSantis administration said that Department of Justice election monitors cannot have access to polling places in three South Florida counties, according to The Washington Post.
  3. Tropical Storm Nicole is expected to strengthen into a hurricane before hitting Florida’s east coast on Thursday. It would be the first hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. in November in almost 40 years.

Dispatches

Evening Read
A message icon with angry, happy, and sad emojis flying out
(The Atlantic)

What I’ve Learned From Four Years of Open DMs

By Ginny Hogan

My Twitter DMs are open, and I will respond. I’m a comedian, and I use direct messages to find freelance writing opportunities, contact sources for articles, and—as most people who have messaged me in the past year can tell you—send links to my new book. But at my core, I’m just a woman with 170,782 Twitter followers and poor time-management skills. A reasonable person would have blocked DMs from strangers once they started streaming in daily—for me, around 2019. I did not.

I haven’t kept my DMs open just for professional benefits. The real reason is that they expose me to people I wouldn’t otherwise meet—people who tend to teach me something about themselves (and who might buy my book). The unsolicited messages I receive are sometimes sweet, sometimes sexual, and sometimes truly cruel: Senders tell me they like my tweets or they hate my tweets; they want to work with me, they want to motorboat me, or they want me to know I’m worthless. But things really get interesting when I write back. Perhaps out of depraved curiosity, probably against my better judgment, I almost always do.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Illustration with overlapping sketches of the generations of the Grimke family
Illustration of the Grimke family. (Tejumola Butler Adenuga)

Read. The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family views the abolitionist sisters, long been portrayed as heroes, in a new light.

Watch. The Good Nurse, on Netflix, is a chilling—and completely bloodless—murder mystery.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I know many of you will be waiting up late into the night for election results, but some key results we may not see for days or even weeks. So when you need a breather, how about indulging in this thing we used to call “reading”?

We’re so easily distracted that taking up a new book can be hard to do. This is why I love short stories, especially classic science fiction. My favorite collection is Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Treasury, which uses the clever principle of grouping stories by their literary form. “The Future in Question” is a compendium of stories posing as questions, including classics such as “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. (the basis for the movie The Thing) and “Who Can Replace a Man?” by Brian Aldiss. “Space Mail” is even better—a group of epistolary stories told as letters or telegrams (or, in the case of “Flowers for Algernon,” a heartbreaking diary). If you’ve never read “The Prisoner” by Christopher Anvil—a story told through email long before there was email—start with that, and I guarantee you’ll ignore the election for an hour or so. Stay informed, but take a break and step into another world for 20 pages. It’ll do you good.

—Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.