My parents voted in every election I can remember. Religiously they went to the polls every time another Communist leader died on the job: Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. It was hardly a matter of personal conviction. Rather, it was an expression of compliance, of going along with the rules of Soviet Ukraine.
"If only they would select a younger one," my mother complained. "Then we wouldn't have to do this so often."
Schools would be closed to students on Election Day and open to voters. Red banners over the front doors commanded: "Everyone to the polls!!!" Yes, triple exclamation point. It was that important.
Not voting was not an option. Even at a young, nonvoting age, we were instructed to take elections seriously.
"If your parents don't vote, they throw away the achievements of your grandparents who gave their lives to fight capitalism," my 7th-grade history teacher passionately preached.
On the morning of the election, my school would open at 7 a.m. The first voter through its heavy front door got a prize - a set of color highlighters, a box for school supplies, or a notebook. My father was often first to vote since he walked the dog in the morning.
It wasn't until high school that I contemplated the word "election." In the dictionary, I learned that the word implies a choice. A choice?I pondered whether that meant there should be more than one candidate.
"Every woman and man in our country has a right to vote," my history teacher announced proudly the day before the election in 1985. "The Communist Party has selected a worthy candidate to lead our great nation into the future. His name is Mikhail Gorbachev." He rubbed his beard and scanned the class with his icy-blue eyes as if the name itself should have made enough of an impression. "You are too young to vote. But tomorrow your parents will go to the polls and cast their votes for the new leader of the Communist Party."
Early the following morning, before my father left to vote and walk the dog, I stopped him with a question:
"Dad, who are you voting for?"
"Gorbachev," Dad replied mechanically.
"Is there anyone else?
"Yes, another candidate?"
He looked at me for a minute, shrugging his shoulders, then leashed the dog and left.
Years later and miles away from Kiev, my family and I voted for the first time, as American citizens, in a presidential election. After casting my vote in last month's election I phoned my parents in New York.
"Did you vote?"
"Yes, we did," Dad replied proudly.
"Who did you vote for?"
He laughed, recalling our long-ago exchange, and said: "The other candidate."
"Are you watching the news from Kiev?" Mom chimed in. "CNN shows it every hour. They're having an election. A real election. Very exciting."
I turned on the news. A young woman in a down coat appeared on the screen. Her nose was red with a bite of Ukrainian autumn, I could see the steam of her breath: "Live from Kiev ... "Blue and yellow flags of independent Ukraine were fluttering in the wind. The crowd was moving, shouting, pressing the podium where the two candidates waved and smiled at their supporters and then shook their fists at each other.
"They suspect corruption?!"my mother commented with sarcasm. "In Ukrainian politics you assume it! Some things never change."
And, as it often happens with children, I disagreed with my parents.
I see a lot of change. Yes, there is corruption and the vision of democracy in Ukraine is still blurred, but at the very least, today's Ukrainians have two candidates to choose from. Their votes are not blind, not mute, not given to a preselected leader. They march the streets, wave the flags, shout, lose sleep, not because they were told to do so, but because they passionately believe that their vote will matter; that it will result in the true choice of the people; that it will bring about a better future.
This Sunday's third presidential run-off election, is itself an expression of choice, of rights demanded, and accountability. No matter the outcome, the people of Ukraine have already won.
• Natasha Mancuso is a professor of marketing at Montana State University.