It’s your voice

“Why should I vote?” Olga said. “It doesn’t matter.

It was 1993 and I lived with Olga in Yakutsk Russia. When I first moved to Yakutsk to teach English-language kindergarten in a Christian school, Olga was the music teacher. She adopted me and persuaded me to move in with her.

I had my own bed in a two-room flat with the other teachers. There were four of us, but they were all so much older than me. I had just turned 20. Olga was 18 and like most Russians lived with her parents.

The other teacher whispered to me that she’d heard Olga was in the middle of a divorce. But this seemed unbelievable. I had to ask her was it true.

Yes, it was. She had gotten married at 16, she said. In fact, the single bed we shared—sleeping feet by head—had been the one she shared with her husband.

Why get married so young?

It was the thing to do, apparently. But he wasn’t nice to her. And after he went to prison for reasons unclear to me, she decided it was time to divorce. Except the church she had become part of seemed to want to give her advice about it—or at least gossip about it. She said the pastor said he would not give her advice one way or another.

But she and I spent all our time together and there was an election. And I wanted to go with her to see what it was like. She was not at all interested. “My vote doesn’t matter.”

The word for vote is Russian is the same word for voice. This still charms me. My American self was sure that it was her civic duty. And even if it hadn’t mattered during soviet times, surely things were getting better. That was more than a year ago! She should be part of the activism of voting.

Plus, I wanted to see what it looked like.

I persuaded her. We never had enough excitement anyway. She figured out the site to vote, and we took the bus to a section of the city I didn’t know. I went with her and saw the little stations. I had voted once right before I had, but I’d seen my parents vote. It looked very similar. I was happy for the new Russian Federation.

Yeltsin was president, but this was a local election. My Russian was not strong enough to follow it but there was not a lot of press about it anyway.

She came back from her booth and grabbed my arm, “I saw him!”

“What? Did you vote?”

Yes yes yes, she showed me her inked finger. This was a vote?

“But listen! I saw my ex!” She was nervous, clinging to me as we walked out.

He had been out of prison for a while, which I hadn’t known. She said he had a new woman in his life, and she had been with him. On the bus, Olga discussed her a little. She was so much older!

She had done it. She voted, even though she thought it didn’t matter. I told her I was very proud of her: “You used your voice.”

It is confusing and there are a lot of reasons not to bother. But I still believe my voice matters.