Enough to make a cat laugh. Aleksandr Podrabinek on the Russian presidential election

11 March 2024

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

“Enough to make a cat laugh”—in the days of socialism that was how people characterized undertakings of the Soviet regime that it was not humanly possible to speak of seriously. The imminent “Russian presidential election” falls into that category. I don’t think anyone is going to bother analyzing the upcoming circus from the standpoint of the law or just plain good sense. Why would they? Everything was said and said again long ago, the falsifications have been documented many times, and all the conclusions were drawn long ago. Who now would it occur to to try to prove what a sideshow the USSR Supreme Soviet elections were? Or to suspect the Gestapo and NKVD of breaking the law? It’s the same here. As Jerzy Lec said, it’s unseemly to suspect when you’re absolutely certain.

Meanwhile, the insoluble puzzle remains: the attitude of seemingly not entirely foolish people toward this circus as something significant and defining—epoch-making even. It’s understandable that the Russian regime, stung by its lack of legitimacy, has been trying to lend the “elections” the semblance of a serious event. Hence the panicked concern about high voter turnout, the linking of the “elections” with solving various problems, and serious-minded discussions of the possibility of the passage of unpopular measures before and after the election. And so this can be as if it were all among grown-ups, the Kremlin blackguards are severely scolding Western countries for attempts to interfere in Russian elections. As if it were all the real thing, the way it’s supposed to be in rule-of-law democratic states, where elections are a political reality and not a pretty picture drawn on by the regime. The pretension to authenticity.

Everyone has to take part in the process; everyone has to be smeared with the lie

An authoritarian regime’s task is quite clear. We all have to be caught up in the foolish and fake game of “democratic elections.” Everyone has to register their loyalty to the current regime. Loyalty does not consist in casting a vote for Putin (they’ll record the number he needs anyway), but in everyone taking part in the process, everyone being smeared with the lie, everyone saying the fake is genuine.

It was exactly the same in the Soviet Union: vote “for” or “against”—no one cares. Go into the booth and draw what you want. The “total” was still going to be 99%. What was most important was showing up at the electoral precinct, taking part, showing your loyalty. On election day, deviationists were visited by political operatives who tried to convince them to vote and even brought ballot urns with them. They tried to tempt people with assortments of cheap food at the electoral precincts. (They came to our house, too, but instead of voting, my father told the operatives a joke: “God brought Eve to Adam and said, ‘Choose yourself a wife.’” The operatives laughed, but they still asked him to vote. They were wasting their time, though.)

As far as the regime goes, everything is quite clear. But what about those who criticize, who oppose it?

A picture of crowded electoral precincts would be a grand present for Kremlin propaganda

Even Kremlin critics who understand perfectly well how much the “elections” are a game often reason they might still draw a 60% vote for Putin, but 80% would be hard. Why? Where’s the difficulty? What prevents them at the final stage of vote tallying from drawing absolutely any number. This is secret knowledge held by electoral process specialists and unknown to everyone else. No one talks about this in detail, proposing trusting the pros. This is to say nothing of the fact that genuine elections mean not only voting but also an election campaign, multiple parties, political competition, free speech and rallies, international observers, and an independent judiciary—everything Russia has not had for a long time. It’s understandable that when there are no elections, election specialists have nothing to do, they’re out of a job. Their plight is understandable, nonetheless it has to stop somewhere before the absurd prevails over reality.

The Kremlin’s “presidential election” games are capturing not only Russia’s attention. The politically active emigration has also been drawn into the process. The desire to participate in some way in political life has sometimes led to the ridiculous. Maxim Katz, an emigrant only vaguely competent politically, called on people to vote for Vladislav Davankov, the Kremlin jester given the job of presidential candidate, which has nothing at all to do with his position. When it comes to their popularity and degree of inanity, Katz and Davankov are approximately equal, which makes their campaign hullabaloo more like a joke.

Less funny is the call to show up at the precincts at noon on “election” day in order to condemn the alternative-free elections in this strange way. Of course, it would be very tempting to convince people that we, Putin’s opponents, are so many. That would lift our self-esteem and add to our confidence in our powers. But it’s worth thinking about the consequences, too. Yes, for participants, this action would probably be safe (and isn’t that the main thing in opposition politics these days?), but the picture of crowded electoral precincts would be a grand present for Kremlin propaganda. Cadres would spread their propaganda commentary about the nationwide support for Putin and the unusually high turnout on voting day all over the world. As a result, some would be amazed yet again at the unanimous support from the people for an authoritarian regime, some would scoff at Russians’ servile essence, and yet others would be relieved to rejoice at the correctness of their choice to emigrate, while “protesting” citizens would walk away from the electoral precincts with the sense of an obligation met. They would be able to sincerely tell themselves and their near and dear: “I did not stand by idly as my country was collapsing.” And they wouldn’t give any particular thought to which side they were supporting ultimately. One can, of course, ignore the consequences, guided by the maxim: “Do the right thing, and what happens happens.” The question, though, is whether that is really the right thing. How important is this cautious and timid protest? Isn’t it better to weigh whether these kinds of hybrid protests and acts of self-assuagement, such generous gifts to the Kremlin, are worth it?

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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