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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Election, Soviet Style

Four o'clock on Sunday afternoon.

The wallpaper was gold, a garish print. A tapestry hung on one wall behind the best easy chair in the room. The table was still heavy with platters of meat and bowls of potatoes with dill, pickles, sauces, breads, delicate glasses with wine, and the remains of a cake. Sunday dinner.

It could have been anywhere. My mom's house, any one of my college friends' homes where I'd often be invited on Sundays after church, or the Soderstrom's, maybe Rosie's, the Woods' in Plainfield, my inlaw's. A certain ritual prevailed no matter where, the passing of the plates, napkins unfolded, a prayer. The hostess took the first bite. And the next few hours were given over to the leisure of seconds and thirds, "please, have more," rich dessert, and lively conversation. We laughed at pompous professors and grumbled about cockroaches, inevitable in city apartments. We complained about the year's fashions and compared school work loads. We ate more. And again, more.

On this particular afternoon, the meal was in Moscow. The Russian Orthodox liturgy had taken several hours, so much so our kind host took us for coffee somewhere in the middle of it, I think because he didn't want to have to translate the sermon. Pavel had been one of the assisting priests. If I remember it right, we didn't tell him we'd taken a little break. But Alexei, one of our hosts, whose mother and aunt had prepared the feast we shared, was more fascinated with our lives, American and Canadian than with yet more liturgy.

At four o'clock there came a knock at the door. Alexei answered, we heard his impatience with the visitor, but not what he said. Then he came back, fully exasperated and embarrassed.

"It was the election committee. They know we have not been to vote. They said I should go now. Can you believe such a country? They keep track of who has voted and who has not. And they come to our flat to tell us to go vote. That's the Soviet Union," Alexei grumbled.

"Well," I responded, "did they offer you bread and eggs?"

He was indignant, "of course not. They don't bribe us to vote."

"Ah," I said, "I'm from Chicago and by afternoon the precinct captain comes around and offers us coupons for bread and eggs when we come and vote." True story. Got the coupons. Skipped getting the goods.

I put on a babushka (scarf) and went with Alexei across to the school where he marked his ballot, not really necessary given there was only the one name on it. He folded the white paper and walked to the table at the front of the room, with a big wooden ballot box with the slit in the top of it. Next to the table, a pedestal with a larger-than-life alabaster bust of Comrade Lenin. A friendly reminder of reality. Alexei slipped his folded ballot through the opening and we left. He got a thank you card for voting. It made me think of a Mass card.

But no coupons. No bribes. What a rip-off.

This Sunday, today, in Belarus, stuck, yes, stuck between Russia and Poland, an election is underway. Lukashenko will be elected. There will be knocks on doors in the afternoon. And one name on the ballot. And likely, still Lenin presiding. Nothing has changed.

What about Chicago?

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