Town Meeting in a Movie Hall - Moscow Style

IN a Moscow neighborhood movie theater last month, democracy was invented. But the action was on the stage rather than the screen. Russians have historically been force-fed their leaders. But under Mikhail Gorbachev's new election system, Soviets are allowed to nominate candidates to represent their neighborhoods and work units in the new Congress of People's Deputies. Candidates are then reviewed by a local commission that decides who goes on the ballot for the election in March.

Although the 2,550-member body is supposed to be comparable to our House of Representatives, the congress will most likely be a rubber-stamp. Yet for 4 hours, the Muscovites at the nomination meeting treated their roles in the selection process with a seriousness and passion rarely seen in American voters today.

Although Russians have traditionally had order imposed on them, there was no authority figure telling the people in this caucus how to act. Not even the moderator knew what procedure to follow. The proceedings ranged from chaos to anarchy as the blind tried to lead the blind down the path of democracy.

An American might wonder how the disorder in the movie hall compared with Independence Hall. The colonists had experience with the British parliamentary model. The Russians have no such point of reference, as evidenced by the lack of any structure in this meeting.

The event was preceded by 15 minutes of film shorts that made fun of economic shortages and inefficiencies. In front of the movie screen were two coffee tables, an assortment of chairs, a microphone, and nine red carnations for decoration. Two microphones were also set up in the audience. But as the evening wore on, members interrupted the proceedings by shouting challenges from their seats.

The moderator, an official from the local Regional Council, started the program by telling the audience that tonight's vote would be considered legitimate because the door count of 519 satisfied the 500-person quorum. He then asked the audience if there were any objections to the two proposed nominees.

That's when the chaos began.

Only one objection was voiced before people demanded to know why there weren't other nominees. When the moderator tried to gain control over the already unruly meeting, a woman came to the mike challenging the moderator's right to lead the meeting. A man in the audience stood up in his seat to share his disapproval of the way the meeting was being run. The befuddled moderator tried to allay their protests by explaining, ``Comrades, this is a strange situation ...'' but was cut off when a voice from the crowd yelled, ``This is democracy!''

The audience forced the moderator to hold a vote-of-confidence by a show of hands. But a woman with glasses and a fur hat challenged the moderator's right to count the votes without a voting commission. She then became the official vote counter for the rest of the night and stood proudly in front of the audience whenever a vote was held.

AFTER it was decided how long the nominees' speeches would be, another half hour was spent debating how many candidates would be nominated. Once it was agreed that six should be, several nominating speeches were given.

In the middle of these speeches, one man approached the mike to complain that the fur-hatted vote counter should sit down because she was looking out over the audience while the speeches were being given and was a distraction. With an embarrassed smile, she complied.

After four other candidates had been nominated, an unknown man went to the mike. He had come out of the Metro, wandered into the movie theater and was nominating himself as a candidate. The crowd drowned him out by clapping and stomping their feet until he sat down. When he rose to the mike a second time, a voice from the back of the room yelled, ``Go back to the Metro!'' Drowned out by the crowd a second time, the man left.

The platforms put forth in the speeches of the six nominees are typical of the political dialogue in the Soviet Union today, incorporating a wider spectrum of views than America's bipartisan dialogue. Not one nominee was in favor of the status quo or a return to the policies of the past decade.

A professor of American history ran on the platform of greater democracy, including freedom of information, the creation of publishing cooperatives independent of the government, and minimum pension standards.

A zoology professor emphasized ecological issues including proposals to stop exporting food until everyone inside the country has enough, to abolish chemical pesticides, to stop exporting so much oil, and to halt construction of atomic-energy plants.

After his speech a member of the audience stood on his seat to suggest that the audience take yet another vote to get rid of the moderator. Most of the audience saw little purpose in this idea.

One walk-on nominee based his platform on Gorbachev's perestroika policies. Another nominee, a philosopher, ran on an anti-Marxist platform. Boasting that he was not afraid to criticize Gorbachev or Marx, he demanded that history be interpreted in a non-Marxist way and that Russian political consciousness be raised. He received his warmest applause when he boasted of having eight children. One nominee - a member of the group which believes that a monument and museum should be built in honor of the victims of Stalin - argued that elected officials should be able to act independently of the Communist Party. The only nonintellectual nominee was a worker who used to work at a Soviet missile base. He stuttered and the impatient audience cut short his speech.

During the question and answer period, nominees agreed that the USSR needs real trade unions and another party besides the Communist Party. All candidates supported a person's right to practice religion. The most popular nominee even advocated the right to a private religious education, now forbidden by Soviet law. When the nominees were asked how many times they had been married, all answered once except for the philosopher who was on his fourth marriage. This may explain why he has eight children.

NO candidate could claim previous political experience. As the philosopher put it, ``No one has ever trusted me with it.'' When the moderator suggested an end to the questioning, the audience objected, and once again the crowd prevailed. Each candidate was asked to give his opinion of the ultra-conservative, anti-Semitic group Pamyat. Only the missile worker said he was sympathetic to the group.

The last, longest, and perhaps most bizarre argument of the night focused on how the final voting should be done. The Soviet Constitution's method of allowing people to vote more than once barely defeated a number of other proposals, including one suggestion that only the votes of people with seat numbers ending in zero should be counted.

No preparations had been made for vote counting, so the fur-hatted lady borrowed a pad and recruited the services of audience members, including one with a calculator. A half-hour later, at 12:30 a.m., the tally was done. The two professors who had helped organize the crowd were the only ones with enough votes to become candidates.

As millions of Soviets get their first taste of democracy, one can only wonder how long it takes for a country to shift from objecting to party policies to questioning the legitimacy of the system itself.

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