It Was a Joke

rostovpapaRussians do not swallow the regime’s propaganda hook, line and sinker, argues Ivan Mikirtumov, but use it to guide their public behavior. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why the Russian President Made Fun of Russian Propaganda
Ivan Mikirtumov
Vedomosti
October 22, 2018

Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 18, Vladimir Putin told his audience the punchline of what would later emerge as a “funny” joke about nuclear war.

“As martyrs, we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak, because they won’t even have time to repent,” said Putin.

Judging by the overall reaction, the joke has been a success.

The genre of the humorous anecdote, including the political anecdote, was typical of the Soviet period, that is, of a communist dictatorship in the midst of the Cold War. Unlike texts and drawings, anecdotes were an oral genre and, therefore, were relatively harmless to disseminate. The technical difficulties of proving someone had told a joke made it a less than reliable tool for snitching on other people. This sometimes had to do with the content. If you wanted to inform on someone who had told you a joke about Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, the KGB, the Politburo, etc., then likely as not you would have had to quote in writing what you had heard or, at any rate, admit you knew the joke. Under certain circumstances, however, this knowledge could be used against you.

In post-Stalinist times, people were rarely punished for telling jokes. Jokes were widespread in Soviet culture, achieving exceptional heights of wit and observation. Jokes could be used to track public opinion, since they reflected society’s critical self-consciousness. Jokes were a form of feedback, but by virtue of its unique incompetence the Soviet regime ignored them, too.

Everything dangerous, hostile, evil, harmful, stupid, and meaningless is made into a figure of fun when it fails and falls through. People do not laugh at things that are huge and horrible until they are rendered pitiful, proven weak, and shown to be a sham. Stalin gave people little occasion to laugh, because he rarely failed, but the leaders of the late-Soviet period and the entire Soviet system were perfect targets for jokes and other species of ridicule. It is said Brezhnev was smart enough to laugh at jokes about himself, but it was not something he did publicly.

Putin told his audience the punchline of a joke whose opening line we can imagine as an oral exam question at the General Staff Academy, a question asked by the examiner in a room adorned with framed photographs of the commander-in-chief and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

“Tell me, how will the outcome of a nuclear war differ for Russians and people in western countries?

Why is it that Putin’s answer to this imaginary question might seem funny? What was he ridiculing?

Mentioning heaven, martyrdom, and repentance in a military context in Russia, a country in which cynicism has reigned supreme, is tantamount to a direct attack on official religiosity, as instilled by the regime, a religiosity that has become dreadfully tiresome to everyone. The notion Russians will go to heaven wholesale, whether they believe in God or not, whether they are religious believers of any denomination at all, and whether they are vicious or virtuous, is tantamount to a scathing parody of religious beliefs.

Nuclear war is the business of the military. It thus transpires souls are saved and people canonized as martyrs at the behest of the Russian army’s top brass. With Putin in charge of it, heaven promises to be something like an army barracks, so the entire satire on martyrdom and salvation was performed as a “humorous shtick” of the sort favored by Russia’s siloviki.

What do generals have to say about the soul’s salvation? They say what they are supposed to say, as they gaze at the patriarch’s framed photograph on the wall.

Recently, General Zolotov and the two heroic Russian tourists who took a trip to Salisbury this past March found themselves in the limelight nearly at the same time. We can easily imagine these men holding forth on heaven, martyrdom, and repentance. Putin’s joke was clearly a sendup of the symbiosis between state-imposed religiosity and militarism, a crucial concept in current Russian agitprop.

It is short step from a joke like this to jokes about Orthodox secret policemen, monarchist communists, sovereign democracy, the Kiev “junta,” the US State Department’s vials and cookies, and ritual murders, performed by Jews, of course, on Orthodox babies (and the tsar’s entire family in the bargain), and so on. During the years of Putin’s rule, a whole Mont Blanc of drivel has sprung up, and whole hosts of freaks have come out of the woodwork. It is simply amazing there are still so few jokes about Putin and Putinism in circulation, but now, I imagine, things will kick off, since the main character in these jokes has taken the bull by the horns.

This does not mean, of course, that, by artfully telling his joke, Putin meant to take the piss out of himself and his regime. We are dealing here with the long-familiar militarist bravado summed up by the saying “Broads will give birth to new soldiers,” with the teenage frivolity typical of the siloviki, a frivolity they enjoy acting out.

“We’ll wipe the floor with them,” as they would say.

If, however, Putin was publicly ridiculing the concept behind current state propaganda, we are confronted with a bad joke, a bad joke told to the selfsame ordinary Russians who are targets of the propaganda so ridiculed, while the guy who made the cute joke is the same guy who presides over production of this propaganda and benefits from it.

The rules of the genre have been violated, for now it is the audience, the public that has been ridiculed. Clearly, Russia’s ruling elite despises the people it attempts to manipulate, and the propagandists sometimes laugh themselves silly backstage after they have concocted a particularly nimble con.

I don’t think Russians are gulled by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Rather, they register the messages transmitted to them by the regime as signals telling them what to say and do in certain circumstances. This lovely consensus is destroyed when the concept underpinning the propaganda has been publicly turned into a laughingstock, because people who have been pretending in recent years that they take it seriously find themselves in an awkward situation. They have lost face, having themselves been made ludicrous.

How, then, do they answer the question as to why they played along with the regime in its efforts to gull them? The only plausible explanation for this behavior is shameful thoughtlessness, fear, and impotence, things to which no one wants to admit.

Ivan Mikirtumov is a visiting lecturer at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

Wave Theory, or, Everyone Is Police

FRANCE. Essonne. Near Juvisy-sur-Orge. 1955.Henri Cartier-Bresson, Près de Juvisy-sur-Orge, France, 1955. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Can you imagine reading an “expert” opinion, like the one I have translated and reproduced, below, published by a political commentator in a more or less democratic country?

I won’t bother arguing about the accuracy of the analysis. It may, in fact, be wildly inaccurate. Actually, if you read it two or three times in a row, you would find that is ridden with glaring contradictions.

For example, it is strange to accuse Alexei Navalny, who was jailed nearly the entire time, of being on the sidelines during the anti-pension reform protests when, in fact, his team’s activists organized protests all over Russia, some of them quite large, and this despite the fact that dozens of them were also treated to so-called preventive arrests by the Putin regime’s legally nihilistic law enforcers.

It is even stranger to argue that Navalny matters so little to the Kremlin now that it has decided it is high time to send him to prison and throw away the key.

I am no great fan of Jeremy Corbyn’s, alas, but I am grateful, nonetheless, that Theresa May and her minions could not even contemplate framing him on trumped-up charges and sending him down for however many years they think would “neutralize” him.

If you do not understand this essential difference between flat-out authoritarian-cum-fascist countries like Putinist Russia and the world’s democracies, most of them in bad shape, like May and Corbyn’s UK, you should probably disqualify yourself from commenting on politics.

Because this is police, not politics, as Jacques Rancière would have put it, even if it is only expressed as a prediction by a think-thankerette-cum-spin doctor who claims to have inside knowledge of what the Kremlin has been contemplating, but for some reason lives in a suburb of Paris. {TRR}

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Tatiana Stanovaya
Facebook
October 2, 2018

The Kremlin is seriously discussing a tangible prison sentence for Alexei Navalny. There are several key arguments that would favor making such a decision.

First, Navalny was sidelined during the anti-pension reform protests. By and large, no one was able to saddle the wave of discontent. The Kremlin thinks it would be better to neutralize Navalny now while it is not too late. It would be harder later.

Second, Navaly’s negative rating [sic] is high. Television has done its job. The expectations are that, if Navalny were sent down, no serious wave [of protest] would rise up. Society would fail to notice it, and liberals hardly worry anyone, while the liberals who are in power would risk losing a lot [if they came to Navalny’s defense].

Third, the Zolotov factor has played its role. The head of the Russian National Guard was so hurt by Navalny’s exposé that he himself has become a source of concern. The Kremlin believes it is better not to rub him the wrong way, since an angry Zolotov is a danger not only to the regime’s alleged enemies but also to the regime itself or, rather, to various spin doctors [sic].

Fourth and finally, while Putin was previously opposed to sending [Navalny] down, fearing it would make Navalny a hero (this, supposedly, was Volodin’s argument), Putin now sees this risk as too trivial compared with other risks, including an abrupt drop in his own rating and the general sense that everything has been set in motion, and he does not have time for Navalny [sic].

If, in the very near future, something does not happen at the grassroots that would interfere with sending [Navalny] down, it is nearly inevitable. And yes, the current domestic policy spin doctors take Navalny much less seriously than their predecessors [sic].

Tatiana Stanovaya is identified on her Facebook page as a “Columnist/Commentator at Moscow Carnegie Center” and “Former [sic] CHEF DU DÉPARTEMENT ANALYTIQUE, CENTRE DES TECHNOLOGIES POLITIQUES” who lives in Juvisy-sur-Orge, France. Thanks to The Real Russia. Today mailer, compiled daily by Meduza, for the heads-up. Kudos to its editor for realizing suddenly that Russian social media are an important source of information, gossip, and fairy tales about Russian politics. The emphases, sics, and italics in the text are mine. Translated by the Russian Reader

You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party

Involving Teenagers in Unauthorized Protest Rallies Could Cost as Much as One Million Rubles
Experts Say Authorities Won’t Find It Hard to Prove Charges
Olga Churakova
Vedomosti
July 11, 2018

Госдума готовится ввести многотысячные штрафы за вовлечение подростков в несанкционированные митингиThe State Duma plans to introduce hefty finds for involving teenagers in unauthorized protest rallies. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

On Tuesday, the State Duma’s Family Affairs Committee gave the go-ahead to a law bill that would introduce penalties for “encouraging” teenagers to attend unauthorized protest rallies. On Monday, the bill was approved by the government’s Legislative Affairs Commission. In its written appraisal of the bill, the Family Affairs Committee recommended clarifying the minimum age at which offenders would be held liable for violations, although the relevant committee reviewing the bill is the Committee on Constitutional Law.

Tabled by Alyona Arshinova, Anatoly Vyborny, and other United Russia MPs, the law would amend the Administrative Violations Code to include penalties of 15 days in jail, 100 hours of community service or a fine of 50,000 rubles for individuals who encourage minors to attend unauthorized protest rallies. Fines for officials would range from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles, while fines for legal entities would range from 250,000 to 500,000 rubles. A repeat violation could send individuals to jail for up to thirty days, while legal entities would be fined as much as one million rubles [approx. €13,800].

“In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfect law bill. As for the current bill, the relevant committee has not yet meet to discuss it,” says Vyborny.

However, Vyborny is certain the amendments are necessary.

“Children cannot resist the negative influence of adults. It matters to them to express themselves, and we hope this bill will deter them from ill-considered actions. Administrative liability will be a deterrent,” he says.

What matters is that young people are not drawn into a culture of legal nihilism, the MP argues. According to Vyborny, the bill does not aim to punish minors, but protest rally organizers. Hence, the age limit is defined in the bill.

OVD Info estimated that ninety-one teenagers were detained on May 5, 2018, in Moscow at an unauthorized protest rally to mark the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president for the fourth time. According to OVD Info, at least 158 minors were detained nationwide on May 5 at similar protests. OVD Info estimated that a total of 1,600 people were detained that day.

Lawyer Oleg Sukhov says proving protest rally organizers are in violation of the new law would be a piece of cake. Rallies are organized in different ways, including personal contacts and public announcements.

“Our government is planning to deter all means of organizing protest rallies. It realizes this work on the part of the opposition will only intensify over time not only via the web but also through communication with young Russians,” notes Sukhov.

The main point is the government would not have to prove anything, argues Sukhov. Minors will go on attending protest rallies. Whenever they tell police they saw an announcement on the web, the organizers will be charged with violating the law according to a fast-track procedure.

“Clearly, the law will be enforced selectively. It’s a classic manifestation of the so-called mad printer. The terms used in the wording of the bill are not defined at all. For example, what does it mean to ‘encourage’ a teenager to attend a rally? Can teenagers attend rallies? They can. So, how do we figure out whether they attended on their own or were ‘encouraged’? We can’t,” says Navalny’s righthand man Leonid Volkov.

Volkov does not believe the law will be effective since protesters have been paying fines as it is.

“It is no accident this attempt to intimidate young people made the news today, the same day the Investigative Committee released a video about a teenager who goes to prison for reposting [‘extremist’ items] on social media. Of course, this will only produce new Primorsky Partisans,” Volkov concludes.

“Extremism Is a Crime,” a video posted on YouTube on June 25, 2018, by the MultiKit Video Studio. The annotation to the video reads, “A public service video on the dangers of extremism, produced by MultiKit Video Studio for the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory Office. The video will be shown in schools to prevent such crimes.”

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KMO_156800_00022_1_t218_212746.jpgAlexei Avetisov. Photo by Emin Dzhafarov. Courtesy of Kommersant

Youth Policy Finds a Direction
Kremlins Finds a Specialist in Subcultures and Extremism
Sofia Samokhina, Maxim Ivanov and Lada Shamardina
Kommersant
July 11, 2018

Kommersant has learned Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could join the Office of Public Projects in the Kremlin. Avetisov has been tapped to head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth. Ksenia Razuvayeva, head of Rospatriotcenter (Russian Center for the Civic and Patriotic Education of Children and Young People) has been named as a candidate for head of the Department of Youth Policy in the Office of Public Projects. Both candidates would still have to be vetted by the Kremlin.

Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth in the Kremlin’s Office of Public Projects. Currently, the Office of Public Projects, which is run by Sergei Kiriyenko, the president’s first deputy chief of staff, has no such department. Our sources say Mr. Avetisov would be tasked with overseeing youth subcultures and decriminalizing the youth scene, in particular, by dealing with the popular AUE network of criminal gangs. The Presidential Human Rights Council discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in December 2016.

Olga Amelchenkova, head of the Victory Volunteers Movement and member of the Russian Public Chamber, told us there were few organizations in Russia involved in volunteering in emergencies, and Mr. Avetisov was one of the few people who had constantly brought up the subject in the Public Chamber.

An acquaintance of Mr. Avetisov’s said his Russian Student Rescue Corps had brought many universities together. The organization took part in the first Taurida Camp held after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, an event attended by MPs and high-ranking officials. From 2015 to 2017, Mr. Avetisov was director of Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma, a youth education form, sponsored by Rosmolodezh (Russian Agency for Youth Affairs). His main job at the forum was providing technical support for the camp.

On June 6, Znak.com, citing its own sources, reported law enforcement agences were investigating Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma and, in this connection, “questions for the forum’s ex-director Alexei Avetisov could arise.” The website indicated companies allegedly affiliated with Mr. Avetisov had for several years been awarded “lucrative” contracts for constructing venues at the forum. The firms in question had no experience implementing government contracts. Currently, some of the companies have either gone out of business or are dormant, wrote the website.

Timur Prokopenko, deputy chief of staff in charge of the Office of Domestic Policy in the Kremlin, had been in charge of youth forums in recent years. He also handleded youth policy in his capacity as head of the Office of Domestic Policy. However, on June 14, a presidential decree turned youth policy over to the Office of Public Projects.

znakcom-2039402-666x375Territory of Meanings staffers. Photo from the camp’s VK page. Courtesy of Znak.com

Gazeta.Ru has reported that Rospatriotcenter head Ksenia Razuvayeva could take charge of the Office of Public Project’s Department of Youth Policy. Before taking over the running of Rospatriotcenter, Ms. Razuvayeva ran the Moscow branch of the Russian Volunteers Union and collaborated with the Young Guard of United Russia (MGER), which Mr. Prokopenko ran from 2010 to 2012. Ms. Razuvayeva would not confirm to us that she was moving to the Office of Public Projects Earlier, a source of ours in the Kremlin said she might not make it through the vetting process. Another of our sources noted a possible conflict of interests was at play. Ms. Razuvayeva also told us it was the first time she had heard about Mr. Avetisov’s moving to the Office of Public Projects.

“The vast majority of Young Guardsmen and other pro-regime activists brought up through the ranks in the past decades are supremely focused on their careers. The system simply spits out anyone else,” political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told us.

According to Gallyamov, “Changing colors for the new boss and refusing to have anything to do with people they worshipped only the day before are quite ordinary for this crowd.”

“Therefore, it does not matter whose people they were considered yesterday. They will be loyal to any boss, just because he or she is the boss,” Gallyamov added.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Voice of Rao

voice of rao.jpegIn Kandor City, on the planet Krypton, everyone fears the mysterious, awe-inspiring Voice of Rao, including the little “rankless” priestess Ona. Still from the TV serial Krypton, broadcast on Syfy in Ul Qoma, and on Ororo in Besźel.

Media Learns about Kremlin’s Order to Officials to “Reduce Media Activity”
Maria Bondarenko
RBC
April 27, 2018

The Kremlin has recommended federal officials reduce their “media activity” before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration. According to Kommersant, Dmitry Medvedev’s final public appearance is scheduled for May 3.

According to Kommersant newspaper, the public events Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attends on May 3, including a visit to the VDNKh, where he will chair a meeting on agricultural growth, will be his last before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration.

After May 3, according to the newspaper’s sources in the government and the Kremlin, federal officials will disappear from public view. The Kremlin has issued a recommendation to cabinet ministers and regional authorities to “reduce media activity” so as not to interfere with the “chief executive’s information agenda” on the eve of the inauguration, the newspaper’s sources said.

Medvedev conducted his last cabinet meeting on April 26. According to Kommersant‘s sources in the Russian White House, the prime minister arranged a buffet featuring champagne and hors d’oeuvres, and several officials were awarded the government’s highest honor, the Stolypin Medal of the First Degree. It cannot be ruled out the cabinet will meet on Saturday, May 5, to coordinate its actions before the presidential inauguration. According to the newspaper, however, this meeting will be held behind closed doors.

Putin’s inauguration is scheduled for May 7. Afterwards, the current government will resign. The president must then select a new cabinet of ministers. The day after the presidential election, March 19, Putin said he would make changes to the next government. However, he said nothing specific about changes in the cabinet. According to Kommersant, there is a “high likelihood” Medvedev will retain the post of prime minister.

Citing a source in the Kremlin, Kommersant likewise noted that after election to his previous presidential term, Putin personally held meetings with each potential minister and deputy prime minister, while Medvedev was more involved with the government’s overall structure. The newspaper’s source suggested this method would likely be used this time as well.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Cass Sunstein Stayed Out Too Long in the Sunshine

DSCN0667
A sunny late afternoon in downtown Petersburg. Do you see any Marxism or Marxists in this picture? I see only individuals going about their business and going home from work. According to the distinguished US legal scholar Cass Sunstein, however, “the Russians” are, in fact, busy “heightening the contradictions” in US society, which is a time-honored “Marxist strategy.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Cass Sunstein: “As the Russians know, heightening the contradictions is dangerous for the American people. Here’s a much better idea: E pluribus unum.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything sillier in my life.

First of all, “heightening the contradictions” has been the American way since our rickety but powerful country was founded four score and seven years ago or a bit longer than that. We haven’t been trying to create a 330 million-strong army of biorobots who think and act identically. Or have we?

Second, “heightening the contradictions,” pace the considered opinion of Samantha Powers’s power husband, is not a “Marxist strategy” per se, but a time-honored political tactic. Read Machiavelli. Read Thucydides. Read Suetonius. Read Robert Caro’s stunning masterpieces about Robert Moses and LBJ. Read anything.

Third, the Kremlin is currently inhabited by people who have no truck with Marxism in any way, shape or form.

Fourth, Marxism is not a set of tricks for sowing foment, dissent, discord, and chaos. It’s something else, but what it might be is too gnarly and boring for folks who take the Sunstein approach to cheap op-ed point-scoring.

Fifth, if the Kremlin’s current inhabitants meddled in the 2016 US presidential elections and have continued to play on the alleged contradictions in US society the election exacerbated, they have done this without any reference to or inspiration from Marxism, a political economic theory about which Cass Sunstein literally has no idea whatsoever.

I won’t be bothering to link to Mr. Sunstein’s original piece on the Bloomberg website, because that would mean inadvertently promoting Bloomberg, whose editors are so thick-witted they have taken on a pro-Kremlin provocateur as a full-time op-ed writer, and nobody noticed, even though I see lots of people quoting said provocateur (Leonid Bershidsky) all the time.

This is not to mention that whipping up an anti-Marxist panic in a world where Putin crony (and rabid anti-Marxist) Vladimir Yakunin has for years been co-opting western academics and decision-makers into his so-called Dialogue of Civilizations powwows on a wholesale basis right out in the open, but there has never been a single article about these particularly effective Russian active measures all this time in any reputable western newspaper or magazine, seems misguided, to put it mildly.

Finally, Russia has not been a socialist country, a communist country or a Marxist country (whatever that would mean) for twenty-six years. If its elites are messing with the internal politics of other countries, they are not doing so as Marxists, but as gangsters who want to skew the international geopolitical game in their favor as much as possible. Like true gangsters, their only ideology is what is good for them is good for them, and everyone else be damned, including their own countrymen.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.

P.S. While we are at it, let’s stop this “the Russians” business. There are 144 million Russians. They are as pluribus and pluralist as any other society. They are not the Borg.

The Russian Reader

Crazy Train (In Praise of Boris Johnson)

Except for riding a bike to work when he was mayor of London, calling on people to go to Russian embassies and protest Russia’s sickening, brutal behavior in Syria may have been the only sensible thing Boris Johnson has done in his life, especially given what it has revealed not about him and his alleged hypocrisy (nearly all powerful politicians, even the ones we adore, are horrible hypocrites) but about the psycho-tactical dimension of the Kremlin’s otherwise unmotivated bombing campaign. The properly “hysterical” reaction to Mr. Johnson’s modest proposal by the Russian MoD and the Kremlin is a mirror of the deafening silence on what is happening in Aleppo from the (nonexistent) Russian public. Actually, this deafening silence and meek acceptance are also how the Russian authorities expect, in their “logical” mode,” “the west” and “the international community” to react to their Borg-like crushing of all living life in Syria. So, “logically,” they throw a tantrum and snort fire when anyone has the temerity, like Mr. Johnson, to notice what they’re doing and call it what it is. On the other hand, in their “irrational” mode, whose ultimate expression is rebranding a country that is coming apart at the seams infrastructurally, intellectually, educationally, politically, economically, aesthetically, environmentally, demographically, morally, religiously, ethnically, industrially, socially, etc., into a “reemergent super power,” not for any higher purpose such as “communism” or anything nice sounding like that, but only in order to keep Putin and Co. in power for the rest of their natural lives, the Russian authorities really do want literally everyone in the world to pay attention to what they are doing in Syria and to be awed, to be impressed. That is, to remonstrate, throw fits, descend on their embassies, send them poison pen letters, whatever. Naturally, they don’t want them to go much farther than that, though that might be “fun” too, given that the “development program” they have sketched for their country amounts to suiciding it every which way possible.

This is the only time in my life I have genuinely felt a wan bit of liking for Boris Johnson. If only for exposing what the Stop the War Coalition really are (“Stalinist running dogs” is the proper term, I believe), he deserves a knighthood or a year of free lunches at Subway. TRR

boris-johnson_3-large_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma
Hero for a day. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

Living Levada Loca

Komar & Melamid, Russia's Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation
Komar & Melamid, Russia’s Most Wanted Painting, 1995. Image courtesy of Dia Art Foundation

The Picture Is Going to Get Prettier
Greg Yudin
Vedomosti
September 6, 2016

The latest attack on the Levada Center (this past Monday, the organization was labeled a “foreign agent”) provoked a justified outcry from people in various parts of the ideological spectrum, from the center’s friends competitors, and opponents. The formal basis of the attack was the insane law that punishes people and organizations for something that should be rewarded. If Russia wants to be strong in academic research, then here were researchers who collaborated with serious foreign partners. (The University of Wisconsin, with whom the Levada Center had been working, has traditionally been a powerhouse in sociology.) Worse, the law construes “political activity” as something unsavory right at a time when Russia really needs to awaken an interest in politics, and any NGO willing to study the dynamics of political life in Russia deserves all the encouragement it can get.

The Russian Ministry of Justice can paralyze the operations of one of the country’s three major public opinion polling factories one and half weeks before national and regional parliamentary elections on September 18. In this case, the elections will be held with a newly configured polling industry, which has not changed for a long time. Putting our emotions aside, however, the assault on the Levada Center seems unexpected. For the past decade, the organization has objectively worked to maintain the current regime’s legitimacy.

The public opinion research field, a field once populated by many players, was purged by the Kremlin ten years ago, leaving only three companies standing. Two of them, FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) and VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) are substantially affiliated with the Kremlin, since they are wholly dependent on the commissions they regularly receive from the presidential administration and other government agencies. The Levada Center, on the contrary, has been financed independently of the Kremlin, and the liberal views of its senior staff have put the company almost in political opposition to the current regime. Yet the outcomes of the Levada Center’s polls have rarely diverged from the data published by its colleagues and competitors. The numbers adduced by all three pollsters have usually generated a sense of broad or overwhelming support for everything the authorities do, however aggressive and irrational it sometimes might appear.

Praise from the enemy is worth twice as much, especially if it is voiced publicly. Vladimir Putin has confessed on several occasions that polls mean a lot to them, and when the Levada Center records public support for him, this is proof the support is undeniable. Look, even our opponents are forced to admit the people are behind us, the regime’s supporters say time and again. These same people sincerely believe research results depend on who pays for the research.

Research studies, however, are much more complicated, and the results of Levada Center’s polls have had nothing to do with the political stance of its executives. Instead, they are stipulated by the way polls are conducted. In daily life, Russians show little interest in politics, so if you deluge them with a wave of news reports about some issue of little importance to them, such as relations with Turkey, and then ask them the next day whether we should be afraid of Turkey, they will respond in good faith based on the information they got the day before. With few exceptions, the Levada Center has humbly tackled the political agenda set by television, and asked the same questions as the other pollsters, questions focused on this agenda, predictably garnering nearly the same outcomes as the other pollsters. However, the center’s alleged oppositional status made the answers more important for the authorities and, at the same time, indirectly increased the credibility of the other companies. The depressive antidemocratic discourse about the stupid, aggressive common people with which the middle classes have been spooking each other nationwide has largely been the product of the Levada Center’s poll numbers, even if the outcome was unintentional.

You need a good reason to shoot the goose that has been laying golden eggs. What compelled the authorities to break off a piece of the rigging propping up its legitimacy? I should explain right off the bat how the Levada Center does actually differ from the other two major Russian pollsters. The difference has nothing to do with honesty or professionalism. The myth that one group of sociologists does honest work, while the two others fake the numbers is not even worth discussing seriously, and yet they all get the same results.

What matters much more is the fact that the Levada Center does not get commissions from the Kremlin. The Kremlin cannot tell it what questions to ask and what results to make public. We should not forget the poll results reported in the Russian media are only the poll results the client has allowed them to publish. The client can impose a temporary or permanent veto on publication of the results. The media’s picture of public opinion thus passes through two powerful filters nowadays. First, the client imposes on the polling organizations the subjects for which he is willing to pay, and then he decides what information he would like to make available to the public. The Kremlin can easily ban publishing results that shatter the image of monolithic public support for its decisions, and it has often done this.  It has no such power over the Levada Center, although in recent times it has not needed it, since the company has not produced polling data that would put the Kremlin in a vulnerable position.

Polling data has been long the main fodder from which Russians shape their notions about the balance of power at election time and decide how to vote. The numbers act like a tranquilizer, persuading voters not to waste time and energy by getting involved in elections whose outcome is clear in any case. Simultaneously, they send a signal up and down the power vertical about how much “slack” needs to be made up at the local voting precincts. The main thing is not diverge to too radically from the polls. If the Kremlin has had to break with this way of doing things on the eve of the elections, it means the independent player had become too dangerous. The mirror reflected something that forced the Kremlin to throw a stone at it.

If the Levada Center is forced to suspend operations, the credibility of poll numbers will drop, and the client will increase pressure on the remaining players. We will have to treat the polling numbers we see before and after the elections with a bigger grain of salt. If before, the public was shown only the pretty half of the picture, while the ugly was hidden from it, now it will see even less of the picture.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader