In the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea in May 2014, Russian pollsters discovered an astounding development: President Putin’s positive ratings had reached a level unprecedented in Russian history—85 percent. If there had been pollsters in the USSR in 1936, and if they had conducted a survey of the attitudes of the Soviet people toward comrade Stalin, they would likely have found the same figure, or maybe an even higher one, something like 99 percent. However, no polling firms existed in Stalin’s Russia, so the level of support for Putin as the Russian leader is, indeed, unique in Russian history. Remarkably, all of the polling firms in today’s Moscow produced practically the same number over the course of 2 years of surveys. The Kremlin was, of course, delighted with the Russians showing such loyalty to its master. The Russian public and many experts in the West have treated this number—85—as highly symbolic of indisputable evidence that there is unanimous support for Putin during this dramatic period when he has radically changed his foreign policy, starting the war against Ukraine and confrontations with the West with an intensity that has forced both ordinary people and politicians to fear an imminent war. In this climate, the notorious “85 percent” has played a very important role, suggesting to many that Putin’s belligerence is supported by the majority of the Russian people. In this paper, we will show that “85 percent” ultimately has nothing to do with Russian public opinion because public opinion cannot function as an independent phenomenon in a non-democratic society in which the people have no choices in either elections or polls. “85 percent” actually reflects the efficiency of the state machine run by Putin, and particularly of the state TV, which the Kremlin has turned into a perfect brainwashing instrument that is much more cynical and deceptive than Soviet TV was on the eve of Perestroika. As soon as Putin disappears from the political scene, and his rivals emerge on TV, nothing will be left of that miraculous 85 percent igure. The experiences related to the first public opinion studies conducted in the Soviet totalitarian society are very useful for understanding the nature of “85 percent” in Putin’s Russia.
Public opinion in a non-democratic society: lessons from Russian history—the 1960s and 2000s
The birth of polling in the USSR
Fate was on my side in the 1960s when it allowed me to be among those in the Soviet Union who initiated public opinion studies—then a key part of a new emerging science, empirical sociology. Those were giddy days for us, a group of young social scientists, when we started something absolutely new in Soviet society: measuring what the Soviet people thought and felt about their lives within this nation.
The high mission of public opinion studies
We saw ourselves as people who could make an important contribution to transforming a rigid, totalitarian society into one of liberal socialism (or socialism with a human face). We and the liberal intelligentsia were sure that as soon as we had the opportunity to regularly measure the public opinion of the Soviet people—and in this way create it—we would discover the deep discontent of the masses with the Soviet system, which would force the party leadership to change, or at least modify, its policies in various areas of social life. We hoped that the party leadership would finally recognize public opinion as a crucial factor in the government of Soviet society.
The passion of the first public opinion researchers in the 60s was almost unbelievably altruistic, devoid of materialistic stimulus. Dozens and dozens of young people abandoned their previous occupations and higher salaries to join our teams of researchers in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Leningrad. My team in the academic town of Novosibirsk, which conducted surveys of those who read the national newspapers, was full of these enthusiasts. Some of them came from other places to join us, though we could not even provide many of them with minimal housing conditions. Boris Grushin’s team in Moscow consisted of people with an almost religious zeal for studying public opinion in the USSR. They retained this fervor, along with a cult-like devotion to their leader, to the end of their lives.
What a contrast this is with the climate of public opinions studies in conemporary Russia! The fight for government money, as well as the search for rich politicians looking for some nice data for their election campaigns, has made it impossible to retain the special vocation found in the community of sociologists and pollsters, or to make them be concerned with society respecting their work. Gone are the sociological gatherings, where debates about the professionalism of their work aroused high passions.
Our difficulties: the hostility of the party apparatus
We were well aware of the difficulties we had to overcome in the pursuit of our professional work in the 60s. One of them was the totalitarian state’s hostility toward public opinion. Of course, we could have not started our studies if the leadership of the party had not been flirting with liberal trends following Stalin’s death. Yet the main segment of the party apparatus was still hostile toward us. We could not prepare the questionnaire without party censorship, nor could we recruit interviewers without the permission of the authorities, so we had to spend a lot of time on maneuvers with party apparatchiks to implement our research designs.
A deep belief in the power of methodology
The second problem was the object of our studies, the Soviet people living in a totalitarian society. First, it is necessary to underscore that we believed in the objective existence of public opinion in Soviet society as a sort of phenomenon in itself (using Hegelian terminology), even before we started to study it. In other words, we believed that the Soviet people held their own views on a variety of issues based on their own experiences, and had critical attitudes toward many elements of the official ideology.
Our main problem was in eliciting those views from the Soviet people because we were very aware of the listening ear of the state apparatus, which curtailed the eagerness of the Soviet people to answer our questions and encouraged them to choose safe answers that were supported by the official rhetoric. Later sociologists began to name such answers as having been determined by “desirable values.” However, we strongly believed that, despite all of the obstacles in our path, we could penetrate the minds of our compatriots using contemporary survey techniques.
Our optimism was based on our naïve belief in the miraculous possibilities of the sophisticated survey methodology that we tried to adjust to a totalitarian society. (Gallup was a sacred figure to us, even if his methodology did not take into account the specificities of an authoritarian society.) We employed different types of random sampling. We compared the results of face-to-face interviews with the results of mail surveys. We used different versions of the questionnaires, combining open and closed questions in various ways. We also compared the results of the surveys with questionnaires that differed from each other based on the order of the questions and contained different wording for key questions. We disseminated the questionnaire with and without socio-demographic questions regarding age, gender, education, and so on, in order to measure the impact of the feeling of anonymity on the answers. We used various devices to prompt the respondents to give us sincere answers (often asking about the opinions of “others” rather than about their personal opinions), and at the same time tried to neutralize the influence the interviewers might have had on the behavior of respondents by strongly suggesting that our interviewers not express their own views.
The great scale of our studies
We were somewhat successful in fighting the conservatives in the party apparatus, managing to carry out many dozens of public opinion projects in the 1960s and 70s. Of course, we were still not allowed to ask sensitive political questions such as those about the Soviet leaders or the respondents’ attitudes toward socialism. The emergence of computers was another powerful factor in our favor. Our belief in science and computers made us persuasive, even with party apparatchiks, and helped us to carry out a lot of research projects.
Our public opinion studies in the 1960s were very impressive in scale, and captured a great deal of attention in the West, where public opinion experts greeted the emergence of such studies in the USSR with delight, and were not overly concerned with the impact the totalitarian state might have on the results.
For the first time in Soviet history, I was personally able to use national data, collected through random sampling, about the opinions of the multi-million strong audience of the leading national newspapers, including Pravda, Izvestia, Literaturnaia Gazeta and Trud (Labor). The first Soviet pollster, my dear colleague Boris Grushin, collected data on the attitudes of young Soviets in the early 60s. In the late 60s, he studied the public opinions of a typical industrial city, Taganrog. During this time, he also published the first Soviet books on public opinion. An Estonian sociologist, Yulo Vooglaid, monitored public opinion in his republic many years within the same period, and organized seminars in Tartu for debates on public opinion studies.
The ideological struggle in the 60s – did public opinion exist in a non-democratic society or not?
Conservative ideologues did not stop attacking us in the 1960s, and continued to be major opponents to empirical sociology and public opinion studies. We ridiculed them as obscurantists; we mocked their abstract reasoning that was so far from real life, as well as their love of citing Marx or Lenin and the current party leaders. Ironically, a half century later we can see that these ideologues were elaborating on a serious argument against public opinion studies in a non-democratic society. Their position can be described in this way: in a Communist society, public opinion cannot exist as something different from the opinions suggested by government propaganda. They declared that public opinion as an autonomous category was a myth in Soviet society. Even without sociological data, the party knew what people thought and felt because their mindsets were determined by party decisions and official ideology based on Marxist-Leninist theory. The party ideologues suggested that, as seen in the Soviet parliament elections, an absolute majority of the Soviet people supported the Soviet system in exactly the terms suggested by the propaganda. Indeed, 99 percent of the Soviet people did vote for “the block of the Communists and not party members.” The number 99 was as popular in Soviet times as 85 percent is in contemporary Russia (the number of Russians who seemingly support Putin). Those who cast doubt or even dared to mock “99 percent” in Soviet times were treated as enemies of the Soviet system and could end their life in the Gulag, just as skeptics of “85 percent” are now labeled as unpatriotic or as American agents. Alexander Zinoviev, in his Swiftian Yawning Heights (1976), described how the Soviet leaders were disappointed with the data that the sociologists brought to the Kremlin. While the leaders expected 179 percent of their citizens to admire them, sociologists insisted on a much lower number—only 130 percent.
How the arguments of the conservatives in the 60s look now
Now, a half-century after we fought with our adversaries on the nature of public opinion studies, their arguments against us do not look as absurd as they seemed then.
It turned out that the Party ideologues understood the incompatibility of a totalitarian society and public opinion studies better than the sociologists. In fact, our antagonists were better at understanding the impact that the totalitarian state, the repressive regime and its monopoly on the media would have on the minds of the population. Our opponents, without knowing it, were in agreement with Orwell’s discovery that people in any hierarchical organization, especially one in a totalitarian organism, tend to almost sincerely love the leader, a Big Brother. This love is the best way for people who live in a structure where there is no real opposition to adjust to the situation in which they find themselves. Our ideological adversaries also understood, as did all of their bosses in the Kremlin since Lenin, that without any real opposition to the regime, people will always support the system. In this context, the Kremlin ideologues thought the study of public opinion in Soviet society made no sense. Indeed, it is clear from looking at the main results of our public opinion studies in the 1960-70s that, at least to some degree, the predictions of the conservatives were confirmed.
The main results of our studies: the Soviet people support the policy of the party
How did the final results of our studies look on the eve of Perestroika? To our great distress, we found that the majority of the Russians had absorbed most of the dogmas of Soviet propaganda, and that they used ideological clichés for their answers. The Soviet people were sure that the Communist party had every right to be the supreme political force, and we found no complaints about the absence of an opposition in the country. The majority of our respondents supported the most ridiculous dogmas, such as the superiority of the Soviet standard of living over the Americans’, or the dominance of social equality in Soviet society. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (it was sort of The Ukrainian Crisis of the 60s) was endorsed by the majority of the population, which also swallowed the official explanation that it was necessary for the protection of the USSR against German imperialists—just like 85 percent of today’s Russians are willing to accept Putin’s explanation for the war against Ukraine as having been provoked by the USA.
On the eve of Perestroika, it was evident that the minds of a majority of Russians were totally controlled by the Kremlin and the official media, and that we sociologists were as wrong in our beliefs in “true public opinion” as the alchemists in the Middle Ages were in believing in the Philosopher’s Stone.
Our public opinion studies on the eve of Perestroika were the wrong predictor
Our studies on the eve of Perestroika showed the total loyalty of the Soviet people to the Soviet system, to its ideology and to the party leadership. These data turned out to be an extremely bad predictor of the future. It only took a few years for Gorbachev and his team to demolish the system. The systems’ destroyers met no resistance from any segment of Soviet society—not just the masses, which only a few years prior had told us about the respect they had for the system, but also the KGB, the army and the party apparatus failed to show any resistance to the destruction of the Soviet Union.
Our modest success: the public opinion of the liberal intelligentsia
Our data was not entirely without value. For instance, we could boast of one achievement in the 60s—we were able to find out the views of the liberal Russian intelligentsia. We could do it because this intelligentsia read Literaturnaia Gazeta (The Literary Gazette), the liberal periodical that was—and this was crucially important to understanding the meaning of our data—supported by the Kremlin. Everybody in the Soviet Union knew that the Literaturnaia Gazeta was a “project” of the Central Committee. The Soviet people told everybody with pride that they were subscribers of the Literaturnaia Gazeta or of the “New World,” another officially endorsed liberal magazine. Whatever rumors exist about Russian liberal outlets in Putin’s Russia, such as radio Ekho Moskvy or the TV station ‘Dozhd’(Rain) being “Kremlin projects,” not one of these outlets is openly supported by the Kremlin and so, in the eyes of the Russian public, they are the tools of oppositional liberals. As my recent observations show, many Russians, even liberal intellectuals, avoid being labeled as regular listeners of Ekho Moskvy or as readers of Novaia Gazeta, another liberal periodical that is considered an enemy of the Kremlin.
Because the population believed in the “legality” of the Literaturnaia Gazeta, this newspaper was able to amass 10 million readers—including almost every member of the liberal intelligentsia. As our surveys showed by the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, our respondents were ready to express their support for many liberal ideas, like the liberalization of the economy or the encouragement of creativity in all spheres of life, which were a direct challenge to Soviet bureaucracy. The newspaper also supported sociology and public opinion studies. What is more, those who read the newspaper continued to be treated as loyal citizens, and were not in danger for having done so; this is not true today for those who declare themselves to be regular readers of Novaia Gazeta, an acerbic critic of Putin’s regime, Soviet citizens felt they safe in declaring their respect and even admiration for the controversial poet Evgenii Evtushenko (in 1968, 47 percent praised him as the best poet), or even the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (30 percent approved his “One day of Ivan Denisovich,” a piece with a strong anti-Soviet orientation) before he was labeled as a traitor and exiled. Compare these data with the low numbers for today’s oppositional politician Alexei Navalny, who was supported by the liberal outlets in Moscow in 2014-2015; no more than 5 percent of Russians held a positive view of him as a politician in 2015.
At the same time, it was not without some amazement and disappointment that we discovered that, despite their critical attitudes toward some aspects of Soviet life, an absolute majority of the liberal intelligentsia was devoted to the ideas of the leading role of the Communist party and the total superiority of socialism over capitalism. Not even Andrei Sakharov could escape the influence of Soviet propaganda—perhaps for tactical reasons—disclosing his concerns about the importance of unity for the Communist movement in the world.
The successful cases where the state was neutral
There was another type of data that reflected genuine views on some issues. Again, the Kremlin was more or less neutral to these issues, so respondents felt they could make a choice between different alternatives, unlike our surveys on politically sensitive issues. My dear friend Vladimir Shubkin caused a sensation in the 60s, when he discovered the professional preferences of high school graduates. Even if Shubkin’s results could be interpreted as hostile to the dogma of the leading role of the working class in Soviet society (only a minority of the youth wanted to join “the leading class” after leaving school), the pragmatic value of his surveys was evident to the authorities looking for the optimal allocation of young people among different sectors of economy. The Kremlin did not object to studies that tried to explain why people wanted to change their place of work either. In both of these cases, the respondents were well aware of the political innocence of their answers and, thus, gave their genuine views, rather than repeating media clichés.
The major lessons from the Soviet times: the incompatibility of an authoritarian state and public opinion studies
Later developments only confirmed the explanation for our failure to measure public opinion on the crucial issues of Soviet life.
It was only when the Soviet system, with its repressive apparatus, was failing, and the various political forces, with their different ideologies and their own power bases, emerged in the country that the true public opinions and the studies of them became real. It was during a very short period—1989-1993—that the first independent public opinions firms emerged. One of the first to appear was VTsIOM (the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies), initially under the guidance of Tatiana Zaslavskaia and Boris Grushin, and later under the leadership of Yurii Levada. Russia then saw the creation of Vox Populi by Boris Grushin, the first private firm for the study of public opinion.
The 1993 shooting in parliament and the false presidential election in 1996 signalled the end of real public opinion and honest elections. Once again, the mentality of the majority of Russians came under the sway of those in control of the Kremlin, the media and the police.
Putin, with his policy of exterminating the opposition, has turned the Russians’ choices in politics, public opinion and elections back into fiction. The remarkable consensus of all of the leading polling firms on the notorious 85 percent rating of Putin’s popularity confirms neither the genuine loyalty of the Russians to the Kremlin leader nor the validity of this number, despite the suggestions of Putin’s ideologists.
What this numbers shows is that all of the firms, collectively, were not measuring the genuine views of the Russians, who did not have a choice between different politicians and different policies. It only showed the effect of the Kremlin’s propaganda, the ultra-aggressive TV outlets that outdid a lot of Soviet media in lies and challenges to common sense, and, to some degree, the people’s lingering fear of the authorities.
The indifference of contemporary Russian pollsters to methodology
The first generations of Soviet sociologists and pollsters were deeply absorbed by the desire to perfect the methodology of their studies. Today, Russian pollsters realistically ensure that the 85 percent number the Kremlin expects from them will emerge, whatever methodology they use. It is not all that amazing to find that the differences in the results of the public opinion firms, whether they have a reputation of close collaboration with the Kremlin, like VTsIOM, or they are regarded by the public as independent, are practically non-existent. Indeed, the Russian pollsters measured the popularity of Putin under conditions wherein he, as a rule, did not leave the TV for even a moment, and when his few critics had been declared anti-patriotic and American agents (or were even murdered, as happened to Boris Nemtsov in February 2015), and when the fear of being accused of non-political loyalties once again dominated the communications of Russians at all levels.
Under such circumstances, nobody in Moscow is currently interested in the subtleties of sampling; and nobody pores over the newest American books and articles on survey methodology, as we did in the 60s.
The rare lamentation of some of the older generation of professionals about the decline in survey methodology, and their nostalgia for the past, can inspire great compassion but it is evident that most pollsters who successfully earn big money serving the ruling elite will ignore their appeals to improve polling technology.
In the rare event where pollsters organized a meeting to discuss the quality of their surveys (January 2015), few of them even mentioned the impact of TV and the political authorities on the results of their surveys. Only the old sociologist Andrey Alexeev, now retired, noted the impact of the authoritarian state on public opinion studies, and Oleg Pashkov reminded the audience of Boris Grushin, who expressed doubts several decades ago about the validity s of public opinion studies in a non-democratic society.
The attitudes of the Kremlin in the 60s and now toward sociological studies and polling
The attitude of the post-Stalin Kremlin toward sociological studies was ambivalent. One the one hand, it tolerated them so it could show its allegiance to progress, and even to the liberalization of society. On the other hand, during the golden years of Soviet sociology, the Kremlin was deeply indifferent to the results of these studies. None of the leading sociologists were called to the Kremlin to discuss the results of their surveys. The legitimacy of Soviet leaders based on socialist ideology, with some Russian chauvinism thrown in, was firm and was recognized by foreign leaders, who had no difficulties using the term General Secretary to refer to the leader of Russia.
The current master of the Kremlin takes a very different position on this. He treats public opinion as a crucially important instrument of his legitimization; it is a replacement for honest elections. In the Soviet era, sociological studies—and polling in particular—were charged with the oppositional spirit. In Putin’s regime, polling has started to play a radically different political role.
Contemporary pollsters are deeply involved in helping the regime because their data (which, in fact, only measure the political pressure on the population) undermine the view, both inside Russia and in the West, that Putin’s regime has no democratic foundation. Therefore, paradoxically—and wouldn’t this amaze the founders of Soviet sociology!—the public opinion firms have turned into an important instrument of the authoritarian system.
Sociology and public opinion studies enjoyed tremendous prestige in Soviet times.. In the public’s mind, we represented objective information about Soviet society (it is true that, in some cases, we talked about the views of the liberal intelligentsia or the results of the studies in the economic sphere). In crass contrast to the official media, which mixed facts with fabrications, the public believed in the data we published, and nobody suspected that we were not being honest with them. Our studies were vehemently supported by the scientific community, especially mathematicians. physicists, and computer specialists. Among our allies were the Union of Writers and the Union of Filmmakers. The great Alexander Twardovsky published articles supporting public opinion research in his famous magazine, The New World (Novyi Mir)..
It is not an accident that, with their high prestige, sociologists like Tatiana Zaslavksia, Boris Grushin, and Yurii Levada were in the vanguard of the liberal forces that actively participated in the destruction of the Communist system in 1989. Later, they were invited by Boris Yeltsin to be on his presidential Council.
Attitudes toward sociological studies and polling are different now. Trust in the data produced by polling firms has fallen to a very low level. According to some surveys, no more than a quarter of the population trusted pollsters. Some firms, like VTsIOM, now openly collaborate with the Kremlin (its director, Fedorov, even received a medal from Putin). This polling firm even sued the Moscow Times, a liberal newspaper, for accusations of corruption and falsification of data by the firm. In the popular Moscow Komsomolets (December 2014), a prominent Russian journalist, Yulia Kalinina, explained clearly to her readers that in a society with vigilant special services monitoring the loyalty of its citizens, most citizens will choose the answers suggested by the authorities.
There is a rather complex answer to the question posed in the last 3-10 years, both inside and outside of Russia, on whether we should trust the results of public opinion studies and, more specifically, Putin’s 85 percent rating. The number 85, as well as numbers which supposedly reflect the positions of the Russians on politically sensitive questions like attitudes toward the West and the USA, toward the war with Ukraine, and toward the opposition, is not fabricated by the polling firms, and respondents did, indeed, answer in such a way. However, these data offer little or no value for understanding the real political processes in the country, and even less for predicting the future. A considerable number of the respondents simply lied to the interviewers. Even more important is that those who are not lying are simply repeating what they heard on TV. Without political alternatives in society, neither polling nor elections are able to produce data that truly reflects public opinion. In fact, all these data measure the power of Putin’s political machine and the impact of a media that is under the total control of the Kremlin.
The day after Putin abandons the political scene as leader or as a politician with full access to TV, the data currently produced by the Russian polling firms will lose its meaning, and Putin’s popularity will vanish almost instantly. Yuri Luzhkov appeared to be a hugely popular mayor of Moscow in 2010, but when he was fired he virtually disappeared from the mind of Muscovites in an instant. The study of public opinion in a non-democratic society produces only artifacts, and there are no methods that can countervail the impact of the political monopoly or the lack of choice on the responses given by the respondents. Of course, if the leader makes rabid nationalism and xenophobia the center of his propaganda, as Hitler did in 1920-30s, or as Putin is doing now, he can create the illusion that people are full of nationalistic emotions, and that his propaganda only brought them to the surface. All leaders try to find something in the repertoire of feelings and ideas that reside in the human mind which will be useful to him under the given circumstances. Appeals to egalitarism or fairness can be successful, and be the basis of an ideology which brings the politicians using them to the apex of power. Leaders like Robespierre or Lenin proved it. The view that Putin’s popularity is based on genuine nationalist feelings on the part of the Russians is essentially false. Without TV, these feelings could be dormant while several other feelings rise to the top. Give Russian TV 10 days to undertake an attack, under the auspices of the Kremlin of course, against nationalism, and a series of shows praising America, and the mood in the country would change drastically.
The lessons from the Soviet era and Putin’s time are unequivocal—public opinion is nonexistent in a non-democratic society, and polling is a waste of time and resources if we have the study of society in mind. Howevwer, polling in such a society is a good instrument for deceiving the public, inside and outside of a country. in order to hide the deeply non-democratic essence of the regime.
Ordinary Russians, even in Soviet times, had the common sense to understand the importance of choice. A famous Soviet anecdote tells how God brought Eve to Adam, and then told him to choose himself a wife. The real choice in political life—in expressing one’s views in surveys or by voting—pre-supposes the existence of different centers of power, representing both the government and powerful oppositional parties, with each having a good chance of gaining power in the future.
[JS1]Italicizing this is correct, isn’t it?