Taxi

Elena Rykovtseva
Facebook
March 19, 2018

I was riding tonight in a taxi driven by someone with a surprising name: Nasimjon. I was watching Solovyov’s show on my telephone. His guests were voicing the warmest feelings of devotion to the winner of the race.
“He got so many votes not because he had the administrative resource behind him, but because people love and respect him,” said Andrei Maximov, presenter of the program Duty Officer for the Country.
My [sic] Nasimjon was silently listening to this splendor with me. At some point, moved by the emotions of the people speaking, he voiced his own.
“I was so scared today.”
“What was wrong?”
“I typed the question, ‘How much did Putin get in Moscow?’ into Yandex. The answer I got was eleven percent for him, and seventy-three percent for Grudinin. I was frightened.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Because the situation in the world is such that where would be without Putin? Look what’s going on around us: England and America again. Who else can deal with them?”
“Why do we need to deal with America?”
“They dream of ripping us to shreds. They kill everybody. They occupy everybody and kill them.”
“Who have they killed?”
“Iraq, Afghanistan. They organized the coup in Ukraine.”
“Did you hear that on TV?”
“No, my passengers told me. Plus, the Americans think everyone else is stupid.”
“Who told you that?”
“My Armenian friend. He’s lived in America for twenty years. He says that in the textbooks over there it’s written that Americans are smart, and everyone else is stupid. But Putin has made everyone fear us.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“It is.”
“Maybe it would be better if we were respected and liked?”
“It doesn’t work that way with the Americans. We have to make them fear us.”
“So, how did this thing with Putin end? You believed the figures were real?”
“Yes, I did, and that’s why I got scared. But then I turned on Business FM Radio, and it turned out it was the other way around, that Putin had seventy-three percent, and Grudinin, eleven percent. So now everything here is going to be fine.”
“What’s going to be fine?”
“Putin’s friends have already had their fill of stealing. If new guys had come to power, it would have started all over again.”
Ugh.

The author is a presenter on Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo of the cast of Taxi courtesy of Asian Image

P.S. “What the taxi driver told me” has long been a common genre in Russian social media, especially the Russophone segment of Facebook. In most such stories, whether true or fabricated, the taxi driver is a stand-in for (debased) popular wisdom, for the Russian folk (russkii narod), meaning “ordinary,” “rank-and-file” Russians, whom the Russian liberal intelligentsia have historically imagined as a benighted, homogeneous mass.

The twist in this particular variation on the yarn is that the taxi driver’s name, Nasimjon, indicates he is clearly not ethnically Russian, meaning he hales from the Caucasus or Central Asia, or he was born in Moscow, but his parents moved there from one or other of these regions.

Even with this “politically correct” update, the genre remains problematic. It is more a symptom of the liberal intelligentsia’s failure to account for its own role in generating and maintaining the successive tyrannies that have plagued Russia since the nineteenth century, when the intelligentsia per se could be said to have been born as a kind of social subclass or metaclass, than it is a window onto the world of the “common people.”

To put it less murkily, if you stop talking to “taxi drivers” and listen to what actual Russians of all shapes, sizes, colors, and classes have to say and find out how they have either adapted to the Putinist tyranny or resisted it, you are as likely to discover resistance and clear thinking among supposed members of the Russian folk, among the people whom liberal Russians contemptuously refer to as “philistines” (obyvateli), as you would among the self-identified liberal intelligentsia.

Over the last several years, this website has featured many such inspiring stories of grassroots, working-class and lower middle-class resistance to the current Russian despotism, including the saga of the country’s fiercely militant independent truckers and the tale of the so-called partisans of Suna, a group of pensioners in Karelia who camped out in their beloved local old-growth forest to protect it, its environment, and their own humble livelihoods from local officials and developers, who wanted to build a road through it and turn part of it into a sand quarry.

Of course, there have also been many tales of similarly fierce, thoughtful resistance by Russians who by virtue of their educations and professions could be classified as intelligentsia. It is just that the vast majority of such intelligenstia militants are too clear sighted to sink to the vulgar sociology and flagrant mythologeme that would blame uneducated, poor, downtrodden, disempowered, and mostly invisible Russians for the country’s problems and Putin’s long-lived and wholly engineered “popularity.” TRR

Just a Smack at the Russian Pollocracy

Russia is the world’s largest country in size and the ninth largest by population, but almost no one is interested in what actual Russians really think, least of all the Russian government, Russia’s leading pollsters, and the domestic and international media that dutifully cite the dubious results of their so-called opinion polls. Photo by the Russian Reader

Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.
William Empson, “Just a Smack at Auden”

Antifascists and antiracists often advocate the notion of “no platform,” meaning that no decent public institution, be it a university, a newspaper or a city council, should allow white supremacists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, and other ultra right-wingers to lecture on campus, publish their opinions in respectable periodicals or march down the streets shouting their vicious slogans.

I have begun to think the practice of “no platform” should be applied to the notorious troika of Russia’s top pollsters: Levada Center, VTsIOM, and FOM. The extremely valuable propaganda work they do for the Putin regime is often hilariously identified as “sociology” in Russian, but this is an insult to the real, tough-minded and rigorous sociologists doing actual research.

Although Levada Center was inexplicably tagged as a “foreign agent” in 2016, everyone who works there deserves a medal or two from the Kremlin, because the so-called pollsters at Levada have been working relentlessly over the years to prove a hypothesis dear to the hearts of a certain kind of Russian liberal or Russian conservative: that Russian society mainly consists of extremely stupid, servile proletarians who still love Stalin, long for a “strong hand” in the Kremlin, and enthusiastically support Vladimir Putin whatever he does and however he does it.

VTsIOM and FOM are up to much the same thing, the only difference being they serve the regime quite frankly and openly, unlike Levada Center, which pretends to engaged in a “scientific” mapping of Russian society on behalf of the opposition.

The problem is none of the polls any member of the troika publishes is worth the paper they are printed on, because, from a logical, discursive, and emotional viewpoint, they are flawed. To put it bluntly, they all ask the same unanswerable question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson called this dilemma a “double bind,” a situation in which no matter how you react, you are screwed, implicating yourself in something you had nothing to do with and might never have even contemplated doing your entire life. That is, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Meaning that the ethical burden is on the so-called pollsters. If they posed pointed, politicized questions to their respondent, such as whether they approve of Putin or think highly of the KGB or Stalin, as people brought up in a society that, historically, was first terrorized by the Romanov dynasty, then by the Bolsheviks, then, briefly, by the Nazis, and now, over the past eighteen years, by the Putinists, you can reasonably assume a very large percentage of them imagine there is a “right” answer to these questions and a “wrong” answer. Although there is no evidence people who give “wrong” answers to the questions in current Russian opinion polls suffer the consequences for their dissidence, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when it is a complete stranger asking you these odd questions over the phone. Maybe he didn’t call you at random? Maybe his “poll” is a test of your loyalty?

Hence, all these polls are worthless as a measure of so-called Russian public opinion.

There is also what my friend the journalist Sergey Chernov once called the “TV-Levada-TV-Levada-TV (ad infinitum)” factor, meaning that the troika tend, unsurprisingly, to poll Russians about subjects that have just been subjected to a heavy propaganda barrage on the national TV channels. Thus, a good number of respondents have already been primed to respond to questions on these topics in a very specific way, thus generating a closed feedback loop that only benefits the regime, who wants its subjects passive but perpetually on message.

This brings us to the less obvious part of the nefarious work done by the troika in painting an utterly false portrait of Russian society at large, a society allegedly consisting mainly of rampant Putin supporters, racists, homophobes, Stalinists, and lovers of Cheka-NKVD-style rough justice: none of the fake polling they do would make a difference to anyone if the media, both domestic and international, were not there to report on their dubious “findings” every step of the way.

Although I have read, over the last five or six years, during which time what I have dubbed the “pollocracy” has gone completely wild, a decent number of articles by smarter people who are just as critical of the worth and reliability of the troika’s so-called public opinion polls as I am, using many of the same arguments I have just made, the media uncritically report the results of the troika’s latest polls as news events in themselves and indisputable evidence of what “Russians really think.”

To make matters worse, the overwhelming number of “Russia experts” see nothing fishy about the troika’s polls and cite their findings as fact in their lectures, scholarly articles, and white papers.

So, I have a modest proposal. If you accept the “anti-pollocratic” argument, as I have laid it out rather crudely here, you should refrain from giving a platform to the mighty troika of Russian pollsters and their demeaning, ultimately Russophobic, ultimately Putinist, incredibly skewed polls. You should not report them as news, because they are fake news. You should not cite them as facts, because they are anything but facts.

What they are is not very clever attempts to manipulate minds both inside and outside Russia. Putin is not wildly popular and thus handily wins free and fair elections. The elections are rigged up and down and sideways from the get-go in the most cynical ways possible, a real fact that has been documented and eyewitnessed several hundred thousand times by hundreds of thousands of Russians. But since the elections are rigged, and since Putin and his satraps can never be allowed to lose an election, it has to be “scientifically” proven he enjoys unwavering “broad support” amongst the unwashed masses.

This is where Russia’s troika of pollsters comes to the rescue. Their main function, funny as it might seem, is to periodically certify Putin’s runaway popularity through “scientific polls.”

All the rest is icing on the cake. As I have written, the pseudo-liberals at Levada Center have made it their pet project to prove to themselves and their pseudo-liberal admirers that the Russian people (russkii narod) are the most ignorant, dark, illiberal, and retrograde losers on the planet.

But the way they have gone about “discovering” this nonfact is as methodologically faulty as the way they have doggedly proven month after month, quarter after quarter, that Putin is astronomically beloved by “the people.” The only difference between Levada and their colleagues at VTsIOM and FOM is the significance they attach to the exact same, absolutely bogus results.

Thus anyone who cites these results as fact is doing a real disservice to the actual Russian people and the democratic cause in Russia.

If those are things you care about, you should no platform Russia’s troika of pollsters, juast as you would cast your local chapter of neo-Nazis or the North American Man-Boy Love Association into the outer darkness.

Because Russian opinion polls are as worthless, damaging, and flat out wrong as the above-named dangerous freaks. TRR