Russia is the world’s largest country in size and the ninth largest by population, but almost no one is interested in what actual Russians really think, least of all the Russian government, Russia’s leading pollsters, and the domestic and international media that dutifully cite the dubious results of their so-called opinion polls. Photo by the Russian Reader
Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.
—William Empson, “Just a Smack at Auden”
Antifascists and antiracists often advocate the notion of “no platform,” meaning that no decent public institution, be it a university, a newspaper or a city council, should allow white supremacists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, and other ultra right-wingers to lecture on campus, publish their opinions in respectable periodicals or march down the streets shouting their vicious slogans.
I have begun to think the practice of “no platform” should be applied to the notorious troika of Russia’s top pollsters: Levada Center, VTsIOM, and FOM. The extremely valuable propaganda work they do for the Putin regime is often hilariously identified as “sociology” in Russian, but this is an insult to the real, tough-minded and rigorous sociologists doing actual research.
Although Levada Center was inexplicably tagged as a “foreign agent” in 2016, everyone who works there deserves a medal or two from the Kremlin, because the so-called pollsters at Levada have been working relentlessly over the years to prove a hypothesis dear to the hearts of a certain kind of Russian liberal or Russian conservative: that Russian society mainly consists of extremely stupid, servile proletarians who still love Stalin, long for a “strong hand” in the Kremlin, and enthusiastically support Vladimir Putin whatever he does and however he does it.
VTsIOM and FOM are up to much the same thing, the only difference being they serve the regime quite frankly and openly, unlike Levada Center, which pretends to engaged in a “scientific” mapping of Russian society on behalf of the opposition.
The problem is none of the polls any member of the troika publishes is worth the paper they are printed on, because, from a logical, discursive, and emotional viewpoint, they are flawed. To put it bluntly, they all ask the same unanswerable question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson called this dilemma a “double bind,” a situation in which no matter how you react, you are screwed, implicating yourself in something you had nothing to do with and might never have even contemplated doing your entire life. That is, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Meaning that the ethical burden is on the so-called pollsters. If they posed pointed, politicized questions to their respondent, such as whether they approve of Putin or think highly of the KGB or Stalin, as people brought up in a society that, historically, was first terrorized by the Romanov dynasty, then by the Bolsheviks, then, briefly, by the Nazis, and now, over the past eighteen years, by the Putinists, you can reasonably assume a very large percentage of them imagine there is a “right” answer to these questions and a “wrong” answer. Although there is no evidence people who give “wrong” answers to the questions in current Russian opinion polls suffer the consequences for their dissidence, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when it is a complete stranger asking you these odd questions over the phone. Maybe he didn’t call you at random? Maybe his “poll” is a test of your loyalty?
Hence, all these polls are worthless as a measure of so-called Russian public opinion.
There is also what my friend the journalist Sergey Chernov once called the “TV-Levada-TV-Levada-TV (ad infinitum)” factor, meaning that the troika tend, unsurprisingly, to poll Russians about subjects that have just been subjected to a heavy propaganda barrage on the national TV channels. Thus, a good number of respondents have already been primed to respond to questions on these topics in a very specific way, thus generating a closed feedback loop that only benefits the regime, who wants its subjects passive but perpetually on message.
This brings us to the less obvious part of the nefarious work done by the troika in painting an utterly false portrait of Russian society at large, a society allegedly consisting mainly of rampant Putin supporters, racists, homophobes, Stalinists, and lovers of Cheka-NKVD-style rough justice: none of the fake polling they do would make a difference to anyone if the media, both domestic and international, were not there to report on their dubious “findings” every step of the way.
Although I have read, over the last five or six years, during which time what I have dubbed the “pollocracy” has gone completely wild, a decent number of articles by smarter people who are just as critical of the worth and reliability of the troika’s so-called public opinion polls as I am, using many of the same arguments I have just made, the media uncritically report the results of the troika’s latest polls as news events in themselves and indisputable evidence of what “Russians really think.”
To make matters worse, the overwhelming number of “Russia experts” see nothing fishy about the troika’s polls and cite their findings as fact in their lectures, scholarly articles, and white papers.
So, I have a modest proposal. If you accept the “anti-pollocratic” argument, as I have laid it out rather crudely here, you should refrain from giving a platform to the mighty troika of Russian pollsters and their demeaning, ultimately Russophobic, ultimately Putinist, incredibly skewed polls. You should not report them as news, because they are fake news. You should not cite them as facts, because they are anything but facts.
What they are is not very clever attempts to manipulate minds both inside and outside Russia. Putin is not wildly popular and thus handily wins free and fair elections. The elections are rigged up and down and sideways from the get-go in the most cynical ways possible, a real fact that has been documented and eyewitnessed several hundred thousand times by hundreds of thousands of Russians. But since the elections are rigged, and since Putin and his satraps can never be allowed to lose an election, it has to be “scientifically” proven he enjoys unwavering “broad support” amongst the unwashed masses.
This is where Russia’s troika of pollsters comes to the rescue. Their main function, funny as it might seem, is to periodically certify Putin’s runaway popularity through “scientific polls.”
All the rest is icing on the cake. As I have written, the pseudo-liberals at Levada Center have made it their pet project to prove to themselves and their pseudo-liberal admirers that the Russian people (russkii narod) are the most ignorant, dark, illiberal, and retrograde losers on the planet.
But the way they have gone about “discovering” this nonfact is as methodologically faulty as the way they have doggedly proven month after month, quarter after quarter, that Putin is astronomically beloved by “the people.” The only difference between Levada and their colleagues at VTsIOM and FOM is the significance they attach to the exact same, absolutely bogus results.
Thus anyone who cites these results as fact is doing a real disservice to the actual Russian people and the democratic cause in Russia.
If those are things you care about, you should no platform Russia’s troika of pollsters, juast as you would cast your local chapter of neo-Nazis or the North American Man-Boy Love Association into the outer darkness.
Because Russian opinion polls are as worthless, damaging, and flat out wrong as the above-named dangerous freaks. TRR