Just a Smack at the Russian Pollocracy

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

9 thoughts on “Just a Smack at the Russian Pollocracy

  1. How can one obtain a true picture of Russian society and the opinions of Russian people? It’s very likely that the pollsters give a false picture, as you graphically point out – but how is this to be overcome, and where are the sociological surveys that give a more correct analysis of public opinion?

    1. First of all, there are 144 million Russian nationals living in Russia, so it stands to reason they don’t all think the same thing. That means you let people speak for themselves, and you do as much as you can to get out of the way and let their voices be heard, as in this piece about sixteen-year-olds from Petersburg whose entire lives have been lived in the shadow of Putin. https://therussianreader.com/2016/06/05/putin-generation-16-year-old-russians/ The best new Russian journalism tries to get as close as possible to “ordinary” Russians (who, often as not, are actually quite extraordinary) and their stories and struggles, eschewing public opinion polls, whose only purpose is to test whether the trash the propaganda machine has been trying to implant in people’s minds has taken root there as “false consciousness” or not. Real Russian sociologists (they exist!) mostly avoid quantitative methods, preferring instead in-depth interviews, observer participation, and other qualitative methods. The only place numbers have in forming a picture of the real Russia is when you’re trying to get a fix on the real economic picture, which you can do to some extent by regular reading liberal business dailies like RBC and Vedomosti. I have been working very hard over the last ten years to provide a mix of all this stuff in English translation on my websites, so they (Chtodelat News and The Russian Reader) are a very good place to start. But it’s simply lazy reporting to cite polls by the troika suggesting that Putin is wildly popular. All the western bigtime media do it, however, but most of their reporting about internal Russian politics and society is utterly worthless.

  2. I certainly think you have done a remarkable job in exploring the ‘real’ Russia and transmitting the results to a non-Russian-speaking readership, but I wonder if there is not a certain opacity in contemporary Russian life that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Russians and non-Russians alike to break through the barriers of ignorance and indifference that exist. The opacity is compounded by the love-hate relation to the West that many Russians have – and have had, of course, historically. Sometimes one has the feeling that Western (originally American) procedures and systems like opinion polls and economic surveys are not really applicable to Russian reality, which exists somewhere else – a somewhere that used to be found in the writings of Russia’s poets, novelists and philosophers, but seems to be there no more. There is a kind of silence in the field of Russian literature – where are the Brodskys, the Solzhenitsyns, the writers who were capable of capturing the voice of Russia and spanning the ‘East-West divide’, as it used to be called? As someone who has spent a large part of his life translating Russian fiction and poetry, I worry about that sometimes.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’ve known and read your work for many years, so I’m especially honored you would comment on my editorial. It’s hard to disagree with anything you’ve written, especially as someone who, like most of us, entered Russia through great Russian literature, some of it in your translations. Dostoevsky planted the seed when I was twelve years old, and Brodsky sealed my fate when I was in my early twenties. But then you arrive in the real Russia and realize that even if you had the best Russian education imaginable (I graduated from a really good Slavic department), you’re not entirely prepared for the experience, and there are huge gaps in your supposedly impeccable education. I think my blogs and my interactions with grassroots activists saved me from the same sense that Russian literature was no longer doing the unmatchable work it once did. So Russian novels are not what they used to be, and Russian opinion polls are bunk, but a friend of mine, a fairly well known poet, has been telling me for years that Russian poetry has undergone a rebirth. I don’t know almost anything about that, because at some point I knew that to make this blog and its predecessor what I wanted them to be I had to spend more time talking to different people, wandering the streets, and reading both good and bad Russian periodicals, good and bad blogs and social media to find the actual voices of real Russians and accounts of the new adventures the bravest of them were having. Someone will come along someday and capture this time in a great Russian novel, but that might happen decades from now. After all, Tolstoy was born after the real events and made-up events he orchestrates so beautifully in War and Peace that we think it more real than reality itself. But he had to do his homework, too, to make up his hyperreal world, and Dostoevsky was a notorious fan of the news. What I mean to say that is that, since I can’t save great Russian literature myself, I can write my own “great Russian novel” by collaging and archiving everything I record on this website, and trying to generate plotlines of sorts, even if that includes publishing a dry but thoughtful reaction to plans to raise the minimum wage by an official at an independent trade union federation. Combine those dry facts with accounts of brave activists like Valery Brinikh in Adygea or Valentin Urusov in Yakutia, and the occasional rant from me once in awhile, and I would hope the real Russia of today would become a little less opaque and a little more interesting to the people who read these stories, whoever and wherever they are. The relation to the west that some Russians have is a subject I touch on occasionally, but it’s such a morass I mostly leave it be. It’s a peculiar thing when more Russians have easier virtual and physical access to the west than ever before, but seem even more hostile to it than ever before. But far from everyone feels that way, and I think that is especially true of journalists and activists and ordinary people who are grounded in the places where they live and fighting tooth and nail to make them better places. That aspiration is its own universal human language, I think, and makes it easier to identify with my heroes, even if you’re reading about them in Nebraska. Or as one of Petersburg’s fiercest environmentalists and historical preservationists likes to say, “We just live here.” We all just live somewhere, and the causes we fight for and the troubles we face are often not so different from each other as we imagine. Finally, I wanted to my an “anti-Putin” website not in the sense that I would rage against Putin all the time, but to show my readers that there are lots of other people in Russia besides Putin. In a sense, our western press has let him get away with highway robbery by focusing almost exclusively on him, his doings, his utterances, his personality, and his alleged popularity. I wanted to show that a “Russia without Putin” already exists, even if Putin is still in it.

  3. I think I’m less concerned about a dearth of “great” Russian writing and/or writers than about what feels like the loss of a connection to the past, and to the ethical, humanist traditions of Russian literature. To narrow the focus to poetry: in the work of Brodsky there was the sense of a continuum, a direct link to the poetry and aesthetics of Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova and Mandelstam – centred on the individual but also on the moral and existential experience of generations. It’s true that I haven’t examined the work of the “new” Russian poets very closely, but from what I have read of it – here, for example, in English translation: http://bigbridge.org/BB17/poetry/twentyfirstcenturyrussianpoetry/twenty-first-century-russian-poetry-contents.html – I don’t have the sense that it goes very deep either in subjective terms or in terms of shared experience, or that it even demands attention. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.

    But yes, a “Russia without Putin” exists, and this may be a period of transition, though to what is anyone’s guess.

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