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Soviet Elections as a Measure of Dissent: The Missing One Percent*

  • Jerome M. Gilison (a1)

A few questions are still hotly debated among students of the Soviet political system, but certainly the nature of Soviet elections is not one of them. Everyone agrees that they are more interesting as a psychological curiosity than as a political reality. They are seen by various writers as ritualized affirmations of regime legitimacy, as methods of involving the masses in supportive activity, as a means of publicly honoring model citizens, and as a crushing display of unanimity designed to isolate the potential nonconformist. Both Western and Soviet writers see Soviet elections from the positive side, from the side of the dutiful 99 percent who invariably vote for the single candidate on the ballot.

In fact, Soviet and Western writers are in very close agreement on the major functions of elections in the Soviet Union, although their value judgments tend to differ along the lines one would expect. Taking one typical example from the general Western literature on the Soviet political system, we find the purposes of a Soviet election defined as “a public demonstration of the legitimacy of the regime … an invaluable educational and propaganda exercise … and perhaps most important of all, … proof that the system of control is unimpaired.” In the more detailed Western works on Soviet elections we find the same approach. Thus, Howard Swearer, in a very insightful and valuable article on Soviet local elections, states that “in the Soviet Union, the formal act of voting is comparable in purpose to such civic rituals as singing the national anthem or saluting a country's flag. It is a public display of personal reaffirmation of the Soviet way of life and the party leadership.”

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1 Schapiro, Leonard, The Government and Politics of the Soviet Union, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), p. 108 .

2 Swearer, Howard R., “The Functions of Soviet Local Elections,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, 5 (05, 1961), p. 149 .

3 Ibid., p. 144.

4 Scammon, Richard M., “Why the Russians Bother With Elections,” The New York Times Magazine, 04 6, 1958, p. 63 .

5 Mote, Max E., Soviet Local and Republic Elections, Hoover Institution Studies No. 10 (Stanford, Cal.: Hoover Institution, 1965), p. 77 . See also Carson, George Barr, Electoral Practices in the U.S.S.R. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1955), pp. 99100 .

6 Kim, A. I., Sovetskoe izbiratel'noe pravo (Moscow, 1965), p. 7 .

7 As quoted in Tumanov, P. V., Poriadok organizatsii i provedeniia vyborov v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR (Moscow, 1958), p. 23 .

8 The Russian word for elections, vybory, literally means choices, selections, alternatives.

9 This may have been the case. See Carson, op. cit., p. 52.

10 Polozhenie o vyborax v Verkhovnyi Sovet SSSR, as amended to 03 19, 1966 (Moscow, 1966), p. 23 . In this and other cited respects, this statute is typical of all statutes regulating elections to the various levels of Soviets.

11 In this connection Carson remarks: “Considering the character of the soviet election campaign—the voter's opportunity to stand in public and be counted on the right side—secrecy presents curious problems. The voter has an interest in breaking the secrecy so it will be known that he voted correctly. … Many a voter, therefore, took the precaution … of writing in his name and address on his ballot.” Op. cit., p. 75.

12 It should be kept in mind that each Soviet voter casts several ballots—as many as seven—so that the two million negative votes represents perhaps on the order of 500,000 to 700,000 dissenters.

13 So-called local elections are those held for all levels below the level of republic.

14 Vedomosti Verkhovnogo Soveta SSSR, 1088 (December 27, 1961).

15 Polozhenic …, p. 25.

16 Schapiro, op, cit., p. 107.

17 For example, a milling machine operator in Ivanovo was turned down by the collective of the measuring instruments factory because he “didn't share his experience with other workers,” and another worker in another locale was refused nomination because of “an incorrect attitude toward criticism.” See Tarasov, M., “K itogam vyborov v mestnye sovety,” Partiinaia zhizn', No. 5, 1957 .

18 See Mote, op. cit., p. 35, for a description based upon personal observation.

19 Ibid., p. 29.

20 From data in Pravda, March 26, 1967.

21 See Polozhenie …, p. 10.

22 Carson, op. cit., p. 66.

23 Turkmenskaia iskra, March 16, 1965.

24 See, for example, the article, “Razgovor byl interesen,” Sovetskaia Estoniia, March 3, 1965.

25 Starovoitov, N. G., Poriadok organizatsii i provedeniia vyborov v verkhovnye sovety soiuznykh i avtonomnykh respublik i v mestnye sovety deputatov trudiashchikhsia (Moscow, 1963), p. 76 .

26 Mote, op. cit., p. 76.

27 Gorshenev, A. and Cheliapov, I., Sovetskaia izbiratel'naia sistema (Moscow, 1959), p. 5 .

28 Ibid., p. 41.

29 The city raion is found only in relatively large cities, which are subdivided. This explains the fact that they have, on average, considerably more voters than the city Soviets.

30 It should be added that those who happen to be away from home on election day receive a “Certificate of the Right to Vote,” which they can exchange for ballots at any polling place in the Soviet Union.

31 Data for the missing republics (Armenia, Azerbaidzhan, Georgia, Kirgizia, Moldavia, Uzbekistan) were not readily available or were not completely reported in the local press for one or more elections.

32 Curiously enough, when local elections coincide with elections for the republic supreme soviets—a situation which occurs every four years—the press reports only incomplete data. One explanation might be that the subject of elections is allocated a fixed amount of scarce Soviet newsprint regardless of the number of elections held.

33 For example, the Kazakh people contribute only 30 percent of Kazakhstan's population, and the Kirgiz form only 40.5 percent of Kirgizia, according to the last census (1959).

34 See Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E., The American Voter (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1960), pp. 393401 .

35 Carson, op. cit., p. 75.

36 See Strashun, B. A., Izbiratel'noe pravo sotsialisticheskikh gosudarstv (Moscow, 1963), pp. 175–76; Stehle, Hansjakob, The Independent Satellite: Society and Politics in Poland since 1945 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965), pp. 183189 ; and Wiatr, Jerzy J., “Elections and Voting Behavior in Poland,” Essays on the Behavioral Study of Politics, ed. Ranney, Austin (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), pp. 235251 .

* The author would like to express his gratitude to Professors Milton C. Cummings and Howard Egeth of The Johns Hopkins University for their invaluable help during the preparation of this article, and to The Johns Hopkins University for providing a summer research grant.

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American Political Science Review
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