We Change Our Minds like Socks, or, The Pollocracy’s Comeback

3Focus group drawing from the study “Autumn Change in the Minds of Russians: A Fleeting Surge or New Trends?” The first panels is labeled “Now.” The second panel shows a drunken Russia at the bottom of the stairs “in five years,” while “the US, Europe, Canada, China, [and] Japan” stand over it dressed in swanky business suits. The third panel is entitled “Friendship.” Source: Fond Liberalnaya Missiya

Experts Who Predicted Bolotnaya Claim Attitudes of Russians Have Changed
Vladimir Dergachov
RBC
December 24, 2018

Economists Mikhail Dmitriev and Sergei Belanovsky, and psychologists Anastasia Nikolskaya and Elena Cherepanova have authored a new report, “Autumn Change in the Minds of Russians: A Fleeting Surge or New Trend?” which they will present on Monday, December 24.

RBC has obtained a copy of the study. It was conducted as a follow-up to previous autumn opinion polls, which identified a loss of interest in foreign policy among Russians, growing dissatisfaction with domestic policy, and a collapse in reliance on the government.

How the Study Was Conducted
The experts combined qualitative sociology and psychological tests [sic], comparing the results with the Levada Center’s polling data. In October and November 2018, respondents in Moscow, Vladimir, Gus Khrustalny, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Saransk, Romodanovo (a village in Mordovia), and Ufa were surveyed as part of focus groups. In Moscow, a number of focus groups were convened involving public sector employees, including physicians, and university lecturers and researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN). There was also a mixed focus group featuring engineers, traffic police officers, and theater employees.

Peace Instead of Scandals
Previous surveys, conducted by Dmitriev and Belanovsky in April and May 2018, showed Russians largely supported the country’s foreign policy, although critical respondents said the country spent too much money on supporting other countries and used foreign policy to distract people from issues at home. Six months later, the statements made by respondents revealed a demand for a peaceable foreign policy. “Spy scandals, falling missiles, certain statements by Russian politicians, and the protracted war in Syria” have led to a downturn in support for Russia’s foreign policy, the report claims.

In the May 2018 study, respondents were not yet pessimistic about the future. In the October surveys, however, a majority (68%) of respondents had a negative attitude towards the future. They envisioned a Russia that, in five years, was weakening and lagging behind other countries in terms of progress, a country whose populace was intimidated and did not have the right to vote.

They Predicted the Bolotnaya Square Movement

In March 2011, Dmitriev and Belanovsky, then employed at the Center for Strategic Development (TsSR), presented a report in which they alleged a profound political crisis had emerged, and support for Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev and United Russia had fallen off. They predicted increasing dissatisfaction with the political system. Less than a year later, sparked by insufficiently [sic] fair and transparent elections to the State Duma, large-scale protests kicked off in Russia.

Self-Expression Instead of Survival
In the May study, the demand for justice had increased dramatically, shunting aside the previously dominant demand for a strong leader. In October, the invocation of distributive justice (a more equal distribution of income and assets) gave way to the demand for procedural justice (equality of all before the law).

The respondents in all the focus groups felt physical needs and government welfare were less important than the need for respect, liberty, and leaders capable of voicing these values. Harsh statements by public officials on social issues (i.e., that people could live on 3,500 rubles a month by eating macaroni, etc.) had provoked increasing irritation. Concerning the raising of the retirement age, the respondents negatively assessed the suddenness of the decision and the way it was made behind closed doors.

Ninety-four percent of respondents claimed they no longer relied on the government, only on themselves. Sixty-three percent of respondents expressed a willingess to contribute personally to the country’s progress. This contribution was conceived in different ways: from a willingness to pay high taxes and be involved in charitable work, to grassroots activism and educational outreach. According to a Levada Center poll, 60% of respondents felt responsible and were willing to make personal efforts to facilitate improvements in Russia.

A Demand for Change
The May study testified to a slackening of reliance on a strong leader among Russians. In October, the analysts registered a demand for new leaders who would respect people, be honest and democratic [sic], admit to their mistakes, and act in the people’s interest. These qualities were bound up with the values of self-expression, which were foregrounded by respondents.

These qualities had little in common with the positive and negative qualities Russians [sic] had used to assess Vladimir Putin in a July poll by the Levada Center (stability, respect, personal charm, capacity for compromise, firmness, and foresight). The discrepancy in criteria was a sign of the rudimentary emergence of counter-elite sentiments [sic], the researchers warned.

A growing demand for change was noted among the respondents. Up to 76% of respondents would be willing to support temporarily painful reforms vital to overcoming the crisis in Russia. Russians no longer demanded immediate improvements. They were willing to wait and endure hardship for the sake of a positive ultimate income.

The respondents had almost no substantive notions of the necessary reforms. The experts compared public opinion to an “empty vessel” waiting for new leaders who inspired confidence.

None of the focus groups voiced aggression towards the regime, but the willingness to get involved in social movements had grown. The demand for respect and freedom prevailed over other demands, and thus the struggle for respect was imagined by the respondents as peaceable and legitimate.

Negativism towards the regime was no longer associated with a demand for populism, whose tokens include the appeal to distributive justice and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Frustation of Public Sector Employees
The report devotes a entire section to moods in the study’s public sector worker focus groups. The researchers discovered the highest level of tension among these people.

Public sector employees were frustrated not because of financial problems [sic], but because of the sector’s irrational organization [sic]. For example, due to the May 2012 decree on raising salaries, the managers of many public sector organizations took some workers off payroll, dramatically increasing the workload of other employees. The respondents were also dissatisfied with the avalanche of reports due to increasing bureaucratization, the chronically poor quality of management, and the fact that personal loyalty to bosses had replaced professionalism in the management hierarchy.

Three Scenarios
According to the experts, these trends indicate Russian public opinion has moved beyond the “stasis” of the post-Crimean consensus. They paint three possible scenarios for further changes in public opinion. The first would involve returning to “rallying around the flag,” typical of the post-Crimean period. This scenario would become a reality if international conflicts involving Russia escalated dramatically.

The second scenario would involve a rollback to counter-elite populism [sic] due to negative economic changes.

The third scenario foresees the consolidation of new values in the public’s mind over a lengthy period. This turn of events is likely if the status quo in the economy and foreign policy is maintained, that is, given sluggish economic growth and the absence of intense international conflicts. The experts cite Iran as an example of a country where this scenario has come true [sic]. Eighty percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic Revolution and have no experience of life under the previous regime. Due to the economic difficulties caused by western sanctions, young Iranians are tired of permanent crisis and disapprove of the country’s costly expansionist foreign policy. The unfavorable socio-economic conditions have a generated a demand for a alternative secularized and westernized lifestyle among young people.

In this scenario, the experts suggest altering the way the regime interacts with the populace in order to diminish its growing negativity. This is doable as long as the populace manifests no aggression towards the regime and is open to constructive dialogue.

The researchers note this scenarios contradicts the prevailing international trend of populists taking power. Unlike the societies of many developed countries, Russians have not descended into archaic populism and “social infantilism,” displaying instead increased social maturity and responsibility for the state of affairs in Russia [sic].

A Long-Term Shift
Political consultant Dmitry Fetisov generally agrees with the study’s findings. He links society’s growing demand for a peaceful foreign policy with the fact the Kremlin demonstrated a successful example of this policy during the 2018 FIFA World Cup [sic],  and the critical attitude of public sector employers towards the regime with the pension reform. Fetisov argues, however, that these trends could change depending on how the Kremlin acts.

Political scientist Nikolay Mironov is certain these shifts in public opinion are long term. He argues the trends described in the study have been caused by the post-2014 economic stagnation. Mironov does not believe a return to the “rally around the flag” consensus is possible, even in the event of international conflicts, unless they impinge on Russian territory. Mironov concludes what is needed are large-scale economic reforms and an easing of foreign policy.

Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov also notes the growing criticality of respondents towards officialdom and public fatigue from assistance to other countries [sic]. However, Volkov argues it is wrong to chart changes in public opinion by comparing surveys of focus groups, rather than using quantitative research. Fetisov likewise points to the study’s lack of representativeness, as it is based on comparing the opinions of different focus groups.

Translated by the Russian Reader

This article and the research paper it purports to summarize and analyze should be read with a huge spoonful of salt.

First, “public opinion” polls in Russia are wildly unreliable, as I have tried to show over the years on this website, often with a leg up from likeminded Russian journalists and researchers.

Second, this study, apparently, is a funhouse mirror image of the usual “Putin’s wild popularity” poll. The economists and psychologists who wrote the report set out to detect a “positive” sea change in Russian public opinion and, God willing, they found it, by offering their focus group respondents a weak-tea pipe dream they obviously dream themselves. If that dream seems rife with contradictions, it is, although the researchers seem utterly unaware of them.

Third, even in a country as messy, corrupt, and authoritarian as Russia, the idea that people can rely only on themselves is absurd. Of course, they rely on the government for lots of things, at least if they are living in more or less large towns and cities. To the extent that libertarianism has become popular here, it has done so only as a consequence of the prevailing black political reaction, as cultivated by the Putinist state and its propaganda organs.

On the other hand, we are supposed to imagine these newly minted libertarians would be simultaneously willing to pay high taxes and endure hardships to make their country a better place, and yet this is supposed to happen without the “social infantilism” of “developed countries” where people protest on the streets against elites.

Given that the once-mighty RBC has long been a shadow of its former self, I was tempted to write this passage off as ad-libbing on the part of their reporter, but, in fact, he merely paraphrased the report’s authors, to wit:

В отличие от обществ многих развитых стран, население которых продолжает скатываться популистскую архаику и «социальный инфантилизм», российское население неожиданно для всех начинает демонстрировать возросшую социальную зрелость и ответственность за положение дел в стране. Эти качества в наибольшей мере ассоциируются с модернизированной системой ценностей, характерной для развитых стран до того, как их стала охватывать волна контрэлитного популизма.

“In contrast to the societies of many developed countries, whose populace continues to slide into archaic populism and ‘social infantilism,’ the Russian populace has surprised everyone by beginning to show increased social maturity and responsibility for the state of affairs in the country. These qualities [were] associated with the modernized value system of the developed countries before the wave of counter-elite populism engulfed them.”

As this blog has shown over the last eleven years, I have often been among the first to celebrate and chronicle emergent grassroots resistance and social movements in Russia, but the people who wrote the passage above were engaging in wishful thinking, not scholarship. If anything, their counterintuitive, baseless conclusion shows the contradictions of the newfangled method of governance at arm’s length I have dubbed the “pollocracy.”

The pollocracy has been used by the regime to monitor “public moods” while also explicitly and aggressively shaping that mood by asking pointed questions that countenance only certain answers.

On the other hand, it is used by the regime AND its allegedly liberal pseudo-critics to, alternately, register tremors of discontent among an otherwise disenchranchised and disempowered populace, and demonstrate these exact same people are routinely subject to all sorts of illiberal, irrational populist delusions and phobias, thus making them unfit to govern themselves.

Finally, the pollocracy has been used as a substitute for actual, full-fledged grassroots political involvement. A populace that “slides” into “archaic populism” and “social infantilism” is one thing (a bad thing), but a populace that meekly agrees to confine its dissent to skewed public opinion polls and hokey focus groups is both “socially mature” and not a threat to anyone, least of all to the current Russian regime.

It is especially telling these “socially mature” focus groups expect, allegedly, a less aggressive Russian foreign policy to emerge ex nihilo, merely because they wish it into existence in the safety of their anonymous focus groups. God forbid they should have to organize a national anti-war movement on their own. {TRR}

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Evgeny Shtorn: How the FSB Tried to Recruit Me

“I Had a Night to Say Goodbye to My Whole Life”
Sociologist Evgeny Shtorn Left Russia Because the FSB Tried to Recruit Him
Elena Racheva
Novaya Gazeta
January 20, 2018

On January 5, sociologist Evgeny Shtorn, an employee at the Centre for Independent Sociological Research (CISR) in St. Petersburg, left Russia for Ireland. In December, his application for Russian citizenship was rejected, and immediately afterwards he was summoned to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), according to Shtorn, where he was interrogated about CISR’s financing and the foreign organizations it collaborates with. (Since 2015, the CISR has been classified as a “foreign agent.”) According to CISR director Viktor Voronkov, Shtorn is at least the fourth CISR employee whom the FSB has attempted to recruit.

Shtorn was born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, but in 2000 he left the country to study in Petersburg. In 2004, he was granted Russian citizenship at a Russian consulate in Kazakhstan. He lived for eight years on his Russian passport, but in 2011 he was told by authorities the passport had been issued groundlessly, and he was not a Russian citizen.

Shtorn’s Kazakhstani citizenship had been annulled long before, but he found himself a stateless person after living in Russia for eleven years. The only paper the authorities would issue him was a residence permit for a stateless person, which allowed him to live and work in Russia. After five years, one can apply for Russian citizenship on this basis. This was what Shtorn did in July 2017, after passing the obligatory Russian language exam, assembling a whole dossier of paperwork, and standing in endless queues.

During this time, Shtorn, who is thirty-five, enrolled in the Higher School of Economics MA program and continued working as manager for development at CISR, one of the oldest and most respected independent sociological research institutes in Russia.

“I went to the local Federal Migration Service (FMS) office in late November to pick up my passport,” Shtorn recounts. “I was told my citizenship application had been rejected because I had provided false information about myself. The FMS had decided I did not lived at my registered address, because they had come checking in the afternoon, when I was not home, and I had not listed all the addresses where I had lived in Russia, although in the application I filled out there was a footnote saying I was not obliged to list all of them.”

The rejection meant Shtorn could resubmit his application for citizenship only in a year. Two weeks after his application was rejected, Shtorn was telephoned by a person who identified himself as an FMS employee. He said he was handling Shtorn’s application and asked him to stop by their office.

On December 7, Shtorn went to the FMS office that handles the registration of statelesss persons.

“I was met by a person my age. We went up to the second floor and walked into an office with no plaque on the door,” Shtorn recounts. “I caught sight of a picture of Andropov on the wall, an old-fashioned, insipid, Soviet-era portrait. I immediately understood everything.”

The man showed Shtorn a FSB officer’s ID. Shtorn did not remember his rank, but he did memorize his name and surname, but he is afraid of identifying him publicly.

“He quickly got down to business,” recalls Shtorn. “He said when the FSB reviewed my application, they were quite surprised I worked for a ‘foreign agent’ and at the Higher School of Economics, although I am actually a student there. He asked me what I did at CISR. He was polite, but his vocabulary was bizarre. ‘Who is your patron?’ he asked. I explained we did not have patrons, that researchers operate differently. There are things a person wants to research, and he or she tries to research them. To have something to say, I told him about Max Weber, and the difference between quantitative and qualitative sociology.”

Evgeny Shtorn. Photo from his personal archives

Then, according to Shtorn, the FSB officer asked him where the “foreign agent” got its money and what western foundations CISR worked with.

“I said, ‘What, do foreign agents have money? The American foundations you declared undesirables are gone, and we have big problems with financing.’

“‘So people transport cash from abroad, right?’ he asked.

“I explained I didn’t have a passport, I hadn’t been abroad for many years, and I didn’t have access to those realms, but I didn’t think anyone was transporting cash in their underwear. Then he asked whether I had met with foreign intelligence officers as part of my job.”

According to Shtorn, the FSB officer was well informed about the work of Shtorn, CISR, and related organizations. He knew about academic conferences and listed the surnames of foreign foundation directors, asking whether Shtorn was acquainted with them. He asked what Shtorn was researching at the Higher School of Economics, although he clearly knew Shtorn was researching hate crimes against LGBT. He asked what foreign languages Shtorn spoke.

“Is English your working language?” he asked.

According to Shtorn, the FSB officer was not aggressive, but twice during their ninety-minute conversation he quoted the articles in the Russian Criminal Code covering espionage and treason, commenting they applied to everyone who flirted with foreign special services and foreign organizations.

In the middle of the conversation, the FSB officer asked him whether he had read Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book The Grand Chessboard.

“He said that, way back in the nineties, Brzezinki had written Ukraine would go over to the US in 2012, and this was what had happened. He advised me to read the book.

“At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘How unlucky you were with your citizenship application.’ He explained he was unable to help me in any way. ‘Many believe we are an all-seeing eye, but it’s not like that at all. We also have a tough time obtaining information.’

“He insisted I tell no one about our conversation. When I was getting ready to leave, he said, ‘If I call you again, you won’t be scared? Because some people get scared and change their telephone numbers.’ I said, ‘Of course not. You’re a polite person. What do I have be afraid of?’

“‘And you are such an interesting person, and educated. It’s interesting to chat with you. Thank you for your time,’ he said.

“We left the office, and that was when I caught sight of a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky behind the coat rack, a life-sized bust.

“‘And here is Felix,’ the FSB officer said.

“I left.”

The FSB officer telephoned Shtorn the very next day. According to him, the FSB officer suggested meeting for coffee.

“I realized that was that. They were going to try and recruit me,” says Shtorn.

He believes if he had refused to work for the FSB, as a stateless person he would have been sent to the Temporary Detention Center for Migrants.

“I felt paranoid,” says Shtorn. “I imagined the FSB had access to all my channels of communication, that they could see all my emails. They realized I had nowhere to go, that without papers I was caged. I realized I had to make a run for it, so I turned to Team 29, LGBT Network, and Civic Control. I got a lot of help from human rights activist Jennifer Gaspar. In 2014, she was also invited to have a chat with the FSB, who stripped her of her residence permit and expelled her from Russia. Jennifer put me in touch with Front Line Defenders, who asked the German, Lithuanian, French, and US governments to issue me a visa. They all turned us down, saying they could not put a visa in a residence permit.”

On the evening of December 21, Front Line Defenders informed Shtorn Ireland was willing to issue him a visa. The next morning he had to fly to Moscow, apply for the visa at the Irish Embassy, and fly to Ireland without any hope of ever returning to Russia.

“I had a night to say goodbye to my whole life,” recalls Shtorn. “It felt like I was standing on the edge of an abyss and jumped off.”

In Moscow, it transpired that, due to the short working day, the Irish consular officials would not have time to draw up his visa, and he flew back to Petersburg. He obtained the visa only on January 4. The next day, he tried to board a Lufthansa flight to Dublin, but the airline refused to let him board the plane. The German Federal Police had informed the airline it would refuse to let a person with a residence permit enter the transit zone. It was clear Shtorn would not be allowed to fly via any of the EU countries. The next flight from Domodedovo Airport to Dublin had a stopover in Moldova.

“I went to the check-in counter,” recounts Shtorn. “The folks there were reasonable. They realized a person with an Irish visa would not want to stay in Chișinău. I bought a ticket. There was 45 minutes until boarding, and the whole time I sat waiting for them to come for me. When the plane took off, I started shaking.”

Shtorn is now in Dublin on a three-month short-term visa.

“Thanks to Front Line Defenders I have a place to live and money for food,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen next. I cannot go back to Russia. If my situation was bad, now I have made it worse. Initially, I wanted to keep mum, but I decided I had to warn the employees of other NGOs. When the law on ‘foreign agents’ was enacted, it stated the penalties did not apply to people who worked for such organizations. My story shows this is not the case.”

•••••

Фото: «Новая газета»

Viktor Voronkov, director, Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR), Petersburg 

Of course, the FSB is interested in CISR. Four of our employees have approached me and said, “They’re trying to recruit me. What should I do?” I think they have tried to recruit nearly everyone at CISR. Some have told me, others have turned them down and not told me, and still others, perhaps, did not turn them down. In conversation with the people they were trying to recruit, FSB officers have mentioned numerous facts they could have learned only from our employees.

It is normal. I know the practice well from the Soviet Union. When they tried to recruit me in 1981, they also asked questions that came out of left field. “Maybe you could describe your critical view of things at the institute? Maybe we could work together? You want to help the Motherland, don’t you?” They always associate themselves with the Motherland. They offered me help traveling abroad via the Soviet-East German Friendship Society. They blackmailed me.

I met with them three or four times. One time, a KGB officer tried to take me into a cubbyhole under the stairs at the institute to work me over. He looked in there, said, “Excuse me,” and closed the door. Another officer was already working someone over in the cubbyhole.

You can get rid of them. They have the right to recruit, and we have the right to turn them down. When they tried to recruit a pal of mine, he simply opened the door of his officer and shouted, “Get the hell outta here!” The KGB guy left. But I do not advise anyone to start talking with them. You cannot win against them. Nowadays, I advise my employees to give FSB guys the bum’s rush.

They tried to blackmail our other employees over trifles, but they were not as vulnerable as Evgeny was. I told him him to pay no mind to the blackmail, but it was not worth taking risks in his position. When a person is guided by fear, it is better to give into that fear.

I think we have to talk about such stories publicly. We could do a flash mob hashtagged #HowTheyTriedToRecruitMe. If there is no public oversight of the KGB, it means the KGB oversees society.

I realize this story could affect CISR, but we have been taking different measures to soften the blow. CISR is currently split. The majority of our employees argues we should disband the center and establish a new one. The minority argues we should not surrender. I have taken the most radical position. Everyone wants to find the means to survive. I want to show there is way to fight we can fight to the end. I hope to their end, not ours.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Is It Hard Being a “Foreign Agent” in Russia?

Viktor Voronkov
Viktor Voronkov

Is It Hard Being a Foreign Agent in Russia?
Vadim Shuvalov
Gorod 812
August 8, 2016

How does an organization officially declared a “foreign agent” manage? Gorod 812 asked Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Petersburg, what it has been like.

Did you expect to be declared a foreign agent?

On the one hand, after Bolotnaya Square, it was no surprise. On the other hand, we have never believed what we do is political activity.

Some Ph.D. in philosophy did the forensic examination on us for the Justice Ministry. I won’t repeat the stupid things he wrote. We have gone through four court trials. Recently, the Supreme Court reimbursed one of the fines we had to pay, in the amount of 300,000 rubles.

We were labeled a foreign agent, allegedly, for making recommendations on how to improve the work of magistrates, doing research on the political preferences of trade unions, and advertising a book (which we didn’t publish) on political movements in Russia.

Similar allegations have been made against us to this day.

What has changed in your work since you were declared a foreign agent?

Four times a year, instead of once a year, we write a financial disclosure report. We have to hire a specialist to help us write it. Any violation results in an “irredeemable” fine of 300,000 rubles from the Justice Ministry. But we don’t know we violated.

The Women of the Don Foundation, which deals with gender issues in the North Caucasus, has suffered because of us. It was declared a foreign agent only because we sent them 10,000 rubles out of a sense of professional solidarity, to help them pay a fine. Now we are trying to explain to the authorities the money was Russian in origin.

We cannot work with state universities and officials. We cannot do fieldwork in schools, hospitals, etc. Business is afraid to help us; it is afraid of reprisals. As for the populace, when people find out who we are, they are immediately put on their guard, and the conversation becomes stiff.

I once got a call from a major public radio station. They told me they were putting me on the air in two hours. I warned them that CISR was a foreign agent. They said it was not a problem. Half an hour later, a young woman called me and said her bosses had decided not to trouble me: they needed a cultural studies person, not a sociologist. All electronic media are now closed to us.

Recently, the Justice Ministry redefined political activity.

According to one part of the new definition, all sociological research is classified as political activity, while another part claims that scientific and scholarly research is not political activity. So sociology is no longer scientific and scholarly research.

So how do you do your work nowadays?

For example, we have been researching temporary сohabitation among migrant workers. They support each other while having families back home. Such research requires so-called participant observation. First, you help the migrant worker out. You take him or her to the doctor, get their kid into a kindergarten, and invite them over to your place. Only then will they tell you what they really think about the world they live in. It might take years to get to that point. Whose agent you are, in this case, matters not a whit.

As for working with officials and civil servants, now everything is based on off-the-record interviews.

Initially, when you opened in 1991, did you work with the state? Whose agents were you then?

We were the agents of Boris Yeltsin and his folk. We were interested in working on topics relevant to the country: grassroots movements, Russian nationalism, the new gender studies. A social revolution was underway, and values were being revised.

Did you get money from the government?

We would sometimes participate in grant competitions and get a few crumbs. The times allowed for completing the research were paltry, and the financial reporting was complicated. But we were not fundamentally opposed to taking money from the government. That became a hard and fast principle sometime in the early 2000s.

Why?

We ran up against corruption, against demands for kickbacks and rigged outcomes. The Smolny [Petersburg city hall] would send us invitations to grant competitions, but we quickly realized they had already picked the winners. Or they would ask us to do research on topics like “The Danger from Muslim Migrant Workers in Petersburg.” But we are researchers and don’t do appraisals. We are interested in how migrant workers integrate, in the issue of xenophobia. We gave up on public financing.

What is the size of the usual private grant, and how much time does a study take?

No less than a year or two, often as many as three years. The budget for a study of this sort comes to about three million rubles or more.

Do the foundations who subsidize you set conditions?

The foreign foundations set only one: the research has to be academic research, serious scholarship involving participant observation, and not just getting people to fill out surveys and quickly summarizing the results. By the way, I should note that [only] one out of fifty sociology department graduates goes on to become a serious researcher.

Russian foundations require self-censorship. We did work in Tatarstan: the republic’s president must not be disturbed by the research outcomes. We agreed to censor ourselves. We were interested in finding out why young people were leaving Tatarstan.

And why are they leaving?

It’s a nationwide problem: ours is an avuncular society. If you are outside this circle, you won’t get a good education and you will not be able to set up your own business. All this is highly developed in Tatarstan. There are confessional issues within Islam to boot. Given the circumstances, young people leave the republic or join “extremists.” We recommended an amnesty for certain religious groups that do not call for violence.

We had just finished this study when we were declared a foreign agent.

How have the foundations themselves reacted to your foreign agent status?

Some foundations, even ones with whom were on very good terms, have parted ways with us. They are afraid of being put on the list of undesirable organizations that will be cut off from all official contacts with Russia.

On the other hand, we have received offers of assistance from foundations we had never heard of before. That has been nice.

Why do western foundations finance academic research?

The conscience of the capitalists has awoken or they are unhappy with their own offspring.

What Soviet value has been forfeited in vain?

It’s a pity people have stopped reading. But this is a socialist value. Under capitalism, in new technological circumstances, it could not have survived.

Translated by the
Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of CISR

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.

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See my previous posts on Russia’s authoritarian “pollocracy”:

Kirill Rogov: Why You Shouldn’t Trust Russian “Public Opinion” Polls

One of my hobbies in recent years has been closely observing the development of Russia’s “pollocracy”—the proliferation of “public opinion” polling, media discussions of poll results, and the obvious ways in which this “mirror” has been held up to the actual Russian public to con it into believing it supports the country’s authoritarian regime and its policies with ever increasing wildness and fervor, even as other democratic venues for it to voice its opinion, such as free elections, grassroots organizations, and protest rallies, have been whittled away, hacked at or more or less outlawed (depending on the season and the concrete causes) by the regime, its security services, and the loyalist media. 

So I was amused, the other day, to read about yet another such “public opinion” poll. This one “showed” that over seventy-two percent of Petersburgers support Georgy Poltavchenko, the Putin-appointed nonentity currently warming the chair, in the city’s upcoming gubernatorial elections. Even more hilariously, this same poll claimed to have discovered that the “majority of respondents rated the campaign as calm, and not interfering with the usual lifestyle” of Petersburgers.

When I sent the “news” article about this goofy, cynical poll I had found to a local journalist friend of mine, he responded by complaining that he had been having a hard time explaining to colleagues and acquaintances in the West that “public opinion” polls attesting to the Russian public’s allegedly overwhelming support for Putin and his aggressive policies vis-a-vis Ukraine should be treated with a grain of salt, at very least. Why, he had asked, do people who otherwise think that Russia is not a free country have an almost religious faith in Kremlin-directed polls alleging fantastic levels of support for Putin? Doesn’t it occur to any of these otherwise skeptical people that there might be something fishy about the polls, how they are conducted, and the conditions (of unfreedom, rampant propaganda, fear-mongering, and coercion) in which they are conducted?

He also wondered whether I had translated anything on this topic, something he could use in his arguments with Western friends. I said that I hadn’t, but I immediately recalled the following column by liberal political analyst Kirill Rogov, published in December 2013 in Novaya Gazeta. Sadly, it has become only more relevant and timely over the intervening nine months.

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The Fiction of the “Backwards Man in the Street”
Kirill Rogov
December 3, 2013
www.novayagazeta.ru

Not a week goes by without a dreary discussion in the media of the results of yet another opinion poll showing the narrow-mindedness and conservatism of the majority of the Russian people.

The week before last, the discussion focused on a survey showing that most Russians support the repressive decrees of the “enraged printer”—the self-styled Russian Duma. Last week, poll results showing that around eighty percent of Russians believe enemies surround our country were eagerly paraphrased.

Week after week, like cold raindrops falling on the heads of the educated class, these surveys persuade it of the futility of striving for something better. They demoralize the opposition and plunge business and the liberal elite into depression. Pack your bags and turn out the lights!

In general, the past year of Russian history has been an excellent case study for political scientists, showing how authoritarian regimes buy time by tearing it, so to speak, from the clutches of history.

An explosive mixture of revolving political (and not only political) crackdowns, unbridled propaganda, and a series of skillfully organized public hysterias have spread the dark pollen of proto-fascism in the air, which has settled as a deep depression in the souls of the educated class. And those people who a year and a half ago were confident in their strength and rightness (“Who is the power here?”) walk around with heads sunk down to their collars and their pretty tails tucked between their legs.

Polls are an important part of the picture. They are the “naked sociological truth,” after all, and have a powerful effect on just those people who are able to resist the onslaught of fear, hysteria, and propaganda. It is not so easy to understand how sociological surveys are turned into a weapon of authoritarianism in its fight against society’s desire for progress.

But let us turn to facts no less naked than the polls themselves. The experience of the elections of 2011–2013 definitely implies that data about the political preferences of Russians, as reflected in the polls conducted by two of our leading pollsters, FOM and Levada Center, are regularly biased in favor of the authoritarian regime by at least ten to twelve percentage points. When purged of falsifications, voting results show that not sixty-five percent, but a little over fifty percent voted for Putin in the 2012 presidential election; not sixty percent, as the pollsters had it, but around forty-eight percent voted for Sobyanin in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race; and not fifty percent, but a little over thirty-five percent voted for United Russia in the 2011 parliamentary elections. This follows from both statistical calculations and the data collected from a fairly broad sample of monitored polling stations.

We will leave the conspiracy theories as to why this is so to the lowbrows. The non-conspiracy theories are more interesting. We can assume that the regular shift in the data comes from the fact that everyone involved in the process has a solid understanding of the “correct” result.

Simply put, they know that the majority is for Putin, Sobyanin, United Russia, and “everything bad.” As a result, people who do not support “everything bad” will be on average more likely to shy away from contact with sociologists.

Of course, there are firm “supporters” and “opponents” who express their opinions, regardless. There are, say, from fifteen to twenty percent of such people on each side. But between them is the “majority,” those people for whom politics is not a matter of daily reflection. For them, the most important thing is not even fear, as is sometimes suggested, but ordinary self-doubt and discomfort from the fact that their feelings do not coincide with the views of the “majority,” views of which they are aware in advance.

It is logical these people will be more likely to refrain from participating in polls. (The quasi-Duma, after all, has not yet issued regulations stipulating fines, suspension of driving licenses, and corrective labor for such evasiveness.) We can assume, as is likely, that they participate half as often as those whose opinion coincides with the “correct” view. (Such escapism, by the way, is quite typical not only of the uneducated but also of many educated people, whose awareness of the gap between their opinion and the “common” opinion provokes an irritated rejection of the entire public sphere and social scientists as well.) On average, this will mean, for example, that of twenty people “for Putin” and twenty “against” him, ten of those who are “for” him will agree to respond to sociologists, while only five of those who are “against” him will respond. Sociologists will come to the depressing and mathematically precise conclusion that two thirds of respondents support Putin.

Let me say it again. The majority of people, who are not very politically motivated and do not think a lot about politics, find it extremely uncomfortable to express an opinion that is not supported by “public esteem” and does not coincide with the opinion of the “majority.” This can be defined as the indirect effect of propaganda. The direct effect is when people reproduce what they have heard on TV. The indirect effect is when they do not express opinions that differ from those they hear from “authoritative sources.”

In polls on “hot” topics, this distorting effect should be even stronger. People are asked whether they think Pussy Riot should be punished, whether adoptions of Russian children by foreigners should be allowed, and whether we should feud with our enemies. But the truth is that the majority does not think anything at all about these topics. The values conflicts behind these questions are remote from these people’s lives, and all they can say about them is what they have heard from the same authoritative sources. Or they can avoid answering the questions.

This does not mean we should give up on sociology. On the contrary, we need more of it. Personally, polls are like bread, water, and air to me. We just need to understand that what sociology measures are not “thoughts” and “opinions,” but the echoes of thoughts and opinions. It finds out what clichés and ideologemes people use. Under pluralism, quantitative sociology usually works as follows: the mass media, politicians, and experts actively discuss two viewpoints on a topic, and sociologists go out into the “field” and measure which way the scales are tipping. Under authoritarianism, in which channels of public communications are monopolized, this mechanism stops working or, rather, its meaning changes. In this case, polls reflect not the balance of opinions, but the imbalance in communications—authoritarianism’s informational superiority in quantitative terms.

However, we should remember that the “common people” do not always “obey” the TV. Thus, on the issue of corruption and lawlessness, the opinion of seventy to eighty percent of respondents radically diverges from the TV’s opinion.

That is because this problem lies within the scope of their daily experiences. But the admissibility of self-expression on church altars, the international situation, and adoption regulations are complete abstractions, and the man in the street can only repeat what he has heard in passing. And we know what he has heard in passing. But this does not mean that the average person is willing to put up with all the other outrages of the regime.

The image of the “backwards man in the street” who supports “everything bad” is a fiction created by authoritarianism and is meant to justify its existence by suppressing the will of “dissenters” to resist. Not that this “backwardness” does not exist, but authoritarianism amplifies it several times over, simultaneously suppressing other overtones of public perceptions. The success of this technique, on the one hand, extends the life of authoritarianism, but on the other hand, it generates the mechanism of unpredictability that plays a key role in its subsequent downfall.

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 Photos courtesy of The Telegraph and Business Insider.

The Closing of the Russian Mind: Four Snapshots

Here are four reasons why, despite my affection for Kirill Medvedev’s work, I found his recent appeal to the “intelligentsia,” the “youth,” and all other Russians of good will a little odd. He should be honest enough to know he is appealing to what is, increasingly, thin air. Fifteen years of Putinism have decimated “public discourse” and intellectual life in Russia, and now it seems the regime wants to finish the once-mighty Russian mind off once and for all.

Which is not to say that the pro-Putin “euphoria” described in the first two snapshots is not a stage-managed affair to a huge degree, as obliquely suggested by the fourth snapshot.

1.
According to a survey published this week by the respected independent pollster Levada Centre, 82% of Russians believe MH17 was brought down by either a Ukrainian army fighter plane or missile. Just 3% thought the insurgents were to blame. Given these kind of figures, the prospect of Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is virtually zero. Ironically, Putin probably faces more danger from Russians disappointed by his failure to provide more assistance to the rebels. “Many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force [in east Ukraine],” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told me recently.

Western officials may be hoping economic sanctions will force Russians to rethink their support for Putin, but in reality such measures will achieve little more than an entrenchment of a growing fortress mentality. State media’s routine and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the west’s “decadent” morals mean Russians are likely to accept any economic and social hardships brought about by US and European sanctions. Tellingly, in another Levada Centre poll this week, 61% of Russians said they were unconcerned by the threat of sanctions, while 58% were similarly unfazed by the looming possibility of political isolation over the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine.

These head-in-the-sand attitudes are bolstered by what the director of Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov, calls a “patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria”rooted in the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, which was popular among Russians across the political spectrum. It’s alsoworth noting that many “ordinary” Russians are uninterested in politics and have only scant knowledge of the issues at hand.

source: The Guardian

2.
MOSCOW, July 31 (RIA Novosti) – Life satisfaction and social optimism indices in Russia skyrocketed, reaching all-time highs despite political challenges according to polls conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM).

“Within the last three months, indices of social well-being have shown unprecedented growth, stabilizing at extremely high levels. In June the satisfaction index reached its all-time high of 79 points and the indices of financial self-assessment and social optimism, now at 76 and 77 points respectively, have also risen and stabilized at new highs,” says the poll.

The economic sanctions imposed by the US and EU over the crisis in Ukraine seem to have little effect on Russians. According to the polls, Russians are now far less concerned with the future of their country than they were last year.

The number of Russians who have not ruled out the possibility of a war with neighboring countries is now 23 percent of the population, up from just 10 percent last year. However, the number of those concerned about a Western military threat has held steady at 13 percent for the past eight years.

The VCIOM opinion poll was conducted in 2014, interviewing 1,600 respondents in 130 communities in 42 regions of Russia. Data are weighted by gender, age, education, working status and type of settlement. The polls have margins of error of no more than 3.4%.

source: RIA Novosti

3.
It’s bad news for Russian bloggers, then, that starting today, anyone who attracts more than 3,000 daily readers to his blog is considered a de facto journalist and must register. (In a largely symbolic gesture, LiveJournal has already stopped reporting blog subscribers beyond the 2,500 mark.) Registration entails turning over your personal details to the government—including, of course, your name, meaning anonymous blogging is now illegal for many. (By the way, the law applies to any blog written in Russian for Russians; a post you write from a Brooklyn cafe could face censorship from Moscow.) Bloggers will also be held liable for any alleged misinformation they publish, even in comments written by somebody else. And, insult to injury, bloggers aren’t even allowed to use profanity; a single naughty word would put them in violation of the law. Failure to comply results in a $280 to $1,400 fine as well as a ban on your blog.

The new legislation represents a rather obvious attempt by the Russian government to shut down all criticism of the Kremlin, particularly from the left. The government has already granted itself the authority to shut down any website and used this power to crush popular left-leaning news sites. With this next step, the Kremlin clearly hopes to scare the smaller fish into complying with the official party line. And Russia’s insane Internet crackdown won’t stop with blogs: Starting in 2016, all websites that store data on Russian citizens will have to move their servers to Russian soil—a blatant attempt to assert control over social networks and search engines.

source: Slate.com

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4.
The application of [the new law on compulsory registration of NGOs receiving foreign funding as “foreign agents”] against scientific institutions, in fact, constitutes a professional ban on sociologists. Sociology that does not affect public opinion (directly or indirectly) is nonsense. Sociology that does not raise sensitive issues or suggest original answers that run counter to public opinion is intellectually bankrupt. Sociology that does not affect management decisions is as defective as governance that does not use the opportunities of independent social research. Sociology that is deprived of critical analysis of different “policies” loses connections with social science and turns into political technology. Sociology that does not succeed in the competitiveinternational research grant market is devoid of incentives for growth and is doomed to extinction.

In the modern world, any science that exists in isolation from the global context loses its ability to develop. All attempts to control global processes of scientific exchange only lead to the bureaucratization of science, the flourishing of pseudoscientific theories, and talented and open-minded scholars leaving the country. The persecution of independent researchers and research organizations puts an end to the development of a full-fledged scientific community and leads to the degradation of the humanities in Russia, which will ultimately result in a deficit of ideas and strategies for the future of our country.

The law on “foreign agents” is not the only sign of the long-standing crisis of the Russian administrative and political system. It is embedded in a series of decisions that aim to expand state control over various aspects of society and their submission to the bureaucratic logic of the “vertical” power. We can see this in the introduction of censorship and persecution of disloyal media, financial and administrative pressure on public (and especially human rights) organizations, the sterilization of historical memory (pressure on the “Memorial” and ”Perm 36”), criminal and administrative persecution for political reasons and independent (not controlled by the state) activism, dismissal of leading high school teachers for being disloyal touniversity superiors and many other cases. Self-censorship is booming in this society, for which survival has become the main motivation for its members. Overt or non-obvious subjection of one’s own activity to the goals of the “vertical” power is turning into the most effective model of behavior.

It is obvious for us that an independent social science is crucial for a society whose interests are not limited to maintaining stability and “unity” at any costs. An authoritarian state does not need reflection that a professional independent research can provide. It is satisfied with VCIOM polls and various ratings that allow the maintenance of “vertical” tension and promotion of “patriotism”. Such a regime will inevitably degrade and become obsolete, but during its heyday it manages to destroy much of what came before it and exists in spite of it.

We believe that the lack of interest towards the professional opinion of independent sociological community, which often oppose bureaucratic perspectives, points to the incompetence of the Russian administration. The pressure exerted on NGOs and non-governmental scientific centers indicates that the political administration of our country no longer needs feedback and has no interest in the actual state of affairs in Russia. This means it condemns our country to the harsh effects of unreasoned political and economic decisions.

source: Centre for Independent Social Research