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.