Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
What was it like to vote for Stalin? One of the most important elections in Soviet history was the 1946 poll for the Supreme Soviet, the country’s ‘parliament’. Of course it was no game changer — people were scarcely staying up all night, mesmerized by the closeness of the result — but the timing was historic. Months after victory over the Nazis, this ceremonial election promised to define the course of the Soviet postwar.
The vote took place on Sunday, 10 February.
Polling stations were rigged up in schools and other public buildings. People voted in constituencies. Stalin himself was the Supreme Soviet deputy for Moscow’s Stalinskii district. For many weeks before the poll, electoral coverage filled the whole range of newspapers — even the paper for Pioneers, the equivalent of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. There were countless public meetings where candidates sought nomination to the ballot and pushed the Party’s case. Thousands of workers packed out banner-strewn factories, after hours, to listen to slogans. ‘We are gathered here to discuss and nominate a candidate for the Supreme Soviet of the USSR,’ roared a Stakhanovite stonemason, standing for a Moscow seat. ‘The first elections to the Supreme Soviet were conducted eight years ago. Since that time events of great historical importance have happened in the life of our country. […] We were victorious because we have Soviet rule — the most just, the most democratic in the world.’
Election day itself had the atmosphere of a holiday, perhaps a little like May 1. Nearly everyone came out to vote, though they only had a single candidate from which to choose. So what were they doing? They were expressing unanimity. Were they free? They were forced to be free. This really was total politics. It was nothing at all like Russian politics today.
Sixty-six years later, on 4 March 2012, Vladimir Putin stood for president for the third time. Putin scored 64 per cent of the vote. His main opponent, the Communist Gennadii Zyuganov, polled 17 per cent. Television coverage was heavily weighted in Putin’s favour. Western journalists reported the exertion of pressure on state employees to encourage them to vote the right way. Election observers registered irregularities in the counting of votes. This was ‘managed democracy’ or ‘virtual politics’, orchestrated by the fakery of ‘political technologists’. But it was much more similar to a corrupt election anywhere in the ‘West’ in the last two hundred years than it was to Stalinism, which was qualitatively different.
Somewhere in Russia, you will find people who voted in these two great electoral non-contests of modern times. Voting for Stalin and Putin might have given them a certain view of elections, but, as I explained in my last post, it was the Yeltsin years that poisoned their view of democracy.