Viktor Voronkov on Why You Shouldn’t Trust Russian “Public Opinion” Polls

Can we trust opinion polls on the president’s popularity?
Serafima Taran
December 2, 2014
Gorod 812

Sociologists weekly poll Russians about their attitude to the president and government policies. Despite all the events happening inside and outside Russia, the level of trust in Vladimir Putin has remained virtually unchanged. 

According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), nearly three quarters of the populace (72%) view the president’s actions positively. Can these figures be trusted? Sociologist Viktor Voronkov, director of the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), discussed this in an exclusive interview with Gorod 812.

Can opinion polls be used to predict the near future, at least, whether stability or social upheaval awaits us?

The first thing I would note is that opinion polls are manipulative techniques that shape public opinion rather than reflect anything. You can interpret them as you like. This means, actually, that they are probably not amenable to interpretation.

In addition, most of the questions asked by polling centers are outside the competence of the people responding to them.

Sociology is generally not in the business of forecasting. That is not its function. Sociology studies the rules by which people live and act.

Is there a great difference between polls taken in authoritarian societies and polls in democratic societies?

In an authoritarian society it is more difficult, of course, to determine what people actually mean to say. Like the Soviet Union (although to a lesser degree), our society is now dominated by fear. The fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear that someone will use this information the wrong way, and so on. So just to be on the safe side, one has to stick to the mainstream when speaking.

But sociologists and the people in Kremlin probably realize this. Why, then, are so many polls conducted?

Their function is purely manipulative, but it is also has a lot to do with making money. The state manipulates public opinion polls and this, in turn, really influences people.

In general, the nature of public opinion in modern Russia is extremely primitive. There is Putin, whose rating is stable and basically cannot change rapidly. All other existing ratings are directly dependent on what President Putin says. You needn’t bother studying public opinion in Russia. It is enough to study the opinion of only one man, because in one way or another all other opinions will fall in line with this principal opinion.

We see, for example, how sentiments toward the US have evolved in recent years. In 1999, NATO bombed Kosovo. Putin condemned the US, and the country’s rating dropped to thirty-five percent. In 2001, the terrorist attack took place in New York. Putin expressed condolences: sympathy for Americans rose sharply, reaching seventy-five percent. We now have a negative outlook on the US, but if Putin decides tomorrow that we are friends with America, everything will change.

It doesn’t mean anything, except that people basically are not very concerned about it.

So the main objective of these polls is impacting the populace by publishing them in the media?

Of course. The media is mainly responsible for spreading the contagion of propaganda. I would say that in terms of impact on people, media publications of poll results are akin to horoscopes. Horoscopes, as we know, affect people’s lives. People try to interpret their lives in accordance with what the horoscopes say. It is the same with opinion polls.

But there is, nevertheless, real public opinion in Russia. Can one find out what it is?

Suppose you ask someone how he relates to the issue of “Crimea is ours” [Russia’s annexation of Crimea]. He says, “Yeah, it’s wonderful, it’s great, I support it.” You continue questioning him, asking him to tell you more. And the reply you hear is, “You know, I have no time for this. I’ve got work and kids. Spare me your nonsense!” So it is real life that is important, not sketchy answers to staged questions.

The fact that people give answers in no way means we can assess their behavior in terms of these answers.

Opinion polls reflect (at best!) attitudes, the values that society imposes, perhaps. But you would need to study people’s behavior, their real personal motivation, because there is no unambiguous connection between attitudes and behavior. People think one thing and then do something else altogether.

 Is it like this in any society, closed or open?

It is easier in an open society. People tell you what they think, but again, this does not mean their behavior will match it.

But in a closed, Soviet-type society, on the one hand, a “small victorious war” raises the government’s rating, because everyone rallies around the leader. On the other hand, within the country, everyone criticizes everything. There is no confidence in the army or the police, not to mention the parliament and the courts. There is no real confidence in anyone.

But in foreign policy, society almost unanimously supports “its” powers that be. The bulk of Russia’s citizens have an imperial mindset: it was not for nothing they were raised as patriots for seventy years, beginning with Stalin’s ideological turnaround in 1934. So the people see any foreign adventure undertaken by the Russian government as a symptom of our being “picked on.” And their justification of any aggression—the invasion of Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, etc.—follows this. All these military actions were fully supported by the people. The 2008 Georgian War had exactly the same support. The annexation of Crimea is now supported for the same reasons.

In Russia, it is almost impossible to find out not what public figures and experts think, but what the “common man” thinks.

This is true. The common man has very little right to be heard anywhere. Current sociology and anthropology, which are not dominant in Russia, aspire to give the average man a voice. Hence the spread of so-called qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, methods, publications of interviews with “ordinary” people. Attempts are made to produce texts in collaboration with them. Some sociologists even just publish the texts of these people without commentary.

But why don’t Russian sociologists do this?

In Russia, sociology has adapted to serve the powers that be. And the powers that be have little interest in the real opinions of ordinary people. Our powers that be are even uninterested in the opinions of sociologists, except those who publicize what the powers that be themselves say, couched in academic discourse.

If economic difficulties worsen, will the mood of Russians change?

People have now had a taste of a relatively prosperous life. At least twenty percent of the population has seen what life abroad looks like, and they are unlikely to want to live under war communism or as in North Korea. But it is already clear that this little splash of the good life, which was due to high oil prices in the 2000s, has ended. Real income levels will now fall. Those who lived in poverty will feel almost nothing. They will go on living as before. But the so-called middle class, who are supposed to support the authorities because they live well, will feel this first and foremost.

So I think that a political crisis cannot be avoided, whatever propaganda or opinion polls are thrown at it.


See my previous posts on Russia’s authoritarian “pollocracy”:

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