HISTORIANS will long debate the significance of last week's elections in the Soviet Union. The voters' repudiation of Communist Party policy, the success of Boris Yeltsin's rogue-elephant challenge to the bureaucracy, the impact of the vote on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - these outcomes will cast long shadows on Soviet policy. But there's another, less widely reported meaning to these elections: the response of Soviet citizenry.
During a two-week visit to the Soviet Union ending on the day of the balloting, I spoke with dozens of voters, candidates, informal group leaders, and party members in four cities. I put to each the same question: Just how important are these elections? Three conclusions emerge:
First, these elections must be seen in context. They are part of an unprecedented glasnost breaking out on every side. James Joyce's ``Ulysses'' is being serialized in Russian by a respected monthly, Foreign Literature - to be followed by D.H. Lawrence's ``Lady Chatterley's Lover.'' Lithuanians now speak their mother tongue as their official language.
Pravda, the leading party newspaper, has just published a frank account of poverty - noting that 15 million people live in a condition that, until recently, was not even supposed to exist. Guides for Intourist, the state-run travel service, now speak freely about flaws in the Soviet system. These, coupled with the presence of campaign posters and street rallies, speak to a larger fact: Where once there was only one official truth, now there are many.
But, second, there is also a grim economic component to these elections. Citizens who several years ago could put a few rubles a month into savings are now being stretched. Often-mentioned concerns: the lack of sugar and the quality of sausage. A plentiful variety of the latter, selling for 2.9 rubles a package in state stores, is so gray and greasy that, as one young man puts it, ``cats won't eat it, dogs won't eat it.'' Another shopper says she has had to turn to the private-enterprise food stores, where acceptable sausage sells for 6.6 rubles.
Inflation has also hit the black market: Smooth-operating young men on the street offer foreigners 5 to 7 rubles for a US dollar, up from 3 or 4 rubles a few years ago and far above an official rate of 0.6. At the same time, rising expectations have bred hard-to-satisfy tastes for such items as electronic goods. In a nation where a typical salary is 200 rubles a month, or about $320, a blank videotape can cost 70 rubles, and a VCR well over 10,000 rubles ($16,000).
Third, opinions about the elections range widely. ``It's the first political drama of our lives,'' says a highly regarded Russian poet from her Moscow flat. From her cramped Leningrad apartment, however, a young teacher notes more skeptically that ``nothing real has changed.'' A candidate in the political hotbed of Vilnius, Lithuania, reports that voters in the nearby Byelorussian city of Minsk ``don't even know the date of the elections.'' But a longtime Greek journalist in Moscow notes that, for the first time, these are ``real elections'' rather than ``camouflaged appointments.''
On one point, however, most agree: These elections symbolize the passing of a watershed. There may be rough patches ahead - even, perhaps, a domestic economic crisis so turbulent as to force Mr. Gorbachev from office.
But down among the grass roots the seed of choice has been sown. Even the most cynical, soured by years of repression, suspect that things have gone too far now to be turned back.