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

“Congratulate Me, I’m a Foreign Agent” (Dront Ecological Center, Nizhny Novgorod)

Congratulate Me, I’m a Foreign Agent
pippilotta-v-r.livejournal.com
May 14, 2015

It was to be expected, of course, and we all knew quite well approximately what would be written in the Ministry of Justice’s certificate of inspection, but for some reason it was unexpected all the same. Like a knife in the back.

Dront’s certificate of inspection was brought to our offices on Tuesday. I felt very bad about it all day. Plus, there was a lampoon on a stupid Nizhny Novgorod site (which I will not advertise here, of course) in which I was targeted personally. I even recalled the favorite joke of my youth, which I haven’t recalled for over ten years.

Piglet comes to Winnie the Pooh’s house and sees that the whole place is filled with blood. The bear is lying on the floor, his stomach ripped open, his guts hanging from the chandelier.

Piglet anxiously asks, “Winnie, Winnie, do you feel bad?

“Do I feel bad? Do I feel bad? Yes, it’s curtains for me!”

Because the problem is not the obvious disadvantages of this status, which we will legally challenge, of course. The problem is “faith in humanity.”

For an evening I lost my faith in humanity.

What has to be going through a person’s head to seek proof of “political activity” amongst people who protect nature on behalf of all citizens, and hence them as well? What kind of person do you have to be, for example, to classify money paid to do an analysis of a proposal to raise the level of the Cheboksary Reservoir as foreign financing, since the money came from the WWF (the Russian office of WWF, by the way)? I just hope that those three beauties from the Ministry of Justice who inspected us live somewhere in the Leninsky District, and their houses will be flooded when the reservoir rises.

Oh, to find out where they live and never to stand up for that corner of the city again. Let them build all the auto service centers and waste incineration plants right there!

And why do so-called patriots (we were inspected at the behest of the National Liberation Movement) so hate the natural environment in their own country? On the other hand, they love power in all forms. This phenomenon, incidentally, has haunted me for a while. So some people have decided they are “Russian patriots,” and what do they do? That’s right, they set out to spoil the lives of people trying to do something good for their country. I still remember those young men, “Russian patriots,” who six years ago tried to attack me, a pregnant Russian woman, just because my female friends and I were coming back from a protest rally against a nuclear power plant. Of course, there are different views on atomic energy, and debates can be very emotional, but it’s a matter for debate, damn it, not a matter for a fist fight. And they would have attacked us, and maybe even stabbed us with something, but we ran and got on a bus, and the driver closed the door on them. One young man with wicked eyes kept banging his fists against the windows, spewing out his anger and hatred. Roman Zykov, that wasn’t you, by chance? And now you’ve grown up and become an informer?

During its April 17, 2015, broadcast, the NNTV program Itogi nedeli aired a segment on the “foreign agent” case against Nizhny Novgorod’s Dront Ecological Center. The segment begins at the 1:40 mark, with the presenter explaining that the Ministry of Justice launched its audit of Dront after receiving a complaint from Roman Zykov of the National Liberation Organization (NOD). Zykov is interviewed on camera beginning at the 5:25 mark. He is identified as NOD’s “information officer.”

To be honest, I don’t understand any of this. I can’t get my head around it. I don’t believe there are people who really are happy, for example, if a highway or an asphalt plant is built near their home in place of a forest. People can be indifferent to environmental topics or indulge in pessimism because “everything has been decided, nothing can be changed.” I have seen this many times. But for people sincerely to desire the deterioration of their habitat, that I can not imagine. And I don’t understand how it can be called “patriotism.”

Well, the heck with them, the informants.

So the certificate of inspection was delivered to us. Here it is, this wonderful document. Of course, we have proven to be “foreign agents”: the law interprets the concept as broadly as possible. The inspectors had to prove a quite simple theorem: that we have foreign money (we can check off that box), and that we are engaged in political activity, that is, that we haven’t exactly been sitting on our asses but have been doing something. (Here we could check off a hundred boxes if we so desired.)

And the law does not require a logical connection between these parts of the theorem. It matters not a squat that the money was for one thing, and something else was deemed “political activity.”

Damn, when I was in university, “politics” meant being involved in the struggle for power. Nowadays, if you say it would be good idea to amend a law, you’re already a nasty political intriguer. And even if you praise a law, you’re an intriguer as well, because it is none of your damn business to evaluate laws.

You might think that all Russian environmental legislation is absolutely perfect: that it was handed down to us in the sacred tablets, and each word was cast in gold. This, to put it mildly, is not true. Moreover, these laws are constantly amended and changed, meaning the authorities are aware of their imperfections. It suffices to mention the new law on waste management. It was completely turned inside out and redrafted. I don’t really understand why we should stop criticizing  laws.

The whole business with foreign money is also ridiculous.

After all, it doesn’t matter to the inspectors that the funds have been earmarked, for studying turtles, for example. (And, in fact, protection of animals is not deemed political activity, and that is stipulated in the law.) Or for seminars on sustainable development. Or for a public impact assessment of the proposal to raise the level of the Cheboksary Reservoir. No one except the WWF provided any money for this—no state agencies, no legislators, no businessmen—although the entire Nizhny Novgorod Region rose up as one against the proposal.

And it doesn’t matter that all these funds were not only earmarked but were quite small sums (less than one percent of our annual budget) and could not significantly have impacted our operations. We would have criticized the same laws even without this money. But who is interested in logic if you just have to tick off some boxes?

In short, the young female inspectors proved the theorem to their own satisfaction. But I just don’t have the heart to call them lawyers, because, for example, they don’t distinguish between federal and municipal (i.e., local) government. (Maybe employees of the Ministry of Justice don’t necessarily have to have a law degree?) Apparently, the way they see it, all power is sacred and should be beyond criticism.

Well, my depression has passed. It has been nice to see that many people support us and have stood up for us. It has been nice to read your kind words.

P.S. I will not approve any vicious comments, if they show up.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can see the list of Russian NGOs included in the registry of “foreign agents” (as of May 15, 2015) here. This list is constantly updated, apparently.

Centre for Independent Social Research: “We Don’t Scold or Praise — We Do Research”

“We Don’t Scold or Praise—We Do Research”: Why the Authorities Want a Research Center Declared a “Foreign Agent”
Viktoria Vzyatysheva
April 3, 2015
paperpaper.ru

Petersburg’s Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) could be declared a foreign agent. Among the particulars laid against it are a video of a discussion during which someone spoke critically of the authorities, an abstract of a book with the word “politics” in the title, and a brochure containing advice for judges, which was vetted by judges themselves. CISR’s staff insists they do research and are proud of foreign financing. Paper got to the bottom of the conflict, finding out how sociological studies differ from politics, and how terrible the status of foreign agents is for sociologists.

How the work of a research center was deemed a “political action”

CISR was among the few research centers that the authorities demanded register as a foreign agent. On March 12, it received a formal written warning from the Ministry of Justice demanding that it place itself on the registry. The ministry deemed that CISR, which receives foreign funding, was engaged in political activity

As the center’s employees tell it, they had been expecting this since passage of the law on foreign agents in 2012, but had continued to hope, nevertheless, that the status of foreign agents would not be applied to research organization. In 2014, the Constitutional Court has issued a clarification to this end. Soon, however, the Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov was placed on the registry, and their fears arose again.

“According to the Ministry of Justice,” says Oksana Karpenko, executive director of CISR, “any form of public activity that does not involve praising Russian legislation or various government policies is a “political action” whose goal is to put pressure on the government and shape public opinion negatively. Under these circumstances, it is hard to explain that sociology is an apparatus for society to reflect on itself. When this apparatus breaks down, when society is incapable of taking a sober look at itself, taking joy in its achievements and admitting its weaknesses and imperfections, this leads to a loss of equilibrium. Without it, an upright position can be maintained only with prostheses that rigidly lock society into place. These prostheses are now being tried out on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and dissidents.”

The Centre for Independent Sociological Research was founded by researchers from the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1991 as an alternative to the Soviet academic system. It was unaffiliated with any university and from the outset worked on an interdisciplinary level with experts from different universities.

CISR’s researchers say that its main methodological difference from classical sociological institutes has been its focus on qualitative methods. Karpenko explains that while most sociology has to do with statistics, polls, and charts, CISR’s studies are based on talking to people and trying to understand what guides them in making certain decisions, how conflicts arise, and how opinions on sensitive issues are shaped.

“We focus on those issues that are relevant. We don’t make diagnoses or prescribe treatment, we don’t scold or praise—we do research. We attempt to understand how society works, and we try and tell people about the outcome of our work in an intelligible form.”

IMG_6473

Oksana Karpenko

According to Karpenko, CISR has no clear profile. The emphasis has been on the interests of specific researchers, and often their work has become an area of focus at the center. In the late 80s and early 90s, CISR’s founders were focused on social movements, including nationalist and democratic movements; they also researched the so-called brain drain, poverty, and genders. Later, CISR took up migration and ethnicity, environmental issues, the development of scientific research organizations, and the informal economy (corruption).

Three grievances: video of a discussion, the word “politics,” and advice to judges

The Ministry of Justice identified three grounds for its warning when it demanded that CISR register as a foreign agent. One of them was a video recording of a lecture by Irina Olimpieva, a Ph.D. in Economics, entitled “Russian Trade Unions in Search of Political Leverage: The Evolution of Political Strategies and New Political Ambitions.”

The lecture itself dealt with the influence trade unions have on social policy. According to Olimpieva, the role of trade unions in Russia is extremely limited, whereas in foreign practice, mechanisms for influencing social policy are often enshrined in law. However, in recent years, trade unions have been forced to become more active politically. Olimpieva’s study, launched in 2006, was funded by a grant from a Russian foundation.

However, the Ministry of Justice had no beefs with the lecture itself, but with the discussion of the lecture, which was posted on CISR’s website.

As the ministry wrote in its conclusion, “During the course of the discussion, seminar participants made statements that gave a negative assessment of current legislation.”

“Researchers are now expected only to approve current policy or, perhaps, as in Soviet times, mention ‘certain minor shortcomings.’ This is essentially a ban on criticism, at least on the part of independent research organizations,” argues Olimpieva.

Another project the ministry deemed “political activity” was a brochure entitled “Conducting Impartiality Training as a Basic Component of the Professionalism of Magistrates and Organizing Psychological Relief Rooms for Magistrates.” The brochure was intended for psychologists working in the judicial system, and was based on training workshops and interviews with judges conducted by CISR.

In its conclusion, the Ministry of Justice wrote that the brochure forms “a negative public opinion,” and “the judgments of the authors are aimed at generating a negative public response.”

The objective of the workshops was to enhance the impartiality of magistrates, an institution that has emerged relatively recently in Russia, in the early 2000s. During the sessions, the judges talked about the difficulties of making decisions and examined them with psychologists. CISR researchers said the judges themselves were enthusiastic about the training sessions.

However, they vetted the entire brochure. Otherwise, “it would simply would have been impossible to publish,” the people at CISR explain.

“Judges in all countries have problems with impartiality, so that is why similar workshops are held all over the world. And for this purpose special systems of psychological supported are developed that are aimed at helping the judge disengage from personal predilections when making decisions, and be objective and impartial,” explains Olimpieva.

IMG_6478Irina Olimpieva 

The third grounds for the warning was a presentation of a book entitled The Politics of the Apolitical: Civic Movements in Russia, 2011-2013. The Ministry of Justice determined that the book had a “political focus” and could influence “decision-making by state bodies.” CISR staff claim the book is a purely academic monograph written by professional sociologists, graduate students from various universities.

“It is not even a matter of the book’s content: the research topic and the title were sufficient. But it remains a mystery how placing information about a research publication on the website of a research center constitutes what the law describes as ‘political activity,’“ says Karpenko.;

Artemy Magun, dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in Saint Petersburg, says that by paying attention only to the word “politics,” one can go to absurd lengths and ban all political science departments at public universities, which a priori have no right to engage in politics.

“There is an element of politics in everything. The fact that you put up a road sign is also some kind of public statement. This border is quite flexible, and can be moved back and forth at will. But we believe that sociology exists as a science, and that it is not reducible to ideology or public relations. Meaning that we can arrive at more or less objective knowledge of society by examining it in the richness of its ideological affiliations.”

Why foreign funding is good for research

At CISR, they point out they have never concealed foreign funding and, on the contrary, have been proud of their research grants. Since the moment of its inception, CISR has subsisted mostly on money from foreign foundations and organizations. CISR has been supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the German Research Society, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and European universities and institutes.

Since the law on foreign agents has been adopted, argues Olimpieva, everything the organization had considered an achievement, has now been considered a minus.

“In our view, grants from international foundations and organizations indicate the high level of professionalism of our staff. But when foreign financing is leveled as a charge, no one even wants to understand what the ‘foreign’ sources are and what they finance. The word ‘foreign’ is already grounds for accusations of hostile intentions. Paradoxically, the higher the professional achievements of an organization, the more suspicious it is from the viewpoint of the law on foreign agents.”

Magun says that, on the contrary, international foundations avoid influencing research altogether and act as impartially as impossible.

“In some cases, the Russian institutions set the agenda, while the international foundations nearly always give absolute carte blanche as to the work’s content. International foundations go out of their way to exclude the ideological influence of donors. Scientific rigor is the basis for issuing grants. It is simply a higher level of quality.”

According to Karpenko, the commonplace that the one who pays the piper calls the tune “manipulates people’s attention, causing them to see a threat in the very fact financing from abroad and closing their eyes to the content and quality of the intellectual product.”

 Why sociologists cannot be foreign agents

In the near future, CISR intends to appeal the warning and prove they are not involved in politics. They are afraid of receiving the foreign agent status not primarily because of the additional required reporting or new inspections, but because of the negative image that would arise around the organization.

According to Karpenko, CISR’s experts can find it difficult to establish contact with an interlocutor. If they are forced to introduce themselves as foreign agents, an interview might be called off, and the sociologists would risk not being admitted to certain organizations at all.

“For the research we do, it is important to establish relationships of trust with informants. When we go into schools or talk with officials, policemen or pedestrians, we are trying to understand how society works in a particular segment, why certain problems arise. We do no want people to be afraid to talk to us. The Constitutional Court ruled that the phrase ‘foreign agent’ supposedly has no negative connotations. As sociologists, we can say this is not the case.”

Thus, the people at CISR say the status of foreign agent will simply make it impossible for them to work professionally, because many areas of society will be closed to them.

You can sign this letter of support (in English) for CISR.  It has so far collected over 1,300 signatures of researchers and scholars from around the world.

Photos courtesy of paperpaper.ru