So it was only natural that glasnost and public opinion polling in the Soviet Union were born in the same year: 1987. It was among the first and most exhilarating miracles of glasnost — a miracle of self-discovery: People learned what their fellow citizens thought! It was also among the surest signs that democratization was real. At long last, the country’s leaders wanted to know people’s views.
Leading the way was the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion. Known by its Russian acronym, VTsIOM, the center was soon headed by the dean of Soviet sociologists, Yuri Alexandrovich Levada, who made it into the country’s most respected polling firm.
But in September 2003 the Kremlin decided to “reclaim” VTsIOM, which was still nominally state-owned, and installed a new board of directors. The tipping point reportedly was tepid support for the four-year-old war in Chechnya. (The center publicized that 58 percent of Russians were against and only 27 percent for continuing it.) Levada quit — and the center’s entire staff, more than 100 people, left with him. There was, however, still enough space unoccupied by the state for a new and independent polling firm, bearing Levada’s name, to garner enough customers and supporters at home and abroad to sustain itself. Today, however, the government appears to have resolved to finish off the center.
For a regime that seems determined to deny the country desperately needed institutional reforms because they involve democratization — ensuring its short-term survival at the cost of the country’s long-term stagnation — the letter was a logical move. All manner of findings routinely reported by the Levada Center in the past few months have flat-out contradicted the official propaganda narrative.
One in five Russians, the center found, were considering emigration, with the rate skyrocketing to 44 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds and 36 percent among those 25 to 39.
Among the respondents who said that they knew about the Magnitsky Act, 57 percent said that— U.S. legislation that bars Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses from entering the United States and from keeping money in U.S. banks — was aimed at those who “misuse power and violate human rights,” or at the “meretricious and corrupt Russian bureaucracy,” or at the country’s leadership that covers up the misdeeds of “swindlers and embezzlers.” By contrast, the government’s assertion that the act was aimed “against Russia” was supported by only 23 percent. The final straw for the Kremlin may have been polling data on Putin’s approval rating: It was at the lowest level in 12 years, Levada reported in January. Less than two weeks ago, the center found that if the presidential election were held this month, only 29 percent were ready to vote for Putin.
“We will continue our activity, although we are in a very difficult situation,” Levada Center director Lev Gud kov, a man of a quick smile and impeccably objective analysis, recently told an interviewer. But it was “out of the question” for the center to register as a “foreign agent.” “A totally new period has begun in Russia,” he added, “the suppression of all independent organizations by the Kremlin.”
Six and a half years ago in this newspaper, I said farewell to Yuri Levada, a great political sociologist and a dear friend. This news from Moscow is like burying him again.