The Russian Pollocracy Unmasked

DSCN1730.JPGWhen will pollsters, politicians, researchers, and reporters stop milking the dead plastic cow of Russian “public opinion”? Photo by the Russian Reader

VTsIOM Records Another Dip in Putin’s Confidence Rating
But If Respondents Are Asked about the President Directly, a Majority Say They Trust Him
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
May 31, 2019

Russians’ confidence in Vladimir Putin continues to plunge. According to VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Foundation), during the week of May 20–26, 30.5% of people polled expressed their confidence in the president. This was Putin’s worst showing since 2006. (Earlier polling data is not available on VTsIOM’s website.) The previous all-time low, 31.7%, was recorded a week ago.

VTsIOM asked an open-ended question (see the inset, below, for the exact wording), meaning respondents were free to identify the politicians they trusted.

This was VTsIOM director Valery Fyodorov’s explanation for the discrepancy between the level of confidence in Putin and the president’s electability rating.

VTsiOM also published responses to closed-ended questions for the first time, meaning questions about the confidence of respondents in specific politicians. Putin’s confidence rating was 72.3% when the question was put this way to respondents. VTsIOM also quizzed them about their attitude to the prime minister and party leaders, but confidence in them was considerably lower.

FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) also asks respondents specifically about confidence in Putin. Last week, 62% of people they polled said they either “absolutely” or “more or less” trusted the president.

What VTsIOM Asks
The open-ended question was worded as follows: “We all trust some people while not trusting others. If we talk about politicians, whom do you trust to make important government decisions? Whom would you not trust?”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said on Thursday, May 30, that the Kremlin had taken note of VTsIOM’s poll showing a decline in confidence in Putin. He asked the pollsters to explain the discrepancy between the confidence rating and the electability rating, which has been growing.

For example, according to FOM, the president’s electability rating has increased by five percentage points since March. Last week, it was 50%. This week, it dipped to 48%.

“We expect an analysis on the part of Russia’s esteemed specialists on how these figures correlate. How can the confidence rating fall when the electability rating increases? It’s a complex analysis. We hope to see this analysis sooner or later,” Peskov said.

On May 24, VTsIOM published polling data on confidence in politicians. 31.7% of respondents said they trusted Putin to make important government decisions. It was the lowest figure since 2006. However, Russians [sic] still trust the president more than any other Russian politician.

“The open-ended question about trust is sensitive to the public’s moods and emotions. When the mood is sour, as it is now, many respondents refuse to answer, choosing ‘no answer’ or ‘I don’t know,’ etc. VTsIOM does not publish the numbers of people who respond this way, but around thirty percent of people polled give these answers in similar polls done by the Levada Center,” said Dmitry Badovsky, director of the ISEPR Foundation.

As for VTsIOM’s first closed-ended poll on confidence in specific politicians, it would be interesting if the pollsters had included in the list all the politicians people ordinarily name in VTsIOM’s customary open-ended poll, including Putin, Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Lavrov, Pavel Grudinin, and Alexei Navalny, argued Badovsky.

He would not rule out the possibility that VTsIOM would do this in its next round of polls.

“It would be impractical to get rid of the open-ended question about trust. It has been asked for many years, since 2006. Such long-term data sets are rather important in research and analyzing the situation,” argued Badovsky.

“Fluctuations in the president’s ratings have been much discussed over the past year. It’s just that it rarely gets on the agenda, but when it does, there is a conflict. It’s hard to deny negative trends, but it’s considered indecent to acknowledge them,” said political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov ironically.

“However, there have been few instances when the publication of ratings was suspended. If I’m not mistaken, it happened to Medvedev’s electability ratings when he was president. Declining to publish ratings is tantamount to acknowledging you are powerless to reverse the trend. Yes, the ratings have dropped, but not so critically as to warrant panicking,” Vinogradov argued.

It would make more sense to natter on about the subject until society and the media switch their focus to some other problem, he added.

We asked Fyodorov whether the pollsters would now publish responses to both questions about confidence.

“We shall see how society reacts and decide accordingly. Maybe we will publish both polls. Or one poll. Maybe at the same time or maybe at different times. We haven’t discussed it yet,” he replied.

He did, however, promise to keep publishing results of the open-ended survey about trust.

Translated by the Russian Reader

DSCN1893Russian “public opinion” polls are “udderly” useless. Photo by the Russian Reader

In October 2013, during the height of the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise crisis, Shaun Walker wrote this in the Guardian:

In the queue outside the [detention center in Murmansk where the Greenpeace activists were held], there is little sympathy for Greenpeace among relatives of other detainees, as they wait to deliver packages. “We have a saying in Russia: you shouldn’t go into someone else’s house and try to live by your own rules,” said one middle-aged woman who had bought a parcel of food for her 33-year-old daughter, who had been inside for five months on charges she did not want to reveal. She had been waiting in freezing temperatures since 4am to ensure she was among the lucky few who got to deliver her package.

Another man, waiting to deliver a package to his brother, suggested the Greenpeace activists were paid by western oil corporations to undermine Russia and should be “shot, or at least sent to a camp”. The opinions reflect surveys which show that the majority of Russians support the piracy charges.

Walker’s take on Russian “public opinion” struck me as so wildly wrong that, a few days later, I wrote and published my first attack on what I would subsequently dub the “pollocracy.”

For some reason, as the country sinks deeper into the Putinist fascist night, this “saying” becomes more and more popular. I’ve personally heard and read it something like six hundred thousand times over the past few years, but it’s hard to remember anyone ever saying such a thing in the nineties. It’s just remarkable how people participate so willingly in their own enslavement and extinction, and with the help of such “sayings.” Yes, “folk wisdom” really does consist in repeating over and over again what some fat cats with soccer teams in England, kids in Swiss schools, and mansions on the Riviera want you to think.

On the other hand, reporters like Shaun Walker wouldn’t have to look that hard for Russians who don’t think this way, even in Murmansk. And it’s pointless, as he does here, and as avid Russian watchers both inside and outside the country love to do, to cite a “public opinion” poll that, allegedly, shows the majority of Russians don’t support the arrested Greenpeace activists. Aside from any other number of methodological and philosophical issues with such polls more generally, not only in Russia, “public opinion” is a nearly meaningless concept in a country lacking all the things that make it a somewhat more meaningful concept in other countries, things like free elections, broadly based political parties, non-astroturfed grassroots groups, much stronger and more militant independent trade unions and, most important, freedom from constant terrorization and brainwashing, in the not-so-distant past and now again, over the past fourteen years, by officialdom, whether in the form of bureaucrats, police or state media.

Why does “the majority” not support the arrested Greenpeace activists? Because they (or, rather, a good number of the people who answered this dubious poll) thought that this was the response expected from them. Why did they think that? Because state and loyalist media have portrayed Greenpeace as the second coming of Al Qaeda, willing dupes of the CIA, and any other baleful thing you can think of. You don’t even have to believe this stuff. You just know that if some “polling organization” calls you up out of the blue, there are strong cues out there in the big media world to which you have access telling you how to respond to such questions. So what’s the point of thinking something different out loud? But then Shaun Walker, hundreds of other reporters, “political analysts,” “sociologists” and so on cite this “public opinion” as if it weren’t obtained under duress. It’s a vicious circle.

I knew I was probably not alone in my profound distrust of attempts to depict Russian “public opinion” so facilely. Actually, my friend the reporter Sergey Chernov had been making similar arguments in our endless conversations about politics then. It was Chernov who hit on what I think is still the consummate formula for how the pollocracy works in Russia: “Levada—TV—Levada,” ad infinitum. A vicious circle, indeed.

But I wanted to see whether other Russian reporters and political scientists had reached similar conclusions. Although, as I discovered, they were few and far between, there were other Russians besides Chernov who had noticed that the leaders of their country, where nearly all elections were faked and had just protested this sad circumstance in large numbers for several months, were positively and paradoxically bonkers about “public opinion” polls.

Since 2013, I have enthusiastically translated and published their articles on the subject while also wearing out my already thin welcome by insisting on this website and other venues that Russian “public opinion” polls are worthless as measures of what real Russians really think and should be shunned by conscientious reporters and researchers.

Worse, Russian “public opinion” poll are barefaced attempts to mold public opinion by persuading the 99.99999% of Russians who are not asked what they think about anything that everyone (except them, perhaps) is gaga about Putin, crazy about Stalin, bonkers about the occupation of Crimea, etc.

Events of recent weeks have brought into sudden, sharp focus the dubiousness of public opinion polls in Russia, whose elites and security service have been rapidly descending into neo-totalitarianism while society at large seems, at very least, to have quite a lot of the democratic fight left in it, especially when it comes to NIMBY-style battles over parks and waste landfills.

This emerged forcefully in Yekaterinburg, where the powers that be unexpectedly suggested polls and plebiscites as a way out of the conflict between rank-and-file residents defending a city park and the Russian Orthodox Church, who planned to build a church in the park.

Now it transpires (see the article, above) that one of Russia’s troika of “trusted” (official or quasi-official) pollsters, VTsIOM, has been engaging in double-entry bookkeeping, so to speak, when it comes to gauging the public’s trust in Russia’s would-be president for life.

For reasons that are not clear, it asks the victims of its survey open-ended and closed-ended questions about their confidence in Putin’s leadership, questions that produce wildly different outcomes.

What does it all mean? I would hope it means that people who are serious about reporting and explaining the complexities of the Russian elite’s police tactics and the political resistances mounted (or not mounted) by the Russian grassroots will forever forswear the nasty handiwork of Russia’s troika of public opinion manipulators.

The article in Vedomosti, which I have translated, above, shows, without really trying, that the troika of pollsters (Levada Center, FOM, and VTsIOM) cannot be trusted if only because they are mixed up with the Kremlin in a shady game to persuade perfectly intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful people they know what they think only when Putin, Levada or the TV set tells them what to think.

And yes, even when a Russian “public opinion” poll seemingly goes the opposition’s way, as it has in this case, it is still worthless. {THE RUSSIAN READER}

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Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

markischer bunny

Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

_________________________

* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

A Russian Religious Revival?

churchMany Russian Orthodox churches are stunningly beautiful both inside and out, but the number of Russians who attend church services regularly and make an effort to observe the tenets of the faith is actually quite tiny. Photo of St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki Church in Kolomäki, St. Petersburg, by the Russian Reader

There Are No More than One to Five Percent Genuine Russian Orthodox Believers in Rostov Region
The Heads of Most So-Called Believers Are Filled with a Mishmash of Christianity, Superstition and Paganism  
Sergei Derkachov
donnews.ru
January 11, 2019

Despite the robust building of churches in Rostov Region and the Russian Orthodox Church’s growing role in civic life, the number of practicing Russian Orthodox Christians in the region is still quite small, according to police statistics. Moreover, genuine Orthodoxy has a worse time of things in Rostov Region than in Russia as a whole.

There are no official statistics of how many people in Rostov Region identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. However, we can make a rough estimate based on other statistics. Thus, a couple of years ago, Merkury, Metropolitan of Rostov and Novocherkassk, said that, during the 2014–2015 school year, 72% of pupils in Rostov-on-Don schools elected to study “Foundations of Orthodox Culture.” In 2015–2016, the corresponding figures were 74.4%; in 2016–2017, they were 80.8%.

Recently, donnews.ru wrote about a public opinion poll conducted among Rostov-on-Don residents in 2017. 65.6% of those surveyed identified themselves as Orthodox, 29.2% as atheists, and 2.8% as Muslims.

In other words, the vast majority of people in Rostov consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians. However, practicing believers, meaning people who go to churches and attend church services, at least during major church holidays, is considerably  smaller.

Police tallies of the numbers of people who go to church on Christmas and Easter are basically the only way to estimate the real numbers of practicing Orthodox believers in the regions and Russia as a whole, since those who identify themselves as Orthodox but do not attend church regularly usually think it necessary to go to church on the main Christian holidays.

According to the Rostov Regional Office of the Russian Interior Ministry, approximately 42,000 people attended Christmas services in 2019, meaning a mere one percent of the region’s population. A similar figure was reported by the police in 2018. In 2017, approximately 50,000 people attended Christmas services in Rostov Region. The highest number of attendees, 80,000 people, was recorded in 2015.

2.6 million people went to Christmas services nationwide. Based on the current estimated population of Russia, this leaves us with less than two percent of the total population. In Rostov Region, however, with one percent of the population attending church services, this difference is more arresting. Curiously, according to a poll by VTsIOM, 72% of Russians observed Orthodox Christmas. Clearly, what this meant in the vast majority of instances was just another big holiday feast.

According to Russian sociologist Nikolay Mitrokhin, author of The Russian Orthodox Church: Its Current State and Challenges, although the number of churches has increased, the number of believers in Russia has basically remained the same.

“People who attend Christmas services in various regions account for around two percent of the entire population. This gives you a sense of the size of the Russian Orthodox Church’s current impact. In recent years, seventy to seventy-five percent and, in some cases, eighty percent of those polled have identified themselves as Russian Orthodox. And yet the number of people capable of dragging themselves to church on the most important holiday next to Easter is within the margin of statistical error,” says Mitrokhin.

The figures are much better for Easter. According to police statistics, 4 million to 4.3 million people on average go to church on Easter. The Interior Ministry did not supply figures for 2017 and 2018 in Rostov Region. In 2014, 135,000 people attended Easter services; in 2015, over 260,000 people; and in 2016, 326,000 people. In this case, however, we should take two important factors into account. First, the difference in weather conditions: Easter usually falls on a Sunday in late April or early May, whereas Orthodox Christmas is fixed on the calendar: the night of January 6 and the wee hours of January 7. Second, in the case of Easter, the police count not only people who attend church services but also people who stop by church only to have their Easter dinner delicacies blessed.

Generally, the number of people who go to church once a year on Christmas and Easter is many times lower than those who identify themselves as Russian Orthodox in opinion polls. It is also worth noting that a considerable segment of the populace persists in visiting cemeteries on Easter, deeming it almost an obligation or an Orthodox tradition, although the Church has designated a different holiday for the purpose, Radonitsa, observed during the second week after Easter.

This points to Russian Orthodoxy’s other major probem: the populace’s spiritual illiteracy. In 2012, Boris Dubin, head of sociopolitical research at the Levada Center, claimed that, according to their surveys, only forty percent of Russian Orthodox believers in Russia believed God existed. Thirty percent of the faithful were sure, on the contrary, that God did not exist. Only twenty-five percent of Russians observe the Lenten fast, according to annual polls by the Levada Center. In recent years, however, the Great Fast has been treated by some people as a diet that has no ideological and religious implications. People also often equate giving up one or two food items with keeping the fast.

The minds of most Orthodox Russians are filled with a mishmash of Christianity, superstition, and paganism. Even Metropolitan Merkury recently said Russians are “complete spiritual illiterates and devoid of religious education.”

“Our people do not have a clue about Holy Scripture, sacred history, and the deeds of Russian saints. They do not link these things together into a single whole,” he said.

The well-known Russian priest and writer Andrei Lorgus commented on these circumstances a year ago on his Facebook page.

“Every year, during Easter and Christmas, I look at the Interior Ministry’s tallies. Of course, they do not match our own estimates, which are based on records of parishioners. You could say that the holiday pool [sic] of Orthodox in Russia is less than 3.5%. We have even had people who were not baptized attend holiday night vigil services. So, the Church in Russia is numerically no more than three percent. There are three percent of us! Are there too few of us? Considering our tragic history, it is hard to say. But when perestroika kicked off, and the Church was restored to its rights, we expected more. As someone who was a neophyte in the 1980s, I am disappointed. Or, rather, I was disappointed, but I am not disappointed anymore. Indeed, there was no way there could have been more, despite the huge efforts and sacrifices that were made.”

Finally, Patriarch Kirill himself recognizes the small number of true Orthodox Christians in Russia. During a sermon delivered on November 24, 2018, at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Kaliningrad, he drew the flock’s attention to the difference between statistics and reality.

“Although statistically the majority of Russians now say they belong to the Orthodox faith, statistical belonging and actual strict observance are different things. We must work to make our people practicing Russian Orthodox Christians, to make people feel with their minds and hearts how vital it is to be with God, to make them feel the power of prayer, to make them feel how prayer closes the chain through which communication between them and God is effected.”

According to the patriarch, the Russian people are still only at the very start of their spiritual rebirth.

Thanks a billion to Nikolay Mitrokhin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Popular” (Who Will Foot the Bill for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?)

zenit arena-3The Zenit Arena in Petersburg is the most expensive football stadium in history. And one of the ugliest. Photo by the Russian Reader

Mega events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Football Cup are held in Russia not for compelling or eve merely sound economic reasons, but to satisfy the destructive, overwhelming vanity of the country’s president for life and his clique of gangster-cum-satraps.

Do you think ordinary Russians are unaware of this? If they are aware of it, maybe the current Russian regime isn’t nearly as “popular” as the press and Russia’s troika of loyalist pollsters (Levada, FOM, VTsIOM) would have us believe?

Why would a regime so remarkably bad at the basics of governance be “popular”? Because Russians are less intelligent than other people?

Or is it because the current regime has treated them from day one like inhabitants of foreign country it has recently occupied by brute fore? // TRR

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The initial plan had been that as of 2019 each region would be responsible for its own arenas. But local authorities estimate that this would create costs of 200 million to 500 million rubles (€2.6 -6.5 million/$3.2-8 million) — a tremendous financial burden for seven of the cities hosting World Cup matches.

Several do not even have teams that play in Russia’s top football division. The most successful squads in Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara play in the country’s second tier. This season, home games in those regions drew just 1,000 to 5,000 spectators. Saransk’s team plays in the third division; Sochi does not even have a professional squad. So generating sufficient money through ticket sales will prove challenging at best.

And even the more-elite clubs Yekaterinburg and Rostov, which respectively attract some 4,500 and 9,000 fans per match, will struggle to generate enough income to cover the hefty running costs of their huge football stadiums.

“Popular”

32729013_1730140783711212_4715134261416427520_nA selfie taken by elections observer and Golos coordinator David Kankiya in Krasnodar. He writes: “Dear Veniamin Kondratyev [governor of Krasnodar Territory], I would like to know what you think about the fact I was beaten up today and the continuing pressure exerted on political and grassroots activists by law enforcement. This is how you see the region’s image right before the World Cup?”

Vladimir Putin is not “popular” in any meaningful sense of the term. He is the head of what may be the world’s largest mafia gang. Unless forces emerges within the gang to challenge his leadership, which seems unlikely, he will remain head of the gang (aka the Russian Federation’s ruling elite) until he dies of natural or other causes. It is as simple as that.

How do I know it? Because of the sheer amount of main violence and rabid intimidation visited upon anyone who challenges Putin’s unchallengeable rule in any way, even in ways that are almost imaginary, as in the case of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, now on the sixth day of a hunger strike in a Siberian prison. Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years in prison by Putin’s mafia gang after it illegaly invaded and occupied Sentsov’s home of Crimea, part of the sovereign state of Ukraine.

Here is another example, closer to home and the notion that Putin is “popular” and was  thus “popularly” elected. The day after Putin’s “reelection” this past March, NPR filed a story that contained this passage.

A month before Russia’s presidential election, observer David Kankiya was informed by the police that his car might have been used to commit a crime, Reuters reported. He was detained, charged with disobeying police and sent to jail for five days. “I was detained and charged on a false pretext,” Kankiya told the news agency. “It’s political pressure.”

Police say Kankiya didn’t produce identification during a routine check.

As the presidential election drew closer, Kankiya’s car tires were slashed and pro-Kremlin journalists accosted him in two separate incidents, he told Reuters.

Kankiya is a coordinator at Golos, a nongovernmental election watchdog that was labeled a “foreign agent” because it received foreign aid. Volunteers from Golos — a word that translates to both “vote” and “voice” — say when entering or leaving Russia, they are often stopped by border staff who accuse them of having terrorist links, according to Reuters.

Now word has come that Mr. Kankiya was assaulted and battered by two men in the stairwell of his own home yesterday. The word comes from Mr. Kankiya himself, writing on Facebook.

Меня избили в подъезде дома. 2 амбала. Били руками и ногами. Пшикали перцовкой. Очень больно, но это тоже переживу. Господа, силовики, большое спасибо за такое внимание к моей скромной персоне. Но вы уже хотя бы прямо сказали чего вам от меня надо? То аресты, то слежка с избиением. Зачем вы так позоритесь?

I’ve been beaten up in the stairwell of my building. It was two palookas. They hit me and kicked me. They zapped me with pepper spray. I hurt like hell, but I’ll live through this, too. Dear security forces guys, a big thanks for the attention you pay to little old me. But didn’t you already tell me straight to my face what you wanted from me? But first you jail me, then you have me tailed and beaten up. Why do you behave so shamefully?

I could supply you with a thousand more stories like Mr. Kankiya’s. And people like him who are on the frontlines of the fight against Putin’s mafia rule in Russia, including a friend of his and a friend of mine who informed me yesterday about the attack on Mr. Kankiya, could tell you ten thousand more stories like it.

When you add all those stories up, you do not conclude that the country in question is ruled by a truly “popular” leader.

What you conclude is that, for nearly two decades running, a gang of violent thugs has been pummeling, scapegoating, jailing, murdering, intimidating and otherwise silencing its real and imagined enemies—in the world’s biggest country, the list of those enemies has proven almost endless—while a troika of absolutely shameless pollsters (Levada, FOM, VTsIOM), eager beyond belief to stay in the mafia boss’s good graces and “scientifically prove” his “popularity,” has been monitoring, almost by the day, sometimes by the hour, to test whether the rest of the Russian “populace” gets it, whether they realize they have only one choice: “like” their “popular” president for life or “dislike” him and face the unpleasant consequences faced by the likes of Mr. Sentsov and Mr. Kankiya.

The pseudo-pollsters are just as shamelessly seconded by a whole battalion of “Russia hands” and “veteran Moscow correspondents,” like Stephen Cohen and Mary Dejevsky, to name two of the most loathsome, who are ready to tell any lie or fib to justify or explain away Putin’s tyrannical rule and the punishments he and his secret services rain down on their enemies, real and imagined, great and small.

That is the whole story. Anyway who says otherwise really is a liar or a sophist or a “Russia expert” resident in Ottawa or New Haven. // TRR

Lev Schlosberg: Why Russian Democrats Should Vote on March 18

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“They want a turnout for Putin that is as huge, wild, and unnatural as a giant hogweed plant.”

Voter Turnouts: Who the Russian Authorities Want to See at the Polls and Who They Do Not Want to See
Lev Schlosberg
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
March 12, 2018

On March 18, Vladimir Putin plans to become president of Russia once again. The unnatural political system created under his rule is not meant to produce any other outcome.  Realizing this, many people do not want to vote in an election whose outcome is a foregone conclusion. The anger and desperation of these people can be understood and explained. Nevertheless, we must take part in the procedure [sic] scheduled for March 18. We must take part because the tally makes a difference. You can lose on points, but you cannot lose by a knockout, because life could depend on those points.

Amidst increasing stagnation, only the numbers of dissenting citizens whose votes were officially recorded by election commissions, albeit in a dishonest election, can protect dissenters from such things as physical harassment and destruction.

It is all too obvious and extremely dangerous.

Putin will never change. He will not become kinder or smarter. He will not repent for his misdeeds. He will not become a believer in democracy. He will not begin defending the rights and liberties of his fellow Russian citizens.

Putin is a cynic. Like all cynics, he understands only thing: strength. In elections, this strength consists, in the most literal sense, in numbers, in votes.

Russia is tired of Putin. Putin himself is tired of Russia and, in this sense, he is particularly dangerous. He does not inspire people. Votes for Putin are votes cast not enthusiastically, but votes cast in despair. “If not Putin, who else?” people wonder aloud. But no one else in Russia gets round-the-clock press coverage.

In order to protect himself from all risks, Putin has purged the political arena and poured it over with concrete. Any living thing that pushes it way up through the concrete lives despite the system Putin has built. But these living things cannot grow to their full height. Democracy is impossible without the sunlight of liberty. It exists in the old Soviet national anthem, but not in real life in Russia. Putin and freedom are incompatible, because he is a product of unfreedom.

Putin’s likely victory in the upcoming election is as tedious as the man himself, who has long contributed nothing new to Russia and the world except flagrant military threats.

The government’s desperate campaign to get out the vote in the presidential election is founded on the understandable, humdrum intentions of officials, which are in full keeping with the big boss’s desire to paint a ballot, whose outcome was announced before the election, as the result of sincere grassroots enthusiasm.

People forced to watch and listen to this bacchanalia might imagine that voter turnout in this election is the most important objective pursued by officials.

“Our” Voter for “Our” President
Does this mean the Russian authorities want all voters to turn out on March 18, whatever their political preferences? No, it does not mean that at all. The Russian authorities desperately want Vladimir Putin’s voters to show up for this election and no one else. They want a turnout for Putin that is as huge, wild, and unnatural as a giant hogweed plant. Everyone who prevents them obtaining this unnatural percentage of votes are superfluous when it comes to the election. The authorities do not want to see them at polling stations. They will tolerate only the convinced supporters of the other registered candidates, whom they cannot stop from voting.

The omnipresent official election advertisements and the propaganda message that you can vote wherever you want on March 18 are bound to nauseate all decent, self-respecting people. They are a carefully planned and professionally implemented tactic on the part of the authorities. They are like a missile with multiple warheads.

This dull and simultaneously aggressive advertising is meant to help the authorities drag voters obedient to Putin out of their houses on March 18. Such people really do wait for the authorities to tell them what to do, where to go, and what box into which to drop their ballot papers. Programmed by the lies and violence of total propaganda, they reflexively execute direct instructions. So, the authorities have a single objective: to reach out to these votes whatever the cost, through all the windows, doors, attics, cellars, and cracks state propaganda is able to penetrate. This means directly zombifying people whose antennas, so to speak, are tuned to the regime’s transmitter. The authorites send a command to people capable of picking up simple, repetitive signals: go and vote.

Likewise, the deliberate promotion of the election in this digusting manner is meant to turn off people from voting who are independent, self-sufficient, and critical of the regime. Unfortunately, it really does prevent them from voting. Such people do not like being shepherded anywhere, much less to polling stations.

The regime thus kills two birds with one stone. It gets the electoral partisans loyal to Putin out to vote and radically reduces the turnout of democratic voters.

We encourage our people to vote and discourage their people from voting. This is the recipe for so-called victory.

It is sad to see millions of energetic people, sensitive to insincerity and fraud, falling into this primitive psychological trap.

It is sad to see democratic politicians, who will be the first to succumb to the hardly virtual mudslide generated by the absence of democratic politics in Russia, vehemently campaigning for a so-called voters’ strike, which absolutely satisfies the authories. It as if these democratic politicians had lost the capacity to understand events and their consequences, because they are calling for democratic voters to sit out the election, rather than people planning to vote for Putin, Zhirinovsky or Grudinin. This is a self-inflicted wound, a provocative call for democrats to eliminate themselves.

It is unacceptable to let the authorities exploit you as a useful idiot, as the Bolsheviks cynically did with the intelligentsia back in the day.

If democrats sit out elections, they are absent from politics as well.

You Don’t Want a Second Round?
State-driven polling in Russia has become part of the system of state propaganda and popular deception. It is the loyalist “public opinion” polls that have forecast a turnout of 81% of eligible voters, Putin’s share of the tally reaching the desired 70% threshold, and the votes cast for all his opponents squashed into a gamut that runs from 0.1% to 7%.

In reality, as borne out by other public opinion polls whose results are not made public, the voter turnout in many regions of Russia will barely crawl above the 50% mark, which should be expected amidst public apathy and socio-economic crisis, while Putin’s share of the tally will not be much higher than 50%, and a second round-like scenario has been predicted in many cities, meaning Putin will receive less than 50% of the vote there. Even the loyalist pollsters at VTsIOM have reflected this turn of events. Putin’s support rating has been falling throughout the election campaign and will keep on falling, because the public manifestation of alternative political views undermines Putin’s monopoly. Things are getting serious.

What should the democratic voter do in these circumstances? Go vote and support a democratic candidate, thus reducing the share of votes cast for Putin and increasing the number and percentage of votes cast for democrats and democracy.

No one know the numbers of democratically minded citizens there are currently in Russia. Only general elections can show how many there are, but the majority of democratic voters have rejected voting in general elections a long time ago. They continue to refuse to vote nowadays, thus throwing in the towel and relieving themselves of all responsibility for what happens to all of us.

Not only that, but it also makes makes the chances of democratic politicians extremely low in elections. We thus find ourselves in a classic vicious circle: no voters > no results > no voters.

As D’Artagnan said, a thousand devils. How can this be incomprehensible to educated, informed people? But, as we can see, it is incomprehensible.

I cannot fail to remind readers that democrats have learned how to win Russian elections such as they are now. The know-how that was on display in Karelia, Petersburg, Pskov, Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, and Moscow has shown that when a large amount of hard work is invested, voters are energetic, and voting is strictly monitored, democrats can win elections. Yes, it is hard. But we do want to win, don’t we?

Does Putin have a plan for Russia?

Yes, he does. On March first, he laid out his plan to the entire world. His plan is as simple as an old grammar school primer: guns instead of butter, and grief to dissenters. Grief to consenters, too, however. It is just that they have not figured it out yet. Putin is the president of war.

Is there anything that can stop or at least limit Putin in his maniacal willingness to sacrifice not only our country but also the entire world to his virtual reality?

There is only one thing: the votes of Russian citizens who disagree with him.

Operation Fiasco
If democratic voters do not turn out to the polls on March 18, the consequences will be  enormous. Not subject to any political restrictions, dependent on the bureaucracy and the security services, listening only the counsel of imperialists and Stalinists on the back of the election results, Putin will cross the line, perhaps more blatantly than he himself intends to right now.

If there is a fiasco on the democratic political flank as the result of the presidential ballot, everything will be caught up in it, both those who voted and those who did not vote. There will be a single political pit for everyone, a mass grave for soldiers killed in war.

In conditions of unfreedom, all that people who do not want violence can do is vote for freedom while the possibility still exists.

Because if it transpires that next to no one wants freedom, the changes that occurr in Russia will be extreme, sending us in a free fall towards the unforgettable Soviet Union, which perished in political and economic paralysis only twenty-six years ago, but which is currently undergoing a political reincarnation.

Will the March 2018 election be honest at least when it comes to tallying the votes? On the whole, no, but the percentage of rigged votes is fairly well known. In approximately fifteen regions of Russia, the so-called electoral sultanates, election results have nothing to do with how citizens vote. In those regions, the final official tallies are simply fabricated, giving the authorities around 10% of the votes of all voters on the rolls nationwide.

In other regions, however, the results do depend on how people vote to a greater or lesser degree. After massive civic outrage over the results of the 2011 parliamentary elections, vote rigging has become much harder, thanks in part to tougher laws.

Who achieved all this? The Russians who went to protest rallies in defense of their votes. The 2011–2012 protests were primarily a civic protest of voters whose votes had been stolen. That is why the authorities took it seriously [sic], and it lead to reforms in the voting system. Criminal penalties for so-called carousel voting were adopted after the protests.

What can supporters of the voters’ strike defend at a protest rally? Nothing. They did not vote. What impact can they make by not voting? None at all. They do not have any arguments, because they have no votes or, rather, they gave up their votes.

Who will notice the 10% of voters who do not go to the polls on Sunday? No one. The numbers will not be recorded anywhere. But it would be impossible not to notice the 10% of votes cast by democratic voters, since they will be recorded in the official final vote tallies. The ballot paper is the citizen’s main weapon.

No one will take into account the people involved in the voters’ strike. But it will be impossible to ignore the votes of four, five or six million people.

Russian democrats have one main objective in the 2018 presidential election: to show that we exist, that we do not agree with Putin’s politics, and that we see Russia’s future differently. This means defending ourselves, our loved ones, friends, and comrades, giving ourselves and the entire country the chance for a normal future, a chance that war will not break out, a chance for peace, a chance to save the lives of people who are still alive.

Elections are a public action, an expression and movement of the popular will. They are the only peaceable means of regime change. Often, things do not work out in single step. But we cannot stand in place. We have to keep moving.

The Russian regime will not change on March 18, 2018, unfortunately. But on that day millions of democratic voters in Russia can save the country’s and their own chance for freedom.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust

P.S. Sometimes it’s useful to carefully rehearse and examine arguments that strike you as just plain wrong—in this case, the argument that “Russian democrats” (whoever they are) will surrender their place in Russian “politics” (as if there is politics in Russia) if they boycott the presidential ballot scheduled for this Sunday.

This argument is made by one of Russia’s smartest cookies and bravest democratic politicians, Lev Schlosberg, in his latest column for Pskovskaya Guberniya Online.

Unfortunately, Mr. Schlosberg is reduced to such a queer combination of sophistry and outright bullying that one recalls the remark Tolstoy supposedly made about the writer Leonid Andreyev: “He tries to scare us, but I’m not frightened.”

This is not to say that the political conjuncture in Russia is not objectively frightening. But Mr. Schlosberg’s argument that the “ballot paper is the citizen’s main weapon” rings hollow when even he admits the extent to which vote rigging and coercion will be big factors in Sunday’s vote.

Finally, Mr. Schlosberg urges Russian democrats (let’s assume they really exist) to vote for “democrats” in the presidential election, which immediately begs the question, What democrats does he mean? Grigory Yavlinsky, the de facto leader of Mr. Schlosberg’s own Yabloko party since its founding in 1993 and a man who has run for president so many times I’ve lost count? Or does he mean Ksenia Sobchak, Vladimir Putin’s real-life god-daughter? She talks the good talk once in awhile, but under what real democratic “procedures” were she and the perennial Mr. Yavlinsky nominated to run for president? Meaning by what democratic majorities?

And this is the real problem. There is no democracy in Russia not because of the villainy of Putin and his satraps, although of course they really have done everything in their power over the last eighteen years to make Russian undemocratic.

The real problem is so-called Russian democrats either have no idea what democracy really entails or they’re all too willing to sell the farm for a penny so they can get the chance to run, with the Kremlin’s approval and vetting, of course, in rigged elections whose outcomes are foregone conclusions.

Can a serious man like Mr. Schlosberg really imagine that a few more percentage points here or there for Ms. Sobchak and Mr. Yavlinsky will genuinly serve as a bulwark against the hell that will be unleashed after March 18, when Putin imagines he is invincible and has yet another six years to do as he likes?

What a naive if not utterly specious argument. TRR