Plumbing for honesty in Russian opinion polls

Plumbing for honesty in Russian opinion polls

Thirteen months later, Russian polls continue to show very high levels of public support for both the war in Ukraine and its architect, Russian President Vladimir Putin. This survey data is routinely used by the Russian media to corroborate the Kremlin narrative and appears to be widely accepted in the West as well.

But is it accurate?

This is what Russia’s community of sociologists, both outside and inside the country, is trying to clarify.

Recent polls show that 72% “support in whole or in part the actions of Russian forces in Ukraine,” while a near-all-time high of around 80% approves of Mr Putin’s work. Few Russian sociologists, even those in exile or who identify themselves as opposition, openly question these findings, particularly those of the independent Levada Center, which continues to operate despite being labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government .

However, many argue that due to the intense atmosphere in wartime Russia and increasing state repression of people with different views, new tools and methods are needed to make sense of the data. These methods include giving more prominence to respondents who appear reluctant to respond and asking follow-up questions to pro-war respondents, such as: B. whether they would prefer cuts to military or social spending to test the depth of their beliefs.

Basically, at the moment they are simply not sure whether it is possible to conduct reliable opinion polls or even conduct independent sociology in war-authoritarian Russia.

“Russia is the only country in the world that still conducts independent polls despite the dictatorship,” says Margarita Zavadskaya, a sociologist at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, who still keeps in close contact with her colleagues in Russia.

“In that sense, the Russian situation is quite unique. However, we cannot compare these results to those we would get from similar surveys in electoral democracies. In truth, we don’t really know how many people really support Putin and the war.”

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Polls are getting harder

Sociology is a relatively new discipline in Russia. It was banned in the USSR until 1956 because the authorities believed that Marxism-Leninism made it unnecessary. The first generation of Soviet sociologists was largely marginalized until the rise of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who credited his sociologist wife, Raisa, with opening his eyes to the false picture of life in the USSR presented by the communist mythology and the urgency generated was the need for reform.

Since then, sociology has become a highly respected branch of Russian science, and several polling institutes are constantly conducting social surveys on almost every topic imaginable. One of these, the Levada Center, accepts no government funding and maintains its independence in the spirit of its legendary founder, Yury Levada.

But the agency’s budget has been slashed, the independent media ecosystem that once supported it has shrunk as journalists left the country, and it has lost much of its access to official bodies and academic institutes.

Denis Volkov, the current head of the Levada Centre, insists the agency can continue to operate while acknowledging the changed circumstances. People are still willing to answer pollsters’ questions in face-to-face interviews. But telephone surveys have become problematic because people are far more suspicious of unsolicited calls.

“Part of the population are people who support the military operation and follow events closely. They are ready to speak up and give their point of view. Everything is fine for them,” he says. “People who do not support this are not willing to talk, follow what is happening less, withdraw into themselves.”

“So, yes, it has become more difficult to work and it’s a big question how long we can stay afloat in these conditions,” adds Mr. Volkov. “There’s no direct pressure on us, but we don’t live in a vacuum and we can’t say that what we do isn’t affected by the surrounding circumstances. We will keep working as long as possible.”

Finding nuances in the fog

A group of largely anonymous, independent experts has attempted to paint a more nuanced picture of how Russians view the war, their political leaders, and their attitudes toward possible peace options for Russia. Their in-depth analysis, published online in a series called Chronicles, doesn’t contradict the findings of agencies like Levada, but purports to offer a sharper and deeper texture.

For example, she notes that “core” support for the war is only 22%, based on people who also say they would prioritize military spending and would not support a withdrawal of forces from Ukraine unless military goals would be achieved. The study found that “core” opposition was almost as large at 20%, based on people who expressed no support – often by choosing not to answer the question – and who also said social spending were more important than military, and who would support a peace settlement that was not a complete victory.

“Only a minority of Russians have a firm position,” says Alexei Miniailo, opposition politician and co-founder of the Chronicles project. “I’m pretty sure the vast majority are in a depoliticized state. The Putin regime has developed this passivity, which devalues ​​politics, for 20 years. Many people say they just don’t want to think about these issues. Of course, that’s what people in leadership positions say, but in their case maybe because they’re afraid to answer.”

Most sociologists working with the Chronicles project do not want to be named publicly for fear it could cause problems in their official jobs, says Mr Miniailo. But otherwise, they had few difficulties in conducting their surveys.

“We had our website blocked by the government, but you can work around that with a [virtual private network]. Other than that, no problems so far,” he says. “The recipe of the Putin regime is 1% repression, 99% fear. This means that all are in danger, but few are actually oppressed. I’m not saying it’s tolerable, just that these are the conditions we work in.”

Physically present, mentally absent

There are even sociologists who offer rather marginal interpretations of Russian polls, arguing that only the conformist section of the public will respond to polls, while the most politically critical have switched off and embarked on the so-called “internal emigration” route. ” To stay physically in Russia but to be absent from the country mentally and politically.

Academic sociologists report virtually no change in their situation outside of the potentially highly dangerous field of opinion polling.

“Academic sociology is pretty stable. So far, none of our projects have been put on hold or cancelled,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert at the official Institute of Sociology. “I am currently leading a project on digital inequality and researching new forms of inequality that result from the increasing digitization of life. It is a long-term study and we have not felt any pressure to change our focus or to adopt different approaches.”

Almost everyone agrees that it is possible to probe Russian public opinion, and no one sees opposition sentiment strong enough to make a political difference at this point. Perhaps the term “internal emigration” best describes the current mood of the most critical Russians – except that, unlike in Soviet times, it is entirely possible to physically leave the country, and many professionals have already done so.

“The only prediction we can make about the future is that it will be turbulent,” says Mr. Miniailo.

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