Watching the Watchers

Sveta Erpyleva after finishing her 24-hour shift as elections observer in the wee hours of Monday morning. Photo courtesy of the author
Sveta Erpyleva after finishing her 24-hour shift as an elections observer in the wee hours of Monday morning. Photo courtesy of the author

Sveta Erpyleva
Watching the Watchers
September 20, 2016

I want to articulate a few ideas about the practice of working as an elections observer from a slightly different perspective than people usually write about it. In my view, there are two things that make the practice attractive to many of us.

The first thing is the indescribable feeling of belonging to an anonymous community, a team of strangers involved in an important cause. Such communities are nearly absent in our everyday lives. We have friends and families, but that is not the same thing, of course. We have colleagues and people who share our interests. We might not know them personally, either, but we never come together with them to touch on something that affects the entire country. In this case, however, over the course of twenty-four hours we experience the same events and emotions as hundreds of other observers in different parts of the country. We share our impressions with each other in comments sections on social networks, we all stay awake for days on end, and together we quarrel with members of electoral commissions. It is a very unusual and powerful sensation. I think many people have experienced it, whether they were aware of it or not.

The second thing is the chance to feel we are not couch potato dissidents or whatever it is called, but real citizens, conscientious citizens. We voluntarily get up early in the morning, we wrestle with a large group of people on our lonesome, and we struggle mightily with fatigue. And then, naturally, we write about it, hearing in reply all sorts of compliments from loved ones and acquaintances. But that is what we expected to hear, isn’t it?

In connection with these two things, I think it is important we be aware of the following. An anonymous political community is groovy, but sometimes it is not worth getting carried away with it. Are we certain we want the exact same things as the conscientious, get-up-and-go people who seem so much like us on elections day?

I chatted with a pleasant, conscientious young man who, like me, had come of his own free will to work as an observer at my polling station. Nope, his way was not my way, I discovered. We wanted different things.

As for the second thing, it is quite simple to selflessly surrender twenty-four hours of your life to “civil society” once every two or three years and then hear lots of nice things about yourself. Meanwhile, there are people in our midst who selflessly give up several hours every day to political struggles and social activism. Ninety-five percent of that time vanishes into the mist, because that is the nature of modern politics. These people do not get any doughnuts in the guise of society’s approval for ninety-five percent of their work. I admire people like this if their views are congenial to mine rather than people who have worked as election observers. Sorry.

I am not saying you should not go work as an elections observer. I did it myself, and I imagine I will go and do it the next time round. What I mean to say is that, first and foremost, we should not look at ourselves through rose-colored glasses.

Sveta Erpyleva is a sociologist who works at the PS Lab (Public Sociology Laboratory) in Petersburg. This past Sunday, she volunteered as an elections observer at a polling station in the city’s Central District. My thanks to her for allowing me to translate and publish her remarks here.

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