Welcome to Wonderland

Welcome to Wonderland

By Steven Boyd Saum

Chervonoarmiyska, a street in Minsk. Photo by Steven Saum
Observing elections near and far. Our tale: God Bless America, hell freezes over, and prayers for the dead.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never had much sympathy for those who don’t vote, so long as their names are on the rolls and it’s just a matter of showing up on election day or getting that ballot in the mail. But earlier this autumn I was in Belarus to observe the country’s parliamentary elections. Belarus has justifiably earned a reputation as Europe’s last dictatorship: It has had the same president, Alexander Lukashenka, since 1994, and for the past decade there was no member of the opposition in parliament; it’s been more than 20 years since any election there was judged free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

So in Belarus, if you said, “My vote won’t make a difference,” that means something—even if the last box listed on every ballot is one you can mark “against all”—in other words, none of the above. More important, for the parliamentary elections this fall, 50 percent of the voters had to turn out in order for the election to be deemed valid. So not voting could actually be a way to throw a wrench into the system.

I’ve observed elections for more than a decade in the former Soviet Union with the OSCE—the organization that has set the gold standard for election observation. In the days before the September election in Belarus, I worked with OSCE colleagues to visit polling stations to observe early voting, to talk with election commissioners about how the work was going, and to discuss with local independent observers the problems they had seen. On Friday night, I also got together for a beer with a couple musicians.

Aleksey plays bass and Siarhei percussion with Port Mone Trio. Call their work experimental: accordion carries the melody, and it’s Belarusian roots music meets jazz and ambient sound. Call their songs mesmerizing and haunting and beautiful: Their 2014 album Thou was recorded live in a forest, “an appeal to the natural, pure, primordial aspects of the human soul that exist beyond social norms and regulation,” as they put it in the liner notes.

I was running a little late for our rendezvous on the steps of Freedom Square, just outside the Burger King. While he was waiting, Aleksey tried one of their burgers for the first time. He hoped that I wouldn’t be offended, but he confessed that he was unimpressed. He also confessed, later, over a ruby-colored beer in a local gastropub that, until he’d received the email from me saying I would be in Minsk for the elections, he’d honestly forgotten that there were going to be elections. I found that amusing; there were billboards everywhere promoting the elections themselves, as well as individual candidates. But perhaps it just became more noise propaganda in a land run by the former manager of a Soviet state farm.

A friend of Siarhei’s joined us for the second round. She is an editor for an online magazine in Minsk, and through her involvement with nongovernment organizations, she previously served as an observer herself with the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations for elections in Ukraine. So yes, she was well aware of the elections in Belarus already underway. Would they actually mean anything? Well, that was another question.

And would anyone beyond the borders of Minsk actually care what happened in this land of 9 million people—a little bit less than the state of Michigan? Another fair question. After all, in the run-up to the elections, the story about Belarus that got the most coverage in the U.S. press was the fact that Steven Seagal—the one-time action movie star turned friend to post-Soviet demagogues of late—had visited Belarus to meet with President Lukashenka. There was a picture of the two of them on Lukashenka’s farm, admiring the president’s produce, Seagal munching on an enormous carrot.

It was an arc back to the absurd—a far cry from fall 2015, when Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” as the Nobel committee put it. A journalist by training, Alexievich has gathered stories from hundreds of people over decades and woven these oral histories into chronicles of the war in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster, the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Lukashenka criticized her for throwing “a bucket of dirt” on Belarus. She said it was “the regime, not its people.” Near the end of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she made an observation that speaks to events well beyond the borders of Belarus, Russia, the whole of the former Soviet Union: “A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time.”


Election day was 9/11 in Belarus—a Sunday. Anyone with a cellphone using a local provider got a text message reminding them to vote. For days, observers had heard concern expressed over inflation of voter tallies during early voting. After all, if you’re going to lie about the number of votes that a candidate receives, you can’t have the number of votes exceed the number of people who supposedly voted. (Though it sometimes happens, as in Russia this year. We’ll get to that in a bit.)

At one polling station in Minsk, the head of the commission put enormous speakers outside the school housing the polling station and played festive music to draw people in. He chatted with us about how higher-ups had strongly encouraged him to make sure there was good turnout for the vote. Elsewhere, there were occasional reports of ballot box stuffing—perhaps a stack of 40 or so ballots folded inside one another, visible in the transparent ballot box.

Sunday afternoon at a polling station in Minsk I witnessed something I’d never seen before: A member of the precinct electoral commission publicly resigned in protest, accusing the chair and the rest of the commission of falsifying the number of people who had voted during early voting. The woman who resigned was part of the opposition; one of the concessions to democracy made during this round of elections was that a handful of members of the opposition were actually allowed on the electoral commissions. Typically the commissions had been composed of a range of pro-government people. After all, it’s easier to get the results you want in an election when everyone on the commissions is working together.

For the resignation, the independent press had been alerted, and cameras were there to record the moment. The chair of the precinct commission shouted for the police to get the media out of the polling station. A policeman sauntered in, sized up the situation, and left; the journalists weren’t breaking the law. A few years ago, that might not have mattered. But this election was supposed to be different.

Though when it came to counting, perhaps things were not so different. Too often, the process was more ritual than rigor: ballots dumped onto the table, then various election workers grabbing for all the papers that supposedly were marked for their candidate. There was no attempt to examine the ballots collectively, no double-checking, no showing the ballots to observers, not even a verbal announcement as the figures were entered into a computer: just a secretary silently writing down numbers that were announced at the end. Observers were present, but we were kept at least three meters away as the law prescribed—too far to make out a mark on a piece of paper.

As a matter of principal, the OSCE works under the presumption that it has no stake in the outcome of an election. It only cares about the process: Is the election free and fair? Official results put turnout at 75 percent. Independent observers estimated far less—some closer to 25 percent. Based on that, one opinion piece assessed: In this election, the real winners were Boycott and Against All.

Yet when votes were counted, out of 110 members of parliament, two members of the opposition were selected. And on the protests the day after the election, there was no violent crackdown, no police descending with truncheons on the square, hauling people away by the vanful. Is there reason for hope?

With the economy of Belarus in the tank and the economy of longtime supporter Russia struggling under a combination of sanctions and low oil prices, Belarus has sought increasing investment from China and better relations with the European Union and the United States. Improving U.S.-Belarus relations isn’t hard in one respect; where else can they go but up? Until recently, they’ve been terrible, because Belarus kicked out the U.S. ambassador eight years ago and still doesn’t have one. But Belarus is not North Korea. And people in Belarus are wary of Russia. After all, look at what Russia has done to their neighbor to the south, Ukraine. The accords that provide a road map to peace in eastern Ukraine were negotiated and signed in Minsk.

Bad Math, Baseball, and Berlin

A week after the elections in Belarus, Russia held its parliamentary elections. For the September 18 vote, Putin’s United Russia party was expected to trounce all comers. But amid the trouncing, closed-circuit cameras caught commissioners stuffing ballot boxes in multiple precincts; those videos quickly popped up on YouTube.

To give an imprimatur of legitimacy to the elections, a respected human rights leader, Ella Pamfilova, was named the head of the national election commission. Where there was fraud too blatant to ignore, the results were invalidated; a few days after the election, nine precincts had their results invalidated—including a couple where the number of ballots in the boxes exceeded the number given out to voters. Oops.

Along with the results of the voting, this election was important to Putin because of what would follow—or rather, what would not follow. There would be no repeat allowed of the 2012 protests on the heels of parliamentary elections, when tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets declaring “Putin is a thief!” It was unlike anything the country had seen since Putin had become president a dozen years before. It is widely understood that Putin holds then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally responsible for encouraging those 2012 protests.

In 2016, voter turnout in Russia was down significantly. But that’s not to deny that Putin has legitimate support across huge swaths of the country—just as Lukashenka has real support in Belarus. Though you have to qualify that support as being accompanied by—and warped by—a state-controlled media, and the fact that these are countries where dissidents and journalists have been threatened, arrested, beaten, assassinated. The politics of post-truth gets along best with media that function as propaganda—where the distortion of truth means that elections can be steered without having to do so much work to manipulate the electoral process itself.

Once more, Svetlana Alexeivich offers a helpful way of understanding this: “In the West, people demonize Putin. They do not understand that there is a collective Putin, consisting of some millions of people who do not want to be humiliated by the West. There is a little piece of Putin in everyone.” 

As for me, I wasn’t in Russia for the elections. I was at the Giants game, enjoying the sunshine on San Francisco Bay while our boys in black and orange sleepwalked through a loss to the Cardinals. It looked like everybody needed a shot of espresso. The wild-card slot seemed to be receding further from the Giants’ grasp. At the seventh-inning stretch, we sang “Take Me out to the Ball Game” and then, as we have since the terrorist attacks fifteen years ago, “God Bless America.”

That tune was composed by Irving Berlin, born in 1888 in the city of Mogilev, then part of the Russian empire, now in Belarus. He was born Israel, son of Lena and Moses. Berlin first penned “God Bless America” for a comic musical review during World War I—but the tone of the song didn’t fit with the rest. Two decades later, Berlin revised the lyrics for a radio broadcast by Kate Smith on November 11, 1938—the first commemoration of Armistice Day. Twenty years after the Great War ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, this holiday was meant to celebrate peace and an end to war. But fascism was ascendant in Europe; Czechoslovakia had already been betrayed in Munich, and Hitler had already seized the Sudetenland. In introducing the song, Smith said, “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.” The song began with a verse that is usually not sung these days—but words that bear remembering:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

For some across the sea, the storm clouds were no longer merely gathering; the nightmare had already begun. The night before Armistice Day was Kristallnacht. Synagogues across Germany and Austria burned. Thousands of Jewish shops were destroyed, scores of people killed.

Irving Berlin tweaked the lyrics for “God Bless America” again when the sheet music was published in March 1939. A peace anthem no longer seemed right for the times. For a while, the song eclipsed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the most popular patriotic song in the United States. There were repeated attempts to make it the national anthem. Both FDR and Wendell Willkie used it as a campaign song in 1940. Berlin gave all royalties to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. But the Ku Klux Klan, for one, was no fan of this song—penned, as it was, by an immigrant Jew; what right did he have, they asked, to invoke God and call America his “home sweet home”? Perhaps the plan to make the song the new national anthem was part of a grand Jewish conspiracy. One American pro-Nazi paper opined that this was not “a ‘patriotic’ song, in the sense of expressing the real American attitude toward his country” but instead “smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde.”

The KKK called for a boycott of the song. But the KKK and white supremacist nonsense—thankfully, that’s all been consigned to the dustbin of history, hasn’t it?

After the ball game, my wife, Rebekah, and I drove to the ocean and walked the beach beneath Fort Funston. The sun was shining on the Pacific and warm on my skin. At the water’s edge, a seagull tussled with a crab in the sand. The crab would try to bury itself in the sand and the seagull kept pulling it out. Finally a man with a mesh bag came along and chased off the seagull and took the crab for himself.

As for the Giants, after that Sunday defeat, their bats woke up—at least enough to win the wild-card slot and give the Cubs a run for their money on Chicago’s quest to break the curse of the goat. Here I should offer by way of full disclosure that I was born and bred in Chicagoland, and the geography of my youth has shaped my attitudes toward both elections and baseball: the son of a rock-ribbed Republican who took his boy to his first game at Wrigley at age 5, and who set me on a path to believe that there might be a measure of truth to the notion that rooting for the Cubs was like rooting for world peace. It might not ever happen, but you couldn’t stop believing.

Prayers for the Dead

When the storm clouds gathered across the sea and World War II came to Europe, that storm hit hardest on the land where Irving Berlin was born. A quarter of the population of Belarus—2.3 million people—perished in the war. Belarus also earned a reputation as a land of fierce partisan fighting; in turn, the reprisals were brutal.

Work on the Friday before the election in 2016 took us near the village of Khatyn—a memorial of cruelty and sorrow. In March 1943, after a partisan attack on German soldiers nearby, SS troops rounded up all 150 villagers—including women and children—in a barn and set it on fire. Soldiers machine-gunned anyone who tried to escape. Then they looted and burned the village to the ground. Khatyn lies in an idyllic glen, and in the fading September day, golden light through the trees cast lengthening shadows.There are no houses in Khatyn now. There are stone chimneys as symbols of that which did not burn; each bears a plaque inscribed with the names of the family members who lived there, and each chimney holds a bell. Every thirty seconds, the bells chime—sharp, brusque, not quite in unison, echoing across the fields.

Khatyn is not alone in what it suffered. Hundreds of such villages in Belarus were destroyed. But to make a pilgrimage to Khatyn is to look into the dark recesses of our collective soul. We, as a species, are capable of this.

Just over a week after the election, Belarus was in the news again: backstory to an obituary of Shimon Peres, “one of the last surviving pillars of Israel’s founding generation,” as the New York Times obituary put it, “who did more than anyone to build up his country’s formidable military might, then worked as hard to establish a lasting peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.” He was 93 years old.

The village of Wisniew was part of Poland in 1923 when Szymon Perski was born there, and it was still part of Poland when his father, a lumber merchant, emigrated with his family from Central Europe to Palestine. Then the war came, and the Holocaust and the destruction of Jewish culture in the region. Then came the rearranging of borders; Vishnyeva became part of the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic. By the time Shimon Peres returned for a visit in 1992, hoping to find the house where he was born, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and the village was part of the newly independent nation of Belarus. Journalist Joanne Levine traveled with Peres. She recalled how he sang a song his mother used to sing to him—a lullaby in Yiddish—and then he went house to house in the village, knocking on doors, asking people if they remembered his family. But for Peres there was no there there; the house had been burnt down—and so had all the others that might have sparked a memory. What else could he grasp? A shard of a broken tombstone, perhaps, with Hebrew writing. He found one that belonged to his grandfather. He placed a stone, he said a prayer for the dead.

The next year, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Peace Accords with Yasser Arafat. It was a hopeful time. The Cold War was over, and now peace in the Middle East seemed within grasp. Remember? Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Rabin and Arafat. A year later, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish gunman.

Hell freezes over—or, 108 years worth of gratitude

And then it happened: The second of November, All Souls Day for Catholics. For baseball fans, the day Hell froze over. A toss from Bryant to Rizzo for the third out and the Cubs won the World Series. Perhaps world peace was next?

Not right away. Instead, the next day, Steven Seagal was back in the news. Vladimir Putin had made him a Russian citizen.

The day after that, the short-term observers for the largest ever OSCE mission for a U.S. election arrived on our shores: nearly 300 short-term observers from member states, working under the guidance of a couple dozen long-term observers from Germany, France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. (Russia offered to send its own separate contingent of observers—a political stunt, since Russia is a member of the OSCE, as are the rest of the countries in the former Soviet Union.)

The OSCE began sending observers to the United States after the 2000 election (Hey, it looks like you folks could use a little observation, eh?), but in the past there had only been a token number of observers. After the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, however, that set in motion plans for a serious contingent of election observers. The particular areas of concern: voter registration and electronic voting—especially since some precincts use electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail, which precludes any recount, and is not up to OSCE standards. There’s a bit of a dance that has to happen with OSCE observers in this country, however. Because the administration of U.S. elections is handled state by state, there is not a uniform set of rules across the country regarding international observers: Some states expressly allow them, some expressly forbid them, and some don’t address the issue—so the matter ends up being left to the discretion of local officials.

On the morning of election day, I headed over to my son’s high school to vote. The Boy is 15; this time around, he wanted to come with me—just as he had in 2008, when we stood in a booth in a neighbor’s garage and I showed him where to cast my vote for Obama. This time, I biked ahead of him—we had gotten a late start, and if there was a line, I suggested we try again in the afternoon. Outside the polling station, Mercury News reporter Mark Gomez was chatting with the head of the precinct, Leighton Ridgard, who was saying that there had been people already lined up when they opened for voting in the morning. Gomez had already chatted with Shavonta Berry, a 24-year-old who was voting for the first time. Let’s let Gomez tell it:

Berry said the contentious presidential campaign “woke me up” and motivated him to vote.

“Definitely hearing Donald Trump’s side made me want to go vote for Hillary,” said Berry, who registered to vote a few months ago.

Berry admitted he doesn’t follow politics closely, but he feels strongly that Trump “does not deserve to be president.” Berry said voting for the first time made him feel good. “I feel like my voice was heard,” Berry said.

Gomez asked me a few questions as well: What about the nature of the campaign? Something that began“in such a negative, nasty place on Trump’s side” and devolved into a bizarre spectacle. “I’ve observed elections around the world, and this is not one of those campaigns and elections that bolsters the value of American democracy around the world,” I told him. “It’s one of those that makes people question: Are things working there the way they really need to work, and should we be looking at the U.S. as a model?”

I explained to Gomez that I was waiting for my son. Like Shavonta Berry, this election engaged him in a way none had before; I was glad for that because, as I told Gomez, it’s important to understand the sense of responsibility and power that are part of this process. “The right to vote in a free and fair election, that’s a huge deal. It’s not something we can take for granted.”

Which is another way of saying: That’s something that we can and should be grateful for—shouldn’t we? Like a free press, it’s one of those cherished pillars of a liberal democracy. Of course, there were Macedonian teenagers who were engaged in the election as well: inventing clickbait right-wing red meat headlines and stories in a digital advertising ecology that rewarded such behavior. File that under corrosive.

As it turned out, my son was the one who didn’t have time that morning; en route to school, he remembered that he had a test first period and couldn’t be late. We agreed to regroup in the afternoon, no matter how long the line might be then. Whatever it cost us in time, it would be worth it.

But here’s a question: What if the endgame of an election isn’t sustaining liberal democracy at all, complete with protection of minorities and freedom of expression—but instead transition to illiberal democracy? Or simply to an illiberal state? We don’t have to look as far east as Putin’s Russia or Lukashenka’s Belarus (which, anyway, was such a farce of a democracy before 2016 that other parliaments would not meet with the Belarusian parliament); these days, just travel to Poland, where the nationalist-populist government has curtailed freedom of the press; or to Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been taking inspiration from Russia, China, Turkey, and Singapore—because, he said, the economic crisis of 2008 showed liberal democracies couldn’t be competitive.

Years ago, diplomat Richard Holbrooke posited this situation: “Suppose [an] election was declared free and fair" and those elected are “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma.” He was talking about Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. But the question remains.

And speaking of former Yugoslavia, down in Macedonia—land of the clickbait political news stories—they’re holding snap parliamentary elections on December 12. The country has been in a state of political crisis since February 2015, when a scandal broke revealing, as Agence France-Presse put it, “official and widespread wiretapping, including of journalists and politicians.” There was also a $22 million bribe to the former prime minister from a Chinese construction company.

“Cheer up!”

Another moment back in time: A decade after the revolutions of ’89, I was in a Prague for a conference celebrating ten years since the Velvet Revolution. Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, George H.W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev were Václav Havel’s guests of honor. But along with discussions, concerts, and rallies, there was a fair amount of disenchantment in the air; Gorbachev spoke of the increasing backlash he saw against globalization. During a Q&A, I asked: What do you say to the people here in Central and Eastern Europe who feel like they’ve been misled—that democracy and a free market economy haven’t delivered everything that they were promised?

Thatcher was the first to chime in. “Cheer up!” she said. It was a classic response. More of an answer followed—but not enough of the stuff that would stir the heart and restore those whose faith in democracy was flagging.

In Russia, these were Boris Yeltsin’s final days leading the country. On New Year’s Eve, he resigned and apologized for some things that hadn’t gone as he had hoped, and he handed over reins to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin.

The Preliminary Assessment

And then it happened. You’ve seen scores of recaps of what happened in the U.S. election. Here’s what the OSCE had to say—again, this being an organization that has an interest in process, not outcome. A few verbatims from the preliminary assessment of the election by the OSCE, offered on November 9:

  • The presidential campaign was characterized by harsh personal attacks, as well as intolerant rhetoric by one candidate. Diverse media coverage allowed voters to make an informed choice. Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters.
  • More than an estimated 35 million eligible voters were not registered for these elections, underscoring the need for continued efforts to enhance voter registration, particularly among marginalized communities.  
  • Women are underrepresented in elected office, holding only 20 percent of seats in the outgoing Congress.
  • Intolerant speech by one candidate about women, minorities, and people with disabilities was frequent.
  • Contrary to good practice, 15 states use Direct Recording Equipment machines that do not provide a voter-verified paper audit trail.
  • In 13 per cent of observations, [International Election Observer Mission] observers noted malfunctions with electronic voting equipment, which may be attributed to outdated and poorly maintained equipment, and inadequate pre-election testing procedures.

It helps, sometimes, to see the yourself as others see you—where a system could and should be better, if we care about what’s at stake.

Our common home

When I sit down to write in November, I often find myself drawn back to one Thanksgiving in particular: November ’89, the last holiday with my Grandfather Henry, born in 1900—and a holiday that came in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution, and the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador. Afterward, the world could never be the same. But this was because, as the Czechs put it in the motto of their nation, Truth prevails—right?

Democracy is a messy and inefficient and fragile thing. And now I have to confess a deep-seated fear that we will look upon the year 1989 as the beginning of an era that has now come to a close—in terms of commitment to global norms and rights and institutions that have kept the world from being a much more frightening and brutal place. In which case it seems absolutely essential to find the people and things that sustain you—that sustain us—and be grateful for them, nurture them, and care for our common home and everyone in it.

Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of Santa Clara Magazine. Part of this essay was originally broadcast on KQED FM as “Belarus, Baseball, and Berlin.”

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