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Russian Opinion Polls Come Full Circle

Maxim Trudolyubov

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As much as it may sound paradoxical to a Western reader, public opinion is important in Russia. Or, more to the point, it’s the polling industry and the copious amounts of data it collects that are important. The average Russian’s responses to all kinds of questions are a staple of that same average Russian’s media diet.

Some of the issues covered by opinion polls are big. Respondents may be asked to express their attitude to the president or to choose the best type of democracy for Russia. The citizens seem to have a say on smaller issues too. Some of the streets in central Moscow were recently renovated. The Moscow government said the design of street lanterns, the type of pavement, and even the kinds of trees to be planted along the sidewalks were chosen on the basis of a poll. Many critics of the resulting cityscapes said they never heard of any such polls and I, myself a resident of central Moscow for many years, never heard of any deliberations either. But this is not the only point.

These kinds of polls seem to exist in a universe of their own. When asked about democracy, people base their responses on some imaginary concept that has little to do with democracy. When they are asked about lampposts, they get the lampposts or they do not get them, regardless of any poll results.

The average Russian’s responses to all kinds of questions are a staple of that same average Russian’s media diet.

This is all very well, but the scary fact about polls in Russia is that sometimes they are used by the Kremlin to back up policy decisions of vastly greater consequence than the color of sidewalk tiling. The annexation of Crimea was such a decision.

Speaking in 2014, Vladimir Putin said that he made his final decision to take over Crimea after secret, undated opinion polls showed 80 percent of Crimeans favored joining Russia. The Federal Protective Service (or Guard Service) of the Russian Federation, a body responsible for the protection of high-ranking officials, is involved in secret research that sometimes leaks into the public domain. In April 2014, the Latvian parliament said that it had learned about some secret polling organized by Russia among the Latvian Russian-speaking minority (26 percent of the population). After news of the secret Crimean poll broke, some of Russia’s neighbors, including Latvia, Estonia and Kazakhstan, ordered studies of their Russian-speaking minorities.

The public’s attitudes, concerns and aspirations are seen by the Kremlin as a security matter. They are important not in themselves, but in the way they contribute to regime stability or instability. The father of all polls in Russia, the presidential approval rating, is considered the most important indicator. Many crucial policy decisions are measured against their effect on this rating. This approach has worked well for the Kremlin for years, despite the fact that the public clearly distinguishes between Vladimir Putin and the state he heads.

This is all very well, but the scary fact about polls in Russia is that sometimes they are used by the Kremlin to back up policy decisions of vastly greater consequence than the color of sidewalk tiling.

Like most people, Russians are dismissive of bureaucracy. They give low grades to specific agencies, consider most officials to be corrupt, and rate the government’s performance on most issues as mediocre, at best. And yet, Putin’s personal rating has not fallen below 80 percent since March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Apparently, Russians’ approval of Putin is a measure of their “symbolic well-being” and is also related to the fact that they have no alternative. The Russian political field has been carefully cleared of all competition. Putin’s approval rating, in this context, is not an indicator of his performance, but rather a reservoir of the population’s hopes and fears.

Some commentators think the Kremlin is actually treating polls as a constant plebiscite or a substitute for elections. “It is a convenient tool,” says Nikolay Petrov of the Higher School of Economics, a distinguished scholar of Russian regions. “On the one hand, it does provide a feedback. On the other hand, they are not as binding as election results.”

The problem that I see in the Kremlin’s over-reliance on opinion polls is precisely what I said in the very beginning: the average Russian’s responses to all kinds of questions are a staple of that same Russian’s media diet. They are a political technology, rather than a researcher’s tool. In a non-democratic regime, in the absence of a truly pluralist environment, people do not so much express opinions as “guess” the correct answers from messages circulated by the Kremlin-run media. Their motivation for supporting the government is not straightforward; those who suffer the most may sometimes express higher support for the authorities. “When a society is deprived of real pluralism, when diverse viewpoints do not clash in public, [opinion polls] may only work to reinforce the prevailing tropes, not to devise a collective solution to a problem,” said Grigory Yudin, a professor of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, in a recent public lecture.

The poll results we quoted in the previous post are an illustration: while 69 percent of those polled were against the use of Russian military force in Syria before Russia entered the conflict, 72 percent now approve of the use of force. Television has clearly played a role in this sudden about-face.

In most cases, it is simply impossible to tell whose viewpoint we are dealing with, the Kremlin’s or that of the Russian public. Is it the Kremlin thinking or the average Russian? Some of the most important convictions of the average Russian seem to come full circle. State-run television says that Putin is always popular, poll respondents tell their interviewers that they approve of Putin, the resulting “poll data” is reported by state-run television, and everyone thus knows that Putin is popular. One consequence of this cycle is the fact that when a politician disappears from sight or a policy is scrapped, no one can remember why that politician or that policy was actually so popular. In Russia’s recent history, the list of super-popular figures who were completely forgotten a couple weeks after they lost power is long.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more