Simon Kordonsky: The Real Russia Refuses to Be Counted

kordonsky
Simon Kordonsky, academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Sociologist Simon Kordonsky: “There Are No Entrepreneurs Listed in the Census”
The Khamovniki Foundation’s Fieldwork Suggests the Country’s Leaders Know Little about Real Life in Russia
Vedomosti
January 29, 2019

The academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research is Simon Kordonsky, renowned in Russia’s analytical circles and a former adviser on federal government policy. Nowadays, he has been looking at things from the other side. How does policy affect the lives of the rank and file? Or, rather, how do the rank and file escape the gaze of politics?

“Rosstat Is a Disaster”
Let us start with a simple question. How many people live in Russia?

I don’t know. Feel free to add ten to fifteen percent to the official figures for the mid-sized cities.

So, many more than 146 million people live in Russia?

There are many more. But we are completely at a loss when it comes to the big cities. It is impossible to count people there.

Why? Aren’t there firm indicators such as bread consumption and use of medical services and public transport?

And who in Russia counts this stuff?

I don’t know.

Sewers are used to count people. Judging by the sewerage, around thirty million people live in Moscow.

How do you use sewage to count people?

A certain volume of sewage is flushed into the sewers, and we have a rough sense of the amount of sewage each person generates. Electricity use, on the contrary, cannot give us a fix on numbers of residents, because people steal electricity. It is a rather complex system.

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The Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research was founded in 2006 by Russian investor and hotelier Alexander Klyachin, who currently serves as the foundation’s board chair. The foundation’s advisory board is headed by Simon Kordonsky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics.

The foundation finances and supports academic field research that contributes to describing Russian society. The foundation aims to make the outcomes of its studies accessible to society as a whole. It has supported over sixty research projects. Among the most discussed have been “Seasonal Workers in Small Russian Towns,” “The Garage Economy in the Russian Hinterlands,” and “The Constructive Role of Informal Relations in State and Municipal Administration.” 

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There are no scams involving shit?

Maybe there is an underground shit trade, but we have not studied it. I am saying that it is awfully hard to calculate the consumption of electricity in the 220-volt networks, which are municipal networks. Superimposed on them are other, high-voltage networks, and there are separate stats on each level. Total loss in the network is around fifty percent. It is hard to quantify how much is used by the populace, and how much by industry, because the rates everywhere are different.

It is the same thing with garages [as workplaces]: they usually survive on stolen electricity. They pay for the hookup, but off the books to the folks who do the maintenance work on the power networks. They pay thirty to fifty percent of the real cost and pay minimum usage rates. So, energy use will not help you count people.

Nor will water use. A considerable number of families do not get their water from centralized mains, but from wells, from their own local networks. Besides, in summer, many families live in the countryside at dachas. In winter, some people temporarily leave the villages, while others stay behind. It is hardly possible to quantify this migration.

Official statistical bodies make no effort to count them?

Of course not, but statisticians know all about it. They have their own professional journal, Statistical Issues [Voprosy statistiki]. Several years ago, the journal published an article explaining the discrepancy between the indicators taken into account and what we see with our own eyes. It was necessary to mislead our enemies in the west.

Camouflage the stats?

Yes. Rosstat is a disaster, you see. Their ontology is Soviet, while they imported their methodology from the west. They carry out the census using western standards, and so all the peculiar aspects of life in Russia disappear from their radar. For example, our census does not count entrepreneurs.

At all?

There are no such people as entrepreneurs in the Russian census. There are people involved in businesses of some kind, and there are people who practice the free professions. The census does not differentiate between them. Rosstat regards people who are paid salaries and people who earn their living by making profits as indistinguishable. So, Rosstat is not an organization from which we should expect anything.

Here is another example. What are cities and villages? There are no cities in Russia as urbanists describe them and, so, there are no villages, either. When he was alive, Vyacheslav Glazychev wrote that Russian cities were conglomerations of settlements. Take the district seat in Tula Region that borders Moscow Region. There are 14,000 people in the entire district. From April to late October, however, the population increases to 150,000 people.

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Simon Kordonsky was born in 1944 in Oirot-Tura (present-day Gorno-Altaysk). He graduated from Tomsk State University with a degree as a chemistry and biology teacher. In 1988, he was awarded a kandidat degree, writing a thesis entitled “Cyclical Procedures in Scientific Research.” State Councilor of the Russian Federation, First Class, he chaired the Presidential Expert Advisory Council in 2000. In 2004, he served as a senior aide to the president. He has been a professor of state and municipal administration at the Higher School of Economics since 2006. In 2011, he was appointed director of the Khamovniki Foundation.

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It increases to 150,000 people? Tenfold?

Yes, tenfold. These people are not accounted for. They do not register their residence.

What about medical services? They are designed to deal with 14,000 people. How do they handle 150,000 people? Or do they handle them?

Nearly all dacha dwellers have cars.

They drive to Moscow for medical care?

Why? Serpukhov and Pushchino are nearby, and they have excellent outpatient clinics. Doctors see patients privately everywhere, and you can always come to an arrangement. Medical care is not the problem. The real problem is trash.

That was going to be our next question. As of the new year, a new trash era has dawned in Russia. Does anyone calculate the amount of garbage Russia generates? Does anyone understand the extent of the disaster?

I don’t know. I saw a business plan drawn up by gangsters in the early 1990s. They wanted to take over the garbage business, and they were partly successful. Everything is alright in the places where they were successful. But in the places where first there were towns and villages, followed by municipalities, and now corporations, there is an utter mess.

Moreover, it has been compounded by another problem: gasification. When people used stoves, garbage was burned, metal and bottles were recycled, and there was relatively little plastic. Nowadays, people prefer to throw things away. As soon as a town or village is hooked up to natural gas, the garbage piles up. There is just nowhere to take it, and there are no institutions or stereotypes for dealing with it.

In the garbage business, there is not only collection but also sorting and recycling.

Yes, garbage collection is not what matters. What matters is sorting and recycling. People live in landfills. They even have conveyor belts. They sort the garbage and sell the recyclables to buyers. It is an ecosystem you cannot change by opening or closing landfills, because these are reliable sources of raw materials, with a production cycle and sales channels. It is difficult and dangerous to describe life in landfills and the cottage trades that thrive there.

Do the authorities give the Khamovniki Foundation a hard time?

Not in the least. But they do not support us, either. So far we have not overlapped with the authorities either regionally or federally, but during our expeditions we cooperate with local authorities, of course.

How do you decide where to go on expeditions?

Accidentally. We have done work in all the federal districts, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. We have made fewer trips to the south, but now we have seemingly made connections there, too.

Where you have been in the past year? What new things did you find?

We were in the Far East: Vladivostok, Arsenyev, down to Nakhodka, and back to Vladivostok via Bolshoi Kamen. Thirteen people traveled almost 3,000 kilometers, describing the different local cottage trades and crafts.

Artemy Pozanenko recently completed a series of hunting expeditions. He spent several months with hunters and poachers as an embedded observer. Yulia Krasheninnikova has been studying expert evaluations and expert evidence as an institution. It transpires that it has long ceased to exist in Russia as a professional institution. Instead, crappy quasi-expert evaluations and so-called experts have boiled to the top, especially in religious studies, medicine, construction, and science. Dissernet have gone after fake scientific experts, and you know the success they have had.

Olga Molyarenko has been studying ownerless property. It turns out a considerable segment of existing networks and infrastructure in Russia belongs to no one at all.

She started by examining cemeteries. She discovered there are a certain number of cemeteries officially on the books in Russia, but the real number of cemeteries is nearly ten times larger. It is a typical situation. In the villages and small towns, the cemeteries were located beyond the official border of these settlements. They were overgrown by forests and thus registered as forest lands. It is forbidden to bury people in them, but you have to bury people somewhere.

By the way, the land registry is a problem unto itself. Alexander Pavlov added up all the land registered in Russia. Its total area is 1.7 times larger than the country’s official land mass the country, including the northern lands.

Then it transpired that the Defense Ministry’s closed towns have not only collapsed structurally but have also disappeared juridically. The Defense Ministry has not transferred them to the municipalities because, in particular, the municipalities are not capable of dealing with them. They do not have money in their budgets for completing the paperwork and other formalities. You have probably seen concrete two-lane military roads. Most of them belong to no one in Russia. The same goes for the roads along power lines and other infrastructure networks Usually, they belong to no one. They have no legal owners, and they are not listed in anyone’s inventories.

No one maintains them?

They have de facto caretakers rather than de jure owners. Usually, an economy emerges around these ownerless chunks of property The power transmission lines often have no owners. There was a state-owned enterprise that produced its own heat and electricity. The enterprise vanished, but the power station was left running because it keeps the nearby town heated and lit. However, power station itself and its networks belong to no one. Wherever you poke your nose you find the sewerage and water supply all belong to no one. In Krasnodar Region, people simply refused to talk to Olga about it.

What about the city itself, Krasnodar?

It was the same story. In the region’s coastal areas, if they show anyone the real figures for utilities and infrastructure, it would reveal how many tourists actually go there on holiday. They cannot do that, because they would have to pay a lot more taxes.

But how does ownerless infrastructure operate? Don’t contracts have to be signed? Don’t procurements have to be made?

There are people involved, of course. Alexander Pavlov has been making a study of Ulyanovsk for us. There are observable stereotypes. Everything is kept running by relying on connections, relationships, and unwritten rules.

How are fees collected?

The people who benefit pay in cash or favors. Everything is done strictly by the unwritten rules.

Here is a more general question. Are you saying the Kremlin does not know about any of this?

None of it exists on paper. On a personal level, they know. But as officials… Where do you go with it?

Do the aides in the Kremlin show the big brass anything about it?

I don’t think Kremlin aides are capable of helping anyone solve their problems. People have business interests they lobby by tattling on each other. They ask the top brass to make certain decisions, but the top brass keep their distance. A balance emerges, but it is a really peculiar balance, the outcome of a permanent war for resources in which no one can win, since the amount of resources available decreases during hostilities. In turn, this ratchets up tension among belligerent interest groups. However, what really goes in Russia concerns very few people. At best, information about really goes on can be used as arguments in internecine conflicts.

If they are so poorly informed, how do they ensure presidential decrees are executed? For example, when the Kremlin set out to reduce mortality rates caused by cardiovascular diseases?

The rates did drop. There are three lines at the bottom of death certificates: primary cause of death, secondary cause of death, and tertiary cause of death. A person crashed their car because they had a heart attack, and they suffered internal organ damage during the crash. The statistics take stock of what we write on the first line. This is basically how medical statisticians calculate data about mortality. If the Kremlin orders cancer be put in third place, the statisticians will do it, and if the order comes down to reduce mortality as caused by heart disease, the rates will drop.

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Russia’s Underground Cottage Industries
“One of our grantees found a huge cottage industry in a region in the Volga Federal District: around forty illegal airstrips,” says Simon Kordonsky. “Some of them have markings and hard surfaces. They transport goods, teach people to fly, and work in agriculture. Agriculture is their main gig. There is currently no official agricultural aviation in Russia: not only crop dusting but also the constant monitoring of field required by high-tech agriculture. You cannot check out an entire field by walking around it, but these tiny airplanes, often handmade, can do the job.

“By the way, outside of Moscow, there are approximately fifty people who have different airplanes: handmade, store-bought, and imported. These people have the money for them. The circumstances are dicey: air traffic control is not adapted to deal with these aircraft. Pilots of small aircraft make their own deals with air controllers on the side. There are regulations, but complying with them is impossible, and so an administrative market has arisen around this cottage industry. The pilots make payoffs so no one pays them any mind.

“The cottage industries change when the authorities pay attention to them. They exposed the garage economy and started making rounds of the garages, so people have been gradually moving to workshops. Mansions outfitted with workshops are being built outside city limits, just as in the nineteenth century. In Krasnodar, it is plain to see because it is right downtown. There is the market, and the war monument with its Eternal Flame. They are surrounded by one- and two-storey buildings. These are workshops and dwellings.

“Everything you can sell is made there. They distill vodka, roll out meat dumplings, sew linens, build furniture, and rent appliances. There are hotels, prostitutes, hair salons, and hospitals.

“Yes, and the dental industry has gone off the Health Ministry’s radar in certain locales. Outside of Moscow, for example, there are people who own dozens of different clinics. The clinics have no signs on the front door, but the equipment is top flight, and the doctors are terrific. They treat the local elite, so no one is the wiser.

“Did you know that near University subway station in Moscow there is the Nauka research and production facility, an establishment well known in certain circles

“Close to the bluff there there was and partly still is a community known popularly as Shanghai. A few years ago, it contained around five thousand garages, and the artisans who worked there were into everything, including the high-tech production of spare parts for imported cars. They had huge Soviet-era coordinate drilling machines, heavy asynchronous motors, probably imported, and programmers from Moscow State University, and they did great work. Their products were sold as imports.

“Moscow city hall has recently been trying to demolish the place, but Shanghai has resisted. This was place that had an outpatient medical clinic and a barber shop. The cafeterias were really good, featuring food from all over the world.

“Another type of cottage industry is distributed manufacturing, as in the Novokhopyorsk District in Voronezh Region and the Uryupinsk District in Volgograd Region who produce down goods together. They breed sheep and goats, comb the wool, processing it using high-tech machines, equipped with thermostats that fluff the wool, and finally produce the down and weave it. Everything they produce is sold at a wholesale market two hectares in size, open from two to six in the morning. They sell their wares to Roma wholesalers, who distribute the down goods nationwide.

“The government is now in the midst of a campaign against self-employment, but the cottage industries themselves change all the time, regardless of attempts to combat them. In fact, it is not clear what self-employment is. After his state of the nation address, the president gave orders to define the social status of self-employed people. The comrades from the Finance Ministry and Labor Ministry defined their fiscal status, but this is meaningless without defining their social status. What do we call government officials who take kickbacks? Cops running protection rackets? Are they self-employed or not? How do they differ from a university lecturer who works as university exam prep tutor on the side? Or from a physician who puts an ad on the internet saying he will treat patients at any stage in their suffering at any clinic in Russia? 

“There is no difference.

“If we take this approach, we discover the entire Russian populace is self-employed. As I used to say, first we must force people to pay taxes on kickbacks, and then we can deal with self-employment.”

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What do we do in these circumstances? If, as you say, Rosstat has failed to take Russia’s peculiarities into account, and their stats are at odds with reality, this leaves room for playing fast with the facts. What must be done? Should we change the methodologies?

That is a philosophical question. The possibility of accounting itself arises when there is a market. Modern statistics emerged in the seventeenth century when the market emerged, when goods and money parted ways, and people had to account for goods and money separately. If there is no market in Russia (the only market in Russia, perhaps, is the one at our customs border), then accounting can be done arbitrarily, using any criteria you like. The conceptual apparatus of an economy based on accounting and measurement cannot be applied to the realities of an underground cottage industry economy, a clandestine workshop economy, to life in Russia, to an administrative market state organized around the distribution of particular resources. The problem is neither technical nor methodological, but ontological. This is why we cannot count the number of people who live in Russia. 

When you say there are instructions to reduce mortality to a certain level, where do the instructions come from?

Well, there is a Health Ministry in Russia. It reports on the state of the populace’s health. The phrase “increasing life expectancy” appears in all their white papers, although I have never been able to get either ministers or academicians to specify the connection between medical progress and life expectancy. They have different systemic variables. The Health Ministry drafts a report on its work. The report is discussed—I don’t know where nowadays, maybe in the Security Council, maybe in Prime Minister Medvedev’s inner cabinet. The ministry gets orders to improve its figures. This instruction is called a presidential order or government order. On the back of this piece of paper, this order, are the names of the people who will implement the order. They are the folks who come up with the figures and then vet them. You have never heard of these people who draft white papers and come up with figures. You do not know them and you never will, although their administrative weight is no less than that of public officials

Here is a question linked to inflation and estimates. What did Alexander Surinov do so badly he was forced to resign his post as head of Rosstat?

I don’t know the specific reason. He was from the old school, you know, a man taught by folks who belonged to the old school of Emil Yershov [an economist who ran the State Statistics Committee, Goskomstat, from 1989 to 1993, before becoming a full professor at the Higher School of Economics]. Of course, maybe the whole business with driving up the figures and getting phone calls from the top brass rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he just freaked out.

By tweaking the stats, however, or, rather by existing in a system in which stats are tweaked, the state does not have a more or less realistic picture of reality, and all the plans, programs, evaluations of these programs, and adjustments to these programs are based partly on stats that it tweaks and dreams up itself, and partly on stats dreamed up by God knows who, a faceless crowd of civil servants.

“The Oppositions Needs a Position”
There are the polls done by VTsIOM, but they say the FSO (Federal Protective Service) does its own polls that tell the truth. Does the FSO keep statistics that show the president the truth?

The FSO conducts polls that consist of around 40,000 direct interviews without sampling, but in the final analysis their data is quite similar to the data produced by Alexander Oslon (Public Opinion Foundation or FOM), when it comes to public opinion, at any rate.

Our government conceives itself, and it has operated this way for three hundred years. People would go abroad, people like Peter the Great or Dmitry Kozak. They saw something they liked, came home, and decided they would do things the way they were done abroad.

It is quite hard to find anything Russian about Russia. Everything has been built by the state, but part of what it built got away from the state, and it is this fugitive part that is regarded as unreconstructed and outside state control, a gray zone. When something happens in the gray zone—young people act up, say—the state registers it and becomes alarmed. People are on the move, meaning there is something to it, so they want to devise a youth police, establish a state agency, a ministry for youth affairs, and get funding for it. What happens, ultimately, is that young people live their own lives, and on the other hand there is a state agency that squanders the federal money allocated to channel young people and their energy. The state is on the lookout for something living or seemingly alive, and this thing is nationalized, it is assimilated by the state. The Russian state consists entirely of such agencies, which ape things that occur beyond the state’s reach.

The FSO’s officers also keep track of societal stability, the different protest movements and so on. If protest movements kick into high gear, it means it is time either to nationalize them, which initially happened with the nationalist organizations, or crack down on them. Otherwise, God forbid, interregional synchronization might occur, and then you call in the guys whose jobs it is to neutralize such things, the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) and the Russian National Guard.

Do you mean it is impossible for the opposition or protest movements to consolidate?

It is probably possible in quite extreme circumstances, as in the late eighties and early nineties. Local uprisings are more likely. You see, the opposition needs a position. What is the regime’s position? It has no position, and so there can be no opposition. Opposition is based on the very same rationale. The regime’s position is that it is opposed to opposition.

We travel around Russia and we see no one in the mood to protest. Yes, people are dissatisfied, but they have always been dissatisfied. Their dissatisfaction is based on the sense someone got more than they did and this is unfair. They will complain to the supreme arbiter, they think, and he will set things right. But the kind of dissatisfaction that existed in Soviet times in Novocherkassk and Biysk, in the ethnic republics, does not exist today.

Nowhere? Not in any of the regions?

Something quite interesting has been happening in the ethnic republics within the Russian Federation, in Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, among the Soviet ethnicitie shaped by Stalin in 1927–1928 as part of his policy on ethnic groups. They are not really nations, but ethnic esthates, social groups shaped by the state and bound to particular territories, so that Bashkirs have a particular status in Bashkortostan and a completely different status in Tatarstan. Rustem Vakhitov, who is based in Ufa, has written quite interestingly about this.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, these ethnic groups took on lives of their own: nations have been emerging in all the ethnic republics, sometimes to the point of hilarity, as happened in Mordovia. We went into a shop where the clerks were speaking Russian. When we approached one of them, they started speaking Mordvin. In the local cultural center, the ladies were sitting around a table covered with albums filled with drawings of costumes. They were designing the Mordvin national costume.

You’re saying the process has not been astroturfed from the top down by the regional bosses?

No, it is a search for identity. People are trying to solve a genuinely timely question: who are we?

Ethnic Russians don’t have this problem?

Ethnic Russians alone have not been emerging as a nation. Russians were never the titular nation [in any of the Soviet national republics]. When Stalin’s nation-building was underway, the Russians were forgotten. Everyone who was pushed out from the the ethnic republics became Russians.

So, people in Arkhangelsk Region could have been called Pomors and also emerged as a separate ethnic group?

The Pomors have their own deal. Yuri Plyusnin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, has described the Pomors as a special ethnic group. Some cunning people politicized his research, and the myth of Pomor nationalism emerged.

These episodes, involving ethnicity, and the absence and search for identity, have been breaking out all over Russia nowadays. What is Siberian identity? People are riled up about this as well. Who are we Siberians? they ask themselves.

Do these trends threaten Russia’s territorial integrity? Will things somewhere boil to the point reached in Chechnya?

This will happen when there is a shortage of resources. Gleb Pavlovsky has described it well. In 1996–1997, when it was obvious the system was disintegrating, it had to be integrated. Two methods of integration were devised. One was financial. There was a multi-currency system. The so-called young reformers nationalized the ruble, turning money into a financial resource distributed by the federal government. The regions and municipalities queued to get their hands on it, competing with each other in the bargain. Elementary order emerged.

The second method was ideological. Vladislav Surkov and his pals dreamed up United Russia and nationalized ideology, trying to manufacture at least a partial copy of the Soviet Communist Party. Their project was generally a success, too, but unlike financial policy, United Russia was not instrumental. No one knew how to use it, except for channeling certain forms of discontent.

So, if there is a threat to territorial integrity, it is a potential threat. However, it is a threat that can be turned to an advantage. An ordinary economy deals with the risks posed by the market: there are winners and losers. Due to its non-market foundations, Russia does not welcome risks. Threats are the dominant tool in Russia’a administrative markets. The people who invent the scariest stores get the cash and the resources. One of the scary stories has to do with the threat to territorial integrity, which the security forces use to obtain resources, because they are supposed to neutralize the threat.

Yet people are always dissatisfied with the way resources are distributed, and so there can be no means of assessing whether threats have been dealt with effectively or not. Once upon a time, threats to public health and public education were identified and prolonged. Resources were allocated for neutralizing these threats, and national projects were launched. Consequently, the threats became even worse. New national projects have been launched, and resources have again been allocated to neutralize the same threats.

We live in the midst of permanent threats, generated by all the stakeholders and pressure groups. The government is faced with the need to emphasize certain threatens and allocate resources for neutralizing them.

Russia was disoriented for a long time, since it had no customary external enemy. Subsequently, different forces united to manufacture this external enemy, and now it is a matter of neutralizing the external threat. I gather that a considerable amount of federal funds and extra-budgetary resources have been earmarked for producing means to neutralized the external threat.

So, we are fighting the good fight against enemies we construed ourselves, against enemies we dreamed up ourselves?

Yes, it’s a good fight. We are winning. We are earmarking resources foor the fight. We are retreating, we are advancing. We are forcing groups to scrap over resources and queue for them. Basically, the scrap going on in the queue is the basis of the current stability.

Russia has been functioning this way for hundreds of years. It generates threats, attempts to neutralize them, and exports its internal tensions through external aggression. This was what happened in Afghanistan.

Can we be completely defeated by such a threat?

We lost in 1991, didn’t we? It was then necessary to generate an internal hotbed of tension, known as “Chechnya,” getting rid of all conflicts in the country and booting them down there.

There were lots of people there who were quite aggressive and itching for a fight. Besides, there was a curious form of self-organization in Chechnya. The first Chechen combat units emerged from construction crews, not from the big clans. Chechens traveled to Siberia together to build cow barns and formed work crews.

“Repeating the Past Is Russia’s Future”
They went there to build cow barns, because there was no work of any kind in Chechnya?

That was not the only reason. It was a very good deal for the local authorities. Building was the only means they had of retaining resources in their area, so numerous construction sites popped up. I was then busy researching construction in the countryside and I saw what was actually happening. I would get an itemized list of the buildings, and there would be ninety sites on it. Then I would make the rounds of the sites and find only forty-two actually being built. The other sites did not exist, but I would find another fifty sites that were not on the itemized list, but which were nevertheless under construction, and it would be Chechens, Ukrainians, and Hutsuls building them. The Chechen work crews came together, because the objective was to protect the forest glades in Siberia.

There is something similar going on nowadays in Tyumen Region, for example. In Dagestan, there are villages that have full-scale diasporas in Tyumen and Surgut. The men have two families, one in Surgut, the other in Dagestan. They ship all kinds of schmutz and fruit to Tyumen, bringing back timber and fish to Dagestan. I imagine it is Tyumen is not the only place where such things go on.

Doesn’t Plato hinder them? It monitors cargo shipments.

Plato monitors the big rigs. There is no system for monitoring trucks under twelve tons. The government farmed out the big rigs with the hope of extending the new system of tolls to low-tonnage transportation. What do I mean by “farming out”? In particular, resources are redistributed from local authorities to corporations. The regions have become less significant in the distribution and redistribution of resources, while corporations have become more important. This will inevitably cause conflicts.

What conflicts?

In the first place, conflicts between the regions and the corporations. And conflicts along the highways, especially federal highways. They are like arteries pumping blood and supporting life: there are tons of gray-zone cottage industries that spring up around them, providing everything from food to prostitutes.

Take the village of Umyot in the Zubova Polyana Municipal District in the Republic of Mordovia, which is on the M5 Ural Federal Highway. Prostitutes are lined up for a dozen kilometers along the highway, along with different roadside establishments. The Zubova Polyana District is home of the famous village of Potma, where five prison camps built during Soviet times as part of the Gulag are still in operation. The district has a population of just over 60,000 people, and around 30,000 of them are convicts, while the non-convict populace are third- and fourth-generation prison guards. So, when a monopolist like Plato appears on the scene, people naturally try and fight back.

There are really interesting migrations underway in Russia nowadays. They say the country is becoming deserted. According to statisticians, people have been moving into the district and regional seats. That is happening, but some of the migrants are regrouping along the big highways. Russia has been shrinking down to a series of highways. New communities are being built, and life there is defined by a highway.

There is another trend, however, of people leaving the cities. These people are adherents of different environmental sects, the Ringing Cedars or Anastasians, for example. We counted several hundred thousand of them. Within a radius of a hundred kilometers from Moscow there are dozens of Anastasian settlements. They have no names,  addresses or anything of the sort. These downshifters are educated people, usually.

Pozanenko sailed several hundreds of kilometers down one of the rivers in the north and counted several dozen settlements that were not registered with the government in any way.  They usually are highly attached to a particular ideology. They go off to live in hermitages, grow cedars, and worship Nicholas Roerich. The ones who survive move away from the ideology after three or four years, becoming ordinary peasants. We have seen this in Altai and other places.

But the inflow is greater from the small towns and villages into the major cities than vice versa?

They are migrants doing seasonal work. Moscow sucks in people who live as far as 400 kilometers to 500 kilometers away. This radius is around 70 kilometers for a large regional capital like Novosibirsk. This is pendulum migration, while migration over great distances is seasonal migration. If we take the Zubova Polayana District again, it is around 400 kilometers from Moscow. The men go to Moscow to work as security guards, while the young women go there to work as “accountants,” meaning prostitutes. This was the case a few years ago, and I doubt whether much has changed.

What a great euphemism!

Here is another thing. A retail chain has agreements with villages to supply laborers for several months. There are several villages, and the villagers take turns going into the city to work. It is very hard to quantify migration like this. On Fridays, it is readily visible at the train stations: the cars are packed because people are going home. Daily migration can be quantified: you just take a look at the terminal stations of the subway and the train stations when people pile into Moscow on the commuter trains. Basically, these are the thirty million people we spoke about at the beginning, the people who shit in Moscow. These are the numbers of people who come to the city. In some regions, as much as forty percent of the population migrates to work.

There is a theory that, in the future, it will be megacities that compete with each other, not countries.

Russia does not have enough oomph for that. What kind of future awaits Russia? Repeating the past is Russia’s future in terms of public opinion and behavior. Look at what people say about the future: the country is going back either to Stalin or Nicholas the Second.

What about a palace coup? Russia has a rich tradition of those.

I don’t believe it.

Why not?

There are way too many competitors.

You said that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed and everything else collapsed with it. Isn’t Putin a similar force for consolidation nowadays?

Putin is not the problem. The problem, as Gleb Pavlovsky says, is transferring power while maintaining stability and territorial integrity. Some people have seemingly decided the problem can be solved by prolonging the leader’s life. Big money is currently being invested in biology and medicine. There are academicians who have long been receiving large sums of money for research on prolonging life.

Do you mean Vladimir Skulachev?

Yes.

They write that he has run into a dead end.

Practically, it is a dead end, of course, but politically the demand for his research is high.

Maybe they will go in search of the Holy Grail?

I think they have gone in every direction they could have. Where do you think their flashy religiosity comes from? What is the cause? They are hoping for a miracle. They really are praying, hoping for a miracle, because there is no rational way out of the impasse.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Opinion Leaders Are Losers

The other day, I closed my Facebook accounts and pages, I hope for good.

Part of the reason I closed them was that a New York City writer whose books and opinions I admire greatly, and who has a huge following on Facebook, wrote a mean-spirited and divisive post on Facebook condemning “the Heartland,” meaning the middle part of the United States.

She labeled the place “heartless” and “dangerous” on the basis of her cursory perusal of an “interactive” map of the 2016 US presidential election results, published in the New York Times.

While the map she cited is certainly worth studying and full of surprises, I imagine the writer saw only red, literally and figuratively, and blew a fuse.

I doubted out loud, in the comments, whether the writer knew much about the “heartless, dangerous” Heartland. On the contrary, I know a great deal about it, since I was born and grew up there.

She did not respond to my petty, eminently ignorable objections nor did most of her thousands of self-satisfied, bien-pensant followers, certain that the “heartless, dangerous” (and completely imaginary) “Heartland” had irrevocably damaged their beautiful souls and beautiful lives in Clintonia.

But as reporter Issie Lapowsky and map expert Ken Field argue in an article published on July 26 by WIRED (“Is the US Leaning Red or Blue? It All Depends on Your Map”), there are maps, and then there are maps. For example, there is this map, devised by Mr. Field.

Dasymetric-Dot-Density-wKen Field, “Presidential election 2016: dasymetric dot density.” Courtesy of WIRED

To Field, there’s no such thing as a totally comprehensive map, but he says, “Some are more truthful than others.” The so-called dasymetric dot density map is one of them. The term “dasymetric” refers to a map that accounts for population density in a given area. Instead of filling an entire state or county with the color red or blue to indicate which party won, Field uses red and blue dots to represent every vote that was cast. On this particular map from 2016, there are roughly 135 million dots. Then, rather than distributing the dots evenly around a county, he distributes them proportionally according to where people actually live, based on the US government’s National Land Cover Database. That’s to avoid placing lots of dots in, say, the middle of a forest, and to account for dense population in cities.

Taken together, Field says, these methods offer a far more detailed illustration of voter turnout than, say, the map in Yingst’s tweet. That map uses different shades of red and blue to indicate whether candidates won by a wide or slim margin. But by completely coloring in all the counties, it gives counties where only a few hundred votes were cast the same visual weight as counties where hundreds of thousands of votes were cast. So, the map looks red. But on the dasymetric dot density map, it’s the blue that stands out, conveying the difference between the popular vote, which Clinton won, and the electoral college vote, which Trump won.

Why do I bring this sad business up on a website dealing with “news and views from the other Russias”?

Over the last several years, I have been fighting a similarly invidious myth about Russia and Russians. To wit, Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular, as conclusively shown, allegedly, by dicey “public opinion polls” and rigged elections, and his “base” is in the “Russian heartlands,” which are, apparently, just as “heartless” and “dangerous” and stupid as the US “Heartland,” and similarly prone to throw their electoral weight behind a tyrant, unlike, we are meant to imagine, the smart sets in Russia’s two capitals, Moscow and Petersburg.

I have been at great pains to show a discursive apparatus I have dubbed the “pollocracy” produces the results that both Putin’s quasi-fascist supporters and faux-liberal detractors need to cling to their respective security blankets. In the case of the so-called liberals, the security blanket consists in the notion that the world’s largest country is largely inhabited by woefully ignorant yahoos who have laid waste to any chance at building a democracy in the Motherland. As viewed by their opponents, the fake “patriots” in Putin’s camp, the same heartland yahoos are the country’s “pious,” “conservative” core and the source of the Putin’s ruling elite’s self-produced mandate to rule the country till kingdom come and particularly badly.

Seventy percent of why I do this website is to show that Russia actually consists of lots of other Russians and lots of other Russias that belie the dodgy “findings” of pollsters and the lazy clichés reproduced ad nauseam by Russian and international reporters, “Russia experts” (nearly all of them resident somewhere other than Russia), politicos, and spin doctors to prove a self-serving conclusion they arrived at long ago without bothering to find out whether it was true or not.

It’s not true. Just as it is emphatically not true the US “Heartland” is “heartless” and “dangerous.” Or maybe it and its mythical Russian counterpart, the “Russian heartlands,” are heartless and dangerous part of the time, but not all of the time and everywhere and on the part of every single woman, child, man, dog, and cat who live there. Nor, vice versa, are the alleged oases of high intellect and liberalism where pollsters, reporters, and opinion leaders (such as the well-known New York writer who, railing and trembling like the Prophet Jeremiah, condemned the place where I was born and grew up to the fires of hell) congregate, cities like New York, Los Angeles, Moscow, and Petersburg, utterly free of meanness, menace, vice, crime, bad governance, popular indifference, ignorance, and support for tyrants.

What does this have to do with abandoning Facebook? First, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to produce a quasi blog there that would complement and promote this website. Since I am nobody, however, more or less nobody was interested in what I wrote.

They did, however, hang on every word written by people like the New York writer, who, having achieved a modicum of fame, felt no compunction about compounding a rank prejudice about a huge part of her own country and all the people who live there.

So, I have found Facebook an incredibly dispiriting place to try get out my word, a word very few of my so-called friends, real and virtual, wanted to hear, much more wanted to share and spread with their own friends.

Second, the continuing crackdown on bloggers and social media users in Russia has meant that fewer and fewer Russians are willing to write anything interesting on Facebook and its Russian ripoff, VK. Judging by my own real friends, more and more of them have either been observing total radio silence or retreating into the little cubbyholes known as Telegram channels, where they are invisible and inaudible to all the world except their own clique. Since one important feature on this website has been translations of the pithy, thought-provoking things Russian activists and just plain Russians have posted publicly on Facebook and other social media, I was left staring at a once-overflowing well going drier by the minute.

Third, WordPress gives its bloggers some crude but decent tools to see where their readers are finding out about their blogs and blog posts. Over the last two years, as my readership here as continued to climb, the share of those readers who were turned onto my website or particular posts through Facebook has shrunk, meaning that my own friends, real and virtual, have been less likely to share my posts with their friends than complete strangers have been to look up Russia-related topics on the internet and find their way here.

So, rather than continue to pine for support from actually hostile liberal and leftist opinion leaders whose only interest in my Facebook posts and blog posts was to scavenge them for news and ideas they would instantly pass off as their own thoughts and finds without crediting me, I have decided to live without them in order to more fully embrace you, my anonymous, ever more numerous, faithful readers.

In any case, this website will continue to be promoted on Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, and Ello, as before, so it is not as if I am doing a disappearing act. I just wanted to stop pretending I had friends in places where I did not have them. {TRR}

 

Lev Schlosberg: The Veil of Public Opinion

 

Lev Schlosberg is a member of the Pskov Regional Assembly and the Yabloko Democratic Party’s national political committee. Photo courtesy of Pskovskaya Guberniya Online

The Veil of Public Opinion: Russian Opinion Polling Has Become Part and Parcel of State Propaganda 
Lev Schlosberg
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
1 March 2018

Public opinion polls are constant companions of politics and national election campaigns. In democratic countries, polls are reflections of the public discourse surrounding politicians, ideas, political platforms, and conflicts. They echo public opinion in all its fullness and thus facilitate the public discourse itself regardless of who is involved in it: the authorities, the opposition or society at large. In twenty-first century Russia, political pollsters have a different job. They are tasked with persuading society the regime is terrific and everything (or nearly everything) is going great. During elections, they are supposed to generate the illusion of nationwide support for the authorities.

Polling is a tool of political manipulation in the hands of bureaucrats. Polling data is meant not merely to testify to broad support for the authorities but also to persuade dissidents they are few and far between, to discourage them and sap them of their will.

There is a whole set of techniques behind manipulating public opinion. The findings of public opinion polls, allegedly obtained scientifically, by means of formal research methods, are supposed to convince people of their objectivity and impartiality.

Honest political polling and sociological research is something that goes on in free, democratic societies. When answering questions on a questionnaire or taking part in a group or individual focused interview, a person should be sure she can speak openly and safely, even when she criticizes the authorities.

Fear is the enemy of honest polling. In authoritarian and, especially, totalitarian societies, people are afraid of making critical statements with their names attached to them, whether that entails filling out a standardized questionnaire or answering a question openly and at length. The classic set-up is when the interviewer knocks on someone’s door or comes up to someone on the street and asks, “How would you rate Vladimir Putin’s performance? Do you support him completely, partially or not at all? To ensure the quality of our poll you may get a follow-up telephone call. Please give me your name and telephone number.”

How do you think approximtely 86% of respondents would behave? Well, that is, in fact, how they behave: by giving the “right” answer.” There are many examples of this.

Now put yourself in the shoes of rank-and-file Russians, who are regaled round the clock with tales of Putin’s 86% popularity rating by all manner of mass media: TV, radio, newspaper, the internet.  People who do not agree with the authorities but are not experienced in the nitty-gritty of politics will imagine they belong to an obvious, hopeless political minority. They are social outcasts, virtually bereft of kindred spirits.

This is the impression the people behind such political pressure polling want to achieve. A picture of absolute political domination stifles a person’s will and reduces his willingness to voice his stance and take action. This extends to getting involved in politics and voting in elections.

When a person feels insignificantly small, she is made tired and exhausted by the very feeling of her smallness and insignificance. Thoughts of emigrating often occur to people who feel they are in the minority, trapped in a political ghetto.

Political pressure polling is a new means of combating dissent, of attacking the opposition.

VTsIOM recently reported that, according to the findings of an extensive telephone poll (one of the least reliable polling methods), 81% of voters plan to vote in the March 18 Russian presidential election.

Enthusiastic nationwide support is the dream of all dictators. As people who suffer from hypertrophied inferiority complexes, dictators compensate by demanding the entire nation love, adore, and admire them. This popular love must be constantly corroborated by public opinion polls and elections.

Under authoritarian regimes, all authentic democratic institutions are reduced to imitations and desecrations, and public opinion polls are very revealing instances of this.  The mirror of society is turned into a fake painted on a blank wall.

Political pressure polling performs another vital function by setting the bar for electoral fraud.  If the polls anticipate a voter turnout of 81%, officials at all levels will work to ensure an 81% turnout. If the polls say 70% of Russians support the so-called national leader, officials will encourage election commissions at all levels to ensure he takes home 70% of the popular vote.

A vicious circle is produced. One lies begets another, and the lies generate fear and violence. To top it all off, lies generate aggression. Public opinion research serves as a means of zombifying and corrupting public opinion.

Instead of a portrait of society, we see a caricature of society.

At the same time, the authorities lose society’s feedback. They do not know or understand what people think and want, sending themselves and the entire country into a dead end. In the absence of honest polling, the authorities and society are blinded. God knows where the road could lead if no one can see the road itself and no one understands where the country is headed.

Political pressure polling is a veil that conceals the truth of events from the authorities and from society. This is quite dangerous and can produce tremendous shocks.

Until the last minute, the dictator has no clue what people think about him. Then the moment of disaster dawns. On the eve of his overthow and execution, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s official popularity rating was 95%. It did not protect him, but rather hastened his terrible demise.

Currently, Russian society lacks a reliable map of public opinion, because fear has paralyzed many people, and because when the authorities pimp an honest profession, far from all of the people who practice it remain faithful to its standards. Doing so is difficult and takes great courage.

Enveloped in such darkness, we need to understand a few things.

First, it is impossible to stop the course of history. An unfree society will yield to a free society. Our responsibility is to go in the right direction.

Second, the less the authorities know the truth, the sooner the regime will come to an end. It takes time and patience.

Third, in order to know and understand the truth, it is enough to ask yourself, “What do I think? What do I believe? What are my convictions?” Under no circumstances should you give up on yourself.

The job of free people in today’s Russia is not to lose face.

Ultimately, it will change the face of the entire country.

Thanks to Comrade Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Russian Economic Miracle of 2017

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“Pilling from 499 rubles. Ultrasound cleaning from 599 rubles.” Photo by TRR

More Than Five Million Russians Have Trouble Paying Back Loans
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

Around five and half million Russians have trouble servicing their debts. Their debut burden is more than 60% of their income, reports Gazeta.ru, quoting a statement by Vladimir Shikin, deputy marketing director at the National Credit History Bureau.

According to experts, this figure is regarded as a critical indicator. Among the main reasons for arrears are the unreliability of borrowers and the lack of means to finance current debts.

Residents of the Kemerovo, Tyumen, and Novosibirsk Regions are the most indebted. According to the National Credit History Bureau, three million people cannot make payments on loans, which is 8% of all borrowers. Their current debt load exceeds half of their monthly incomes.

According to Shikin, the share of overdue loans remains at 16%, even as the number of new loans grows. The majority of Russian borrowers have several loans, and the average economically active Russian owes creditors 146,000 rubles [approx. 2,300 euros].

Meanwhile, research done by RANEPA shows that the debt burden of Russians is not critical. As Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, stressed, the debt of Russians is estimated at 12% of GDP.

“In developed countries, debt is 60% to 80% of GDP, so the market has potential for growth,” emphasized Orlova. However, she argues that Russia issues a relatively small percentage of mortgages, whereas in developed countries, mortgages account for nearly 90% of all loans.

Experts hope that the debt burden of Russians will not rise greatly. After the 2014–2015 crisis, banks were more way about issuing loans, so the debut burden of Russians will fall. In the near future, banks will be even more cautious. In particular, the Central Bank has planned to consolidate the data of major of credit history bureaus in a single data base to combat indebtedness.

Earlier, the United Credit reported that half of Russian borrowers had been applying for new loans to pay off old loans. According to its figures, 45 million Russians with old loans had taken new loans in banks. Over half of them had done this to pay off old loans.

The analysis shows that 53% of borrowers had taken new loans in cash to partially or fully pay off already existing loans. 27% of the borrowers had spent more than half of the new loans on paying debts.

________________________

Almost 60% of Russians Admit They Have No Savings
Takie Dela
May 29, 2017

Around 59% of Russian families have no savings, reports Rambler News Service, citing a report from the polling and market research firm inFOM.

According to a survey commissioned by the Central Bank, the figure has remained stable [sic] the last three months. In December 2016, 64% of those surveyed had no savings.

Yet a quarter of Russians believe that now is a good time to save money, while 44% hold the opposite opinion. According to experts, the tendency to save has grown noticeably since the beginning of the year. In February, fewer than 17% of respondents answered the question positively.

The majority of respondents replied that spare cash should be saved or put away for a rainy day, while a third of Russians would spend the money on expensive, major purchases.

The poll showed that 40% of respondents prefer to keep their savings in a bank account, 26%, in case, and 20%, partly in a bank, and partly in cash.

Two thousand respondents, aged eighteen and older, from fifty-five regions of Russia were involved in the survey.

According to research by RANEPA, the share of Russians who save money dropped by a third in 2016, from 55% to 40%. Moreover, in March, 40% of Russians claimed they had only enough money for food.

________________________

VTsIOM: 67% of Russians Skimped on Groceries during the Past Year 
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

During the past year, 67% of Russian skimped on groceries in one way or another; 27% of them in a substantial way. Pensioners and residents of big cities had to skimp most of all. These figures were reported by pollsters VTsIOM.

The survey dealt with Russians’ attitudes to government regulation of the food market. 82% of respondents were against the idea of limiting supermarket opening hours on weekdays and weekends. According to 68% of them, if the government decided to do this, it would cause a number of problems. It would be hard to buy groceries in the evenings, and the selection would be reduced. Nearly 40% believed that limiting competition would generate price rises in small shops and produce markets.

Only 15% of Russians favored limiting competition, mostly pensioners aged sixty and older. When replying about what they thought about regulating prices for basic foodstuffs as a way of supporting the poor, Russians were divided in their opinions. Exactly half of them said such restrictions were ineffective, while 32% supported a combination of government and market measures, while 14% believed the government should solve the problem.

The VTsIOM survey showed that Russians were concerned about the government’s restricting prices for basic products. 55% said it would lead to the closure of stores, while 28% said it would lead to shortages, price gouging, and disruption of supplies. However, a quarter of respondents believed that prices would subsequently drop, and life would improve.

Russians see the government’s key role in regulating the produce market in support for domestic producers and developing farming, as well as in quality control. However, according to Yulia Baskakova, head of social modeling and forecasting at VTsIOM, “While worrying with all their heart for domestic producers, supporting improved food quality, and supporting the development of farming, Russians are not willing to sacrifice their comfort and put up with a reduction of the range of goods to which they are accustomed and its becoming less available. The survey showed that 88% of Russians are not willing to put up with a drop in their quality of lives to reduce the price of essential foodstuffs.”

The poll was occasioned by a suggestion, made by Federation Council member Sergei Lisovsky, that regional authorities could decide how large store chains should operate. Lisovky also suggested prohibiting supermarkets from opening at nights and on Sundays, and permitting them to work on Saturdays only until four o’clock in the afternoon. Lisovsky has argued that such measures would support small business and promote small-scale trade.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Faithful readers might wonder why I have cited Russian opinion polls at such length after making a big effort, over the past couple of years to show that this pollocracy, while real enough as a practice, does not tell us much or anything at all about what actual Russians thinking or are planning to do.  I have made an exception in this case, however, because I think the three news items, above, show, between the lines, as it were, what really afflicts the Russian economy, and how the feigned populism of the political/economic elite rears its head, quite often in fact, to suggest impracticable solutions to the knotty problems their own mammoth corruption and instinctive hatred of small business and independent individuals generates the dead end they claim to want to alleviate by, among other thing, commissioning one “public opinion poll” after another while stubbornly failing to notice that their enthusiastic terrorizing of Krasnodar farmers, independent truckers, and Moscow street vendors show they have no interest whatsoever in small business, much less reducing the prices of basic foodstuffs for pensioners. The only thing that interests them is getting richer and making their power untouchable. TRR

Spiral of Silence

spiral-of-silence-communication-theory

Greg Yudin
Facebook
April 3, 2015

Let me tell you a story about opinion polls.

The so-called spiral of silence has often been recalled recently in Russia in connection with public opinion polls. The idea behind the spiral of silence is simple. As soon as an opinion is conveyed either in the media or those selfsame surveys as having support from the majority, the minority, out of fear, prefers either to keep silent or join the majority. The idea has been used to explain where unanimous opinions, 86% ratings, total approval, etc., come from. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the “godmother” of public opinion polling in post-war Germany, coined the term “spiral of silence” in 1980. And so in Russia, it is usually argued that the spiral of silence is an inherent feature of public opinion, because it was discovered in Germany, a proper bourgeois country.

We know that Noelle-Neumann was a Nazi. She did not join the party per se, but she did head a branch of a party student organization, made a considerable stir in the US by actively promoting Nazism, and later worked for two years at Goebbels’s weekly newspaper Das Reich.

But that is not so important. Many people suffered from Nazi fever, including social scientists. What is more interesting is that while many of those people somehow reflected on their Nazi experiences, trying in different ways to explain what had led them to do the things they did, Noelle-Neumann went into total denial. All her life, she maintained that she had done nothing extraordinary, that Hitler was a charming man, and that she had just been forced to denounce Jews, and in fact, she had secretly opposed the regime. It is easy to see how she opposed it if you take a gander at the articles she wrote for Das Reich. It is as if a columnist for the current incarnation of Izvestia would say that he had secretly been fighting for peace and harmony in Russia.

Subsequently, the spiral of silence theory was repeatedly tested, and it turned out that it works poorly in multipolar societies. If it explains anything at all, however, it explains the personal experience of Noelle-Neumann herself. It is her own fear that she identifies with the intimidated majority. She tries to justify this fear by arguing that the spiral of silence is something ordinary and inevitable. But this is a bad excuse, because, in order to save her conscience, she justifies political repression, not only past repression but future repression. It is one thing to recognize that no normal person is immune from becoming a beast, and quite another thing to say it is a normal thing when people turn into animals.

In fact, as far back as her 1940 dissertation (which simultaneously functioned as a report to Goebbels’s office on American attitudes to Germany), she writes directly about the difference between the US and the Third Reich.

“In Germany, public opinion figures like the body of the people, which receives orders from the head and ensures their implementation. […] In one case, public opinion holds sway. In others, it is guided.”

All this came to mind after the stunning lecture last week by my colleague Grigory Kertman from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). Kertman spoke about the fear of respondents during interviews. It cannot be measured directly. You cannot ask respondents, “Are you afraid of me right now?” But Kertman cleverly got around this by collecting information from the interviewers who conduct the polls. He discovered that they are used to the fact that respondents are afraid: this is the most common cause of insincere responses. A significant part of the interview takes place in circumstances where the respondent’s fear is so strong that it is palpable to the interviewers.

This silence of the lambs is abnormal, and it has nothing to do with the “nature of public opinion.” The insatiable desire to pass human beings off as naturally cowardly creatures and justify those who systematically bully them always comes from those who themselves have been victims of violence. Nothing good will come of it. We definitely do not want to go where this spiral would lead us.

Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts on Russia’s pollocracy. Image courtesy of masscommunicationtalk.com

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”: