Things at polling station #2390, an old school in Yasenevo, a sleepy bedroom community bristling with high rises on the far southwestern fringe of Moscow, finally got interesting long after the ladies in aprons folded up the snack bar and the voters had wandered home through the rain and the dark. That was when five members of the local election commission—all teachers and administrators at the school—began to count the ballots cast that day in the country’s parliamentary elections.
It had been a tense couple of months going into the vote. The ruling United Russia party, created in 2001 to support Vladimir Putin, who was then the President and is now Prime Minister, had been steadily, swiftly sinking in the polls; Putin, despite his high approval ratings, was being publicly booed. After he and Dmitry Medvedev announced, in September, that they would trade places, giving the Presidency back to Putin, people seemed to be in a sour mood—a mood to protest and do what Russians, especially the educated and cosmopolitan among them, never do: vote. In response, the Kremlin appeared to panic, and cracked down, harassing election monitors. On election day itself, there were denial-of-service attacks on prominent media outlets and on LiveJournal, the country’s most important blogging platform.
With that behind them, and the voters gone, Yasenevo’s electoral commissioners and observers—representatives sent by the various parties to monitor the vote, as well as this correspondent—got to work.
First, the commissioners counted and recounted the unused ballots and wrapped them up in brown paper. And that’s when all friendliness and camaraderie between the commission and the observers went out the door, and all the tension of the election season bubbled out. One of the commissioners at precinct #2390, Valentina Remezova, a blonde woman in her fifties, was offended by the very idea of observers: she clasped her hands to her chest and exclaimed, “I don’t understand this. I feel like I’ve committed a crime!” It was something she would repeat later, with tears in her voice, when the observers and I tried to get close to the table where the paper ballots were dumped from the white plastic ballot boxes. “Where does this distrust come from?” she said. “You’re making me feel like a criminal. All day you’ve been doing this!”
“Why are you taking this so personally?” said Julia Dobrokhotova, an observer from the liberal Yabloko party, who lives next door to the school (she is also a friend of mine). “We’re just here to see that everything is done properly. It has nothing to do with you!”
I tried to photograph the proceedings—something that, by Russian law, I am allowed to do. “You cannot photograph here,” said Alexei Kachubei, a slight man with a slight lisp, and the head of the election commission as well as the school principal. When Dobrokhotova pointed out that I was, in fact, allowed to, he said that I couldn’t photograph faces. Next he said I could photograph but not make a video recording. Then I couldn’t photograph at all; I had to stand twenty meters from the table, which would have put me outside the room. He called in one of the policemen overseeing the elections, a young man with a bleary, red face and dim eyes.
“You cannot photograph the ballots,” he told me when I explained that I had abided by the commission head’s request not to photograph faces. “They are a state secret.”
This unleashed an argument among the observers, at which point another commission member, a man in jeans and a gray sweater with friendly snowflakes stretched across his belly, decided to put an end to the argument.
“You shut up,” he barked. “Yabloko was created with American money!”
When I asked him for his name, he snorted. “Not likely! Especially to an American.” (I was born in Russia, but am an American citizen.) Then he covered the official (and stamped) name tag was wearing. Later, it disappeared altogether. He was, it turns out, a veteran of the Russian foreign-intelligence service.
“This is why you left Russia,” another fifty-something commission member said. “Because we do things by the rules and you people don’t like that.” She was writing down the details of my passport and Foreign Ministry press-accreditation card out at a desk in the hallway—a good way to remove me from the ballot-counting room.
When I was in the room, though, and even when confined to a desk, I could see the neat stacks of ballots, perfectly and evenly folded, that slipped out from between the sea of ballots spilling out of each box as it was cracked open. (I presume this is why no photographs were wanted.) Despite my frantic pointing, observers missed the first batch, quickly spread around by the commission members’ able hands, but they appeared, unmistakably and suspiciously neat, in each subsequent ballot box.
“Stop! Stop!” Dobrokhotova yelled. “Stop counting! These are stuffed!”
The one person able to stop the flurry of hands smoothing out the pile was a bewigged and less than lucid seventy-one-year-old Yevgenia Leneva, a commission and Communist Party member. Leneva grabbed the perfect pack and yelled, “Look at this stack!” As the observers and the commission screamed at each other, she carefully unfolded the ballots, and said, “They’re all for United Russia! Of course! Who else stuffs the ballot boxes?”
Kachubei, the commission chair, grabbed part of the stack out of her hand. The young policeman took care of the rest: as Leneva screeched, he attacked, wrenching the ballots out of her hand, and leaving a long bruise on her papery arm. When the deputy head of the local police precinct arrived (he had been called to deal with me, not voter fraud), Leneva made sure to complain about her bruised arm. The colonel was unmoved—hadn’t Leneva overstepped her authority?—and one of the women on the commission made sure to chime in, “Oh, come on. You told us yesterday your arm hurt!”
In the end, Yasenevo’s election precinct #2390 voted roughly the way Russia did: seven hundred and twenty-one ballots, or fifty-one per cent, for United Russia, the rest scattered among the Communists, the left-leaning Just Cause Party, and the nationalist L.D.P.R. United Russia’s national average was forty-nine per cent, which, while still a plurality and largely in line with national polls, was a far cry from the two-thirds of the vote they got in the last parliamentary elections, in 2007. It was also far higher than what the party managed in many regions, including the Moscow region: thirty-three per cent. And if you could somehow subtract the violations and antics and perfect ballot stacks I saw in Yasenevo, the numbers would doubtless be lower.
What was notable, however, was the level of anger in the Yasenevo election commission—the sneering, the barking; the scoffing, yelling, and smirking. I left the precinct with shaking hands. Julia Dobrokhotova, my friend and the mother of two small children, was forced to wait until two in the morning to file her report. She told me she spent the next day crying.
Dobrokhotova recounted her conversations with the commission after I left. There was the tall young man from the municipal government who had seated Dobrokhotova behind a tall plant when the voting started that morning and hissed at her not to move. (She later wondered if that was when ballot boxes had been stuffed.) In the early morning hours, after the ballots had been counted and the yelling had died down, he gave Dobrokhotova a surprising appraisal of his country. “He told me that Russia has only ever been good at two things: fighting off invaders and surviving famine,” Dobrokhotova recalled. “Nothing else.” The tubby police boss? “He said to me, ‘Julia, why are you so upset? This is a slave-owning society, and it’s like that in most countries in the world, except for two or three. It’s not our fate to be one of them.’ ” The man in the snowflake sweater told her that she should reconsider sending her children to the school, as he could make their lives miserable. And the shrill women? “They said, ‘Julia, what’s the alternative? Man the barricades?’ ”
The next night, Dobrokhotova’s brother, Roman, did just that. The head of a tiny political youth movement, “We,” he was one of the organizers of a protest in central Moscow, which, to everyone’s surprise, drew some six thousand people—almost all of them young, educated, and angry. They saw a different generation—that of the election commission in Yasenevo—lying to them and manipulating their elections and treating them like fools. Something about this election, the cynicism and ham-fistedness with which it was carried out, the euphoria when, despite the apparent fraud, United Russia failed to get even fifty per cent, made the barricades an attractive option for a cohort that has long been written off as politically inactive.
Opposition protests in Moscow rarely draw more than a couple hundred people, most of them elderly Soviet dissidents, their dreams dashed and irrelevant. Monday night, a large, wooded square in central Moscow—Chistye Prudy—was too small to hold the young, energetic crowd. They hung on fences; they lined the streets and blocked traffic. And when the riot police attacked, they weren’t scared: They were fed up. Or, as a thirty-five-year-old voter at Yasenevo’s polling station #2390 told me after he cast his ballot for Just Russia, the first time he had been to the polls since the nineteen-nineties, “Maybe people once believed that you can’t do everything right away, that you need more time to develop democracy, to pass reforms. But how much time do you need? A hundred years?”
Russian Elections: Faking It [TNY]