Lightening Strikes Leading Russian Sociologist Twice: Once under Brezhnev, once under Putin

I left the Soviet Union in 1979, during the dark years of Soviet sociology

The discipline was only fifteen years old, but the golden age had come and gone during its youth in the mid-1960s when a group of enthusiasts had the unbelievable opportunity to study (notwithstanding several constraints) Soviet public opinion. We were not allowed to ask the people about their attitudes toward private property, religion, or what they thought about the Communist party, or all the more, what they thought of Comrade Brezhnev. Yet I did, for instance, ask people in the first national surveys what they liked or disliked about Soviet newspapers, even Pravda (of that time – editor). We also surveyed their tastes in novels and movies. How ingenious and resourceful we were to collect these data in order to understand the people’s attitudes toward the fundamental issues of Soviet society!


By the end of the 1970s, the future looked grim. Most of the founders of Soviet sociology had been ousted from the country’s single sociological institute and forbidden from conducting studies. Since it was, by then, impossible to return to Stalin’s times, when sociology had been labeled “a bourgeois science” aimed at deceiving the masses, the Kremlin could not simply close up shop. Instead, they replaced us with hack sociologists who were ready to provide the leadership with any data it pleased.


The major victim among the early Soviet sociologists was Yuri Levada. In his now legendary book Lectures on Sociology, he was bold enough to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Levada was in turn ousted from Moscow University, stripped of his title as a professor, ostracized by all official institutions, and banned from being published. What is more, as we were told then and later by those who had been summoned to the KGB, Levada was under the regular surveillance of this nice organization. Levada, however, declined several times to recant his statements. Nobody would have been surprised had he been arrested. As the only real dissident among Soviet sociologists, Levada was respected enormously not only by his colleagues, who regarded him as a true hero, but by the whole intellectual community. Several Western publications have discussed “the case of Levada” (this was the title of a book about Soviet sociologists), and expressed contempt for the Kremlin for its persecution of one of the most distinguished intellectuals in the country.


When I said farewell to the Soviet Union my friends and I thought Brezhnev’s gloomy times would last forever, and Levada, among others, would be doomed to live a dreary life in a society that was hostile to his talents and courage.


Gorbachev’s first moves toward Glasnost were met everywhere with suspicion and mistrust. Some skeptics even believed that it was a ploy to find the people who were discontent with the Soviet system. Asked by my Western colleagues about the prospect of real liberalization in Soviet society, I was also quite cautious and suggested that a good indicator of true progress would be a change in the attitudes toward my friends, the sociologists.


The developments that followed surpassed all optimistic prognoses. Indeed, already in 1987, the best cohort of Soviet sociologists – headed by Levada, Tataiana Zaslavskaia, Boris Grushin, Vladimir Shubkin, and Vladimir Yadov – were called to the Central Committee. In this year the first independent polling firm – the All-Soviet Center for Public Opinion Studies (VTsIOM), headed by Zaslavskaia and a few years later by Levada – emerged as a miracle in the USSR. One year later the center began asking questions that made my head swim. “Is the people’s loss of belief in the ideals of socialism and the one-party system the cause of our problems?” “Should we legalize private property in order to improve our life?”By 1989 there was not a single taboo subject left. The Center could survey the public on their attitudes toward Stalin, Lenin, the October revolution, collectivization, the Communist Party, socialism, capitalism, and the current party leaders. Following VTsIOM’s example, several polling firms started up in Moscow and the province. After VTsIOM, the most important one was the first private polling firm in the country, Vox Populi. Its founder, Boris Grushin, began his surveys in the late 1950s, under the vigilant eye of Big Brother. He dreamt about achieving freedom for the pollsters all of his adult life.


During the recent celebration of their fifteenth anniversary, the 100-person team working at VTsIOM could indeed be proud of their success. The firm has a reputation – both inside the country and abroad – for being the most reliable source of information on public opinion in the country. It is well known that VTsIOM does not receive any subvention from the Kremlin, and is indeed an independent body. The journal published by the Center – The Monitoring of Public Opinion – is considered by professionals as the best source of information on the trends in Russian public opinion. VTsIOM also puts on an annual seminar that always collects the best minds in the field.

Of course, Levada and his colleagues were fully aware that when Putin came to power the democratic process began to reverse it progress. All of them were concerned about the transformation of both chambers of parliament into puppet institutions. They watched in despair as all the independent TV stations in the country were eliminated, and censorship over the print media intensified, particularly its reports on the nefarious war in Chechnia. They understood that the Kremlin has remained indifferent toward the rude violations of democratic procedures in elections all across the country. Yuri Levada, the symbol of professionalism, intellectual honesty and boldness, escaped any public suspicions of corruption (a rare case in Russia today), and his publications and interviews have left no doubt about his attitudes toward the political processes in the country.


Revealing the results of VTsIOM’s surveys, Levada did not dispute the fact that the majority of Russians supported Putin as “the president of hope” (78 percent in July), though he also revealed the population’s deep discontent with the standard of living. Only 20 percent of the Russians were satisfied with their life in May; only 15 percent believed that their life would improve in the next year. Even more unpleasant for the current administration are VTsIOM’s data that show that most Russians want to see an end to the Chechen war; 57 percent favored a negotiated settlement with the rebels. No less irritating are the May data that reveal the people’s lackluster attitudes toward the presidential party, the “Unity of Russia.” Only 8 percent said that this party reflected their interests, while 18 percent said the same about the Communist Party. Certainly these figures will not help the Kremlin secure its party members as a majority in the parliament.


If in the mid-1980s the change in the official attitudes toward honest pollsters was a powerful sign of Russia’s liberalization, 25 years later, as if we are watching a cyclical process, the Kremlin’s hostility toward them means that the anti-democratic developments in Russia have reached a new stage. As in Brezhnev’s times, the current authorities have decided to replace highly respected sociologists with those whom they can control.


The irony of the current developments in Russia is that in their fight against democratic principles, the authorities are using the ideas of privatization and market rules, which Russian liberals in the past equated with political freedoms. VTsIOM was created in 1987 as a state organization, nominally subordinate to the Ministry of Labor. However, in the last 10 years  VTsIOM, though formally a state-owned organization, has not received any budget money, and has earned its bread with numerous contracts from domestic and foreign clients. Now demonstrating its great love for capitalism, the officials pretend to be furious at those who attribute its decision to political motives (it did the same thing when destroying independent TV stations and newspapers). They have decided to privatize VTsIOM in a very specific way: most of the stock, according to an official from the Ministry of Property quoted in Kommersant Daily (August 6, 2003), will belong to the state. This “privatization” will allow for the “legal” creation of a new board of directors, on the list of which neither Levada nor his colleagues will find their names. Instead, they will see the names of the representatives of the presidential administration. VTsIOM, as the world knows it today, will die in the next months. Even if the new firm, formed by the fiat of the Kremlin, will bear the old name, everybody will know that it works for the master, not the people.


With the lack of civil society in the country, it is not surprising that Levada has been practically deserted in his confrontation with the presidential administration. The Kremlin is free to do what it wants without expecting any resistance. The single politician who condemned the “privatization” of VTsIOM was Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the party of “Right force,” but he did not promise any actions in support of the firm. Almost noone among the Russian pollsters and sociologists publicly and unequivocally defended VTsIOM. As a clear exception, Boris Grushin defended Levada with the same vehemence as he did twenty-five years ago. What is more, Elena Bashkirova, the director of a competing polling firm “Romir” was in a hurry to demonstrate in her interview with Izvestia (August 8, 2003) the firm’s loyalty to the regime. She declared that she “does not feel political pressure,” which may be true since, according to data from her firm, the Kremlin’s “Unity of Russia” has far surpassed the Communists (26 percent to 16 percent, a sharp contrast to the data produced by VTsIOM). We can be grateful to the few Russian newspapers that were brave enough to send their journalists to a press conference called by Levada, and to publish reports about it.


VTsIOM’s fate is another signal to those who still cherish the hope of being politically independent in Russia. As the leading political scientist Igor Kliamkin recently noted in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti (August 8, 2003), “When the Kremlin hits the leading figures, others begin to do what is expected by political power.” Kliamkin was seconded by an author published in the same newspaper: Vladislav Oreshkin promised that “Unity of Russia’s rating will increase after Levada’s replacement.” While Levada and his colleagues nurture the hope of creating a new firm, the experience of the team at NTV headed by Kisilev, which several times tried to find another TV channel and failed, suggests that the famous sociologists should not be too optimistic about the future.


It would only be a little exaggeration to compare Levada to Andrei Sakharov. As “the case of Levada” shows, if Sakharov had lived today, he too would have been hit for the second time by the Kremlin’s lightening.


Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.


Vladimir Shlapentokh is a Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University. He among others conducted the survey for Pravda in 1968 and in 1976.

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Author`s name Margarita Kicherova