In Russia, sociology isn’t just about figures

Is solidarity possible in Russia? How has the relationship between Russia’s government and its citizens panned out in the last few years? An interview with one of Russia’s leading sociologists, Lev Gudkov. RU

Lev Gudkov Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
7 August 2017

Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, during a broadcast of “Mr. Good”, a popular news programme on Dozhd TV. Photo: Valery Levitin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

The Levada Center is one of Russia’s most important surveyors of public opinion. Its regular polls on every possible subject — from Russian citizens’ level of material satisfaction to their concept of freedom — are not only invaluable data sources for sociologists, political analysts and journalists, but a red rag to the country’s rulers. In 2016, the center was awarded the status of “foreign agent”. It seems the picture of Russian society Levada provides doesn’t suit those who would like to govern this society single-handed (and, if possible, forever). 

oDR editors Polina Aronson and Mikhail Kaluzhsky met the center’s director Lev Gudkov to discuss solidarity, political protest, freedom and the role of sociology in a divided country. We are publishing his interview in two parts: in this, first part we discuss the main trends in Russian society since the collapse of the Soviet Union; the second part will be devoted to the post-Soviet mindset and ideas of freedom. 

Lev Dmitrievich, in your publications and interviews you often return to the topic of atomisation and the Russian public’s unwillingness to take risks in order to stand up for their interests. In a radio interview on Echo Moscow, for instance, you summed up the results of the polls you’d run in 2016 and spoke a lot about society’s passivity; the fact that young people in Russia see the world in terms of “us” and “them” and that it was impossible to imagine them being ready to take risks. And then, in the course of the following months we suddenly see the emergence of mass social movements and protests. And it’s not just young people who are out on the streets: it’s also long distance truckers, and in St Petersburg we see the public come together in the wake of the metro bomb attack. How do you see these developments? Are these some new forms of solidarity or something else?

I don’t think this is solidarity. I’m pretty sceptical about it all, because our society really is divided, and the situation in the country has changed fundamentally since the mass protests of 2011-2012. 

In my view, the regime has entered a completely different phase. How should we define it? There’s a temptation to dub it “soft fascism”, as many people do, but I’m not happy with that term — not just because it sets up a superficial analogy with Mussolini’s Italy, but because the prerequisite negative assessment that lies behind it makes an explanation of the nature of Putinism redundant. Attaching a label to the regime avoids the need to analyse its structure and the institutional changes happening now. And these changes are fundamental. 

Over the last few years, the Putin administration has taken control of the entire judicial system. The influence of the secret police, the military top brass and the law enforcement agencies has sharply increased. All the security structures have been strengthened and given carte blanche to carry out repressive measures in key areas of the economic, social and intellectual life of the country. They decide not only who gets what job (in other words, they control the social mobility and social structure of society) but also the country’s political direction — and thus its future. 

The “opposition” as such, if it can be called such a thing, has turned out to be incapable of creating any kind of political organisation 

This strengthening of the role of the “organs” [Russia’s power bloc] was a response to the fall in the government’s legitimacy after the 2008-2009 crisis triggered a decrease in Putin’s popularity and trust in his government. The lowest point in his popularity came in late 2011, when, according to our polls, a massive 47% of Russians didn’t want to give Putin a further presidential term, and an even larger number stated that they were tired of waiting for him to fulfil his pre-election promises. Public anger, mainly at unresolved social problems, corruption scandals and arbitrary rule, rose to a peak, and the attempt to smother this frustration with cash wasn’t particularly successful. 

Areas of social conflict and tension began to multiply, but they had a local and limited character — labour disputes, strikes, protests by cheated investors and so on, although in many cases they took the form of inter-ethnic or religious clashes and attacks. This kind of unrest rarely made the pages of national newspapers or social media.

Protest actions became newsworthy only at the end of 2011. But the “March of the Millions” on 6 May 2012, as well the rallies on Sakharov Square, Bolotnaya Square and so on — that wasn’t a political movement, but a moral protest against lies and manipulation, with a “declaration of the will of the majority”. On the one hand, it was basically an appeal to the government from law-abiding citizens, asking, “Have you no shame?”; on the other, it was a carnival where people suddenly recognised themselves as “society” and not dumb plasma. But, still more, as petitioners, almost supplicants to the Tsar, and not fully fledged citizens with a sense of their own dignity and strength. 


A demonstration against rigged Duma elections. Moscow, 10 December 2011. Photo CC-by-2.0: Evgeny Isaev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The Russian “opposition” as such, if it can be called such a thing, has turned out to be incapable of creating any kind of political organisation. And without that, the protest went into decline and disillusion quickly spread, because the government had made no concessions, nothing had been gained; a state of disorientation enveloped opposition circles. This is an important factor in the situation: it’s not just a question of leadership of opposition parties, but in the very ideas behind the protest movement. The general mood of “we’re not engaged in politics”, “we just want free and fair elections”, and so on led to the movement’s just running out of steam. The noticeable upsurge of interest in emigration in the urban classes who had supported the protest movement can be seen as a symptom of this failure. 

But the government, as it turned out, was terrified by this unexpected and seemingly irrational movement, which it after a while decided was a prelude to the “colour revolutions” inspired by the west — such as those that had taken place, if you believe Kremlin propaganda, in Ukraine and Georgia. The Putin administration’s reaction was a resort to more hardline, repressive policies. I’m not going to go into the detail, but it was a question of large scale amendment of legislation; increased censorship and monopolisation of the media and a squeeze on the internet, as well as on the spot or pre-emptive penalties, show trials and a campaign to discredit civil society organisations. As Putin put it in 2009: “Where are the arrests?” 

The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the confrontation with the west have not just halted Putin’s decline in popularity, but have sparked a massive wave of patriotism and consolidation with the authorities on the basis of reactivated Soviet and anti-western, anti-liberal and distinctly anti-democratic ideas. Since the spring of 2014, Russia’s mood has altered completely. Russia’s proto-middle class that was a factor, resource and agent of change — approximately 18-15% of the population — has split. 

The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and the confrontation with the west have not just halted Putin’s decline in popularity, but sparked a massive wave of patriotism and consolidation

It was this proto-middle class that was most concerned about the then state of affairs, seeing no prospect of a life for themselves under Putin’s authoritarian rule. It’s clear from our polls that the larger half of this class has joined Putin’s “majority”, while the remainder, an obstinate seven percent, has retreated into a complete rejection of his rule. But this relatively small population group is, socially speaking, extremely important. They are not simply the most educated, enterprising and informed members of the public, but people with a strong moral compass and understanding of their responsibility for the future of their country. But most people have joined the majority. 

The recent explosion of Russian imperial nationalism is in itself evidence of the fact that propaganda has uncovered underlying strata of perception and consciousness that are much more archaic than they appear at first glance. These are not even Soviet perceptions: they are much older and deeper. Imperial pride and vanity merely masked a concept of the state as the unquestioned owner of the country, with power over the life and property of its subjects. At its heart are perceptions of power typical of the 17th, or at the latest, the 18th century. So the idea of politics as a clear necessity that allows people to take part in decision-making and has meaning for everyone, the idea of common good, is more or less absent in Russia.


A member of the “Immortal Regiment”. Photo CC-by-2.0: Elizaveta Khodarinova / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is no civic consciousness of the “No taxation without representation” kind — rulers can do what they like with their people (within the bounds of the possible, of course)! As a representative of the Ministry of Justice said in the courtroom where the Levada Center was challenging its status as a foreign agent, “the state may limit the constitutional rights of its citizens”, so negating the very idea of a constitution. This is why Russians see themselves as dependents, or even serfs, able only to ask indulgence or compassion from their rulers, and not free people who see the state as hired functionaries responsible to them. 

Without a clear understanding of the reasons for this political passivity, we can tell little from the daily life of the Russian public. So everything we observe corresponds to the elements of the classical totalitarian syndrome, as described 60 years ago by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski: the coalescence of the political police with the apparatus of government; the subjection of the economy to political goals; the cult of the leader; terror; propaganda; a decline in the number of non-governmental organisations; the establishment of complete control of the media. 

Everything we observe corresponds to the elements of the classical totalitarian syndrome

You don’t need me to tell you that the media world has been completely subordinated to the Kremlin. The forced change of ownership of media companies; the crackdown on the Lenta.ru news agency; the closure of several TV channels — this is all part of the establishment of complete control of the media.

This is particularly bad for the provinces, where two thirds of Russians live, because the only sources of information open to people living in villages or small towns are, either because of poverty or for technical reasons, TV and their local radio station or paper. But it’s not even a question of information, but of interpretation, understanding of events, the construction of reality forced on people by the central channels. All that is missing for a complete parallel between Putin rule and the totalitarian paradigm are signs of missionary “ideology”.

Last September you gave a presentation at the opening of the N-Ost media conference in Moscow and spoke about the importance of remembering that while state media campaigns and government propaganda are unideological by definition, the aim of government propaganda is destroy horizontal relationships in society. Now you believe that an ideology has appeared? 

It’s appeared, yes. Since after Crimea. The last two to three years have seen the creation of the ideological doctrine of Putinism in its definitive form: its key components are myths of an Orthodox “Russian World” or “special Russian civilisation” claiming its own space and place among numerous other cultural-historical or geopolitical areas. 

It’s different from the ideology of the Soviet years: it doesn’t promise a bright future; it’s entirely focused on the past, the heroic periods of Russian militarism; the era of Stalin’s achievements; the symbolic attributes of a “great power” nourishing the national pride and self-respect that justify the need to consolidate our strength against the eest and our politics of confrontation with the developed world. The central idea is the mystic body of our thousand-year-old Russia. 

What lies behind this? In the first place, it means the sterilisation and rejection of ideas about a differentiated society: the thinking behind that embodies very poor and sordid ideas about the social structure of society — here there will be no concept of autonomous or self-sufficient groups with their own vision of reality, interest, views, ethical precepts, models of the past and future; there will also be no classes or social strata, no significant regional divisions — there will be a single space of mass one-dimensionality.

A state of “communitas,” you might say? 

Yes, but that is what totalitarianism is — “unity” as the absence of cultural or intellectual diversity and social pluralism. It’s no coincidence that an image of “United Russia” comes into your mind here. Absolutely no coincidence, just like the image of a “national leader”, whether Führer, Duce, permanent and plebiscitary “president” — a functional figure who embodies all the values of this collectiveness. “Putin is Russia,” as Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin put it. So let me repeat that since 2014, this country has existed in a completely new, or different, state of being.


We say “Putin” and mean “United Russia.” Photo CC-by-2.0: Kirill Afonin / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There are, of course, certain social groups who refuse to accept this, and who have a well-known, although limited, immunity to propaganda. They are not completely immune, because propaganda is extremely effective in terms of its cynicism, and while it still can’t force feed new stereotypes of perception of reality, it can break down old moral and ethical norms. Its power lies in the fact that it really does destroy the foundations of humanity and universal ethics and the potential for solidarity (which may be built on foundations other than national and tribal ones). 

Appeals to a mythical national past are always linked to, or reproduce concepts of, an undifferentiated togetherness of rulers and ruled: “We are Russia”. But at the same time it defines the idea of a super individual transcendent power that inspires both awe and devotion: an oriole of the sacredness of the state appears and together with it the archaic concept of an image of far-sighted and wise government, a fatherly caring, strict and fair state protecting the people from all adversity. 

Propaganda is both very cynical and very effective: it really does destroy the foundations of humanity, ethics and solidarity 

In other words, the mythology of Russia’s great past justifies the existence of Putin’s power vertical. This view of society has no room for any concept of representation, no perception of different interests, no need to take into account the various classes and groups making up that society. But at the same time this construct itself gives rise to a negative – an incompatibility between the ruling elite and this mystical archetype: the government is seen as a shameless, corrupt Mafia-like “system” (which, however, doesn’t alter the one-dimensional concept of society itself).

This one-dimensional nature of society is extremely significant; it wasn’t like that in the 1990s. And, of course, the populist rhetoric about the glorious past denies the importance of inter-group connections and communications, a view of society as unity in diversity and, consequently, the value of a social recognition of other people, the significance of social imagination and ability to mix with others, the quality of sociability, a readiness to compromise with your opponent, rather than attacking, crushing and eliminating them. 

At the end of June, the results of a poll to name the greatest historical figure of all time made headline news: Stalin came out on top. How representative was this poll? 

Absolutely representative. These polls form part of our longest term project (which has been running since 1989). Back then, Stalin wasn’t even in the top ten. He was seen as a purely negative figure: a sadist, dictator, pathological personality whose psychological defects explained both the Great Terror and the mass repressions of the 1930s. There were no other systems for analysing the specific characteristics of the Soviet years at that time.

This superficial criticism of the Soviet period reproduced to some extent the prejudices of the ideology known as “socialism with a human face” that were widespread in the early Perestroika years. This simplistic idea boiled down to the following: bad leaders should be removed, and then good, democratic ones will come along and everything will be fine…


Lacquer Stalin - a central figure in the new ideology. Photo CC-by-2.0: Patrick Lauke / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But the transformation crisis of the 1990s led to disillusionment with reform, deep frustration and a state of disorientation: people’s daily lives had been disrupted, unemployment was rising and living standards falling steeply. There was a strong reaction and retaliatory aggression towards the reformers. It was at that point that the idea arose of the US State Department, the CIA and so on being behind the reforms. There had been no anti-western sentiments in the first half of the 1990s: 40% of Russians believed we should join NATO and become part of the EU, if they would have us. It was a very interesting situation. 

But then came the backlash: nostalgia for the USSR with its guaranteed minimum wage, pensions and other social benefits — not to mention the loss of Great Power status. The promotion of this complex of feelings and ideas became the basis for a new legitimacy represented by Putin rule. Stalin’s popularity began to grow when Putin came to power.

Was that down to Putin’s personal efforts, or did the collective unconscious push Stalin to the top of the heap?

It began with a simultaneous process involving the centralisation of power, taking control of television and celebrating Victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. Putin was expressing this mass need for self-respect when he proclaimed: we have no need for shame; we are a great country; every country’s history has had its dark chapters, its skeletons in the cupboard. We must educate our people in patriotism, pride in their country and so on: we basically need a new attitude to our history. 

It was then, at the start of the 2000s, that war was declared on the falsification of history: there was a demand for a new approach to education and a new history textbook for schools. If you remember, Leonid Polyakov, a professor of Political Science and the man behind the new textbook, was always saying that we needed a happy obliviousness of the past, in order not to create conflict between generations. 

This ideological trend rested on the emotional trauma of the collapse of the USSR, Russians’ mass perception of themselves as victims, people who had lost out from all the changes, losers. It was a very deep trauma. It’s hard to imagine how deep it ran, the feeling that: “we’re the worst”; “we’re a nation of cockroaches”; “we’re an example of how not to live”; “we’re Upper Volta with rockets” (as Margaret Thatcher famously described the USSR). It’s important to remember that these were the clichés used by people to define themselves, their place in life and their attitudes towards themselves. 

It’s no surprise that the only reaction to all this had to be a need for positive affirmation rooted in pride. So the hype around the 60th anniversary of VE Day and the adoption of the Great Patriotic War as the central symbol of national identity, a symbolic shift in mass consciousness from revolution to victory, was a response to the need for self-consolation and self respect.

But what was important was the fact that people were being offered as compensation not the recognition of individual achievement, but a collective, almost imperial, triumph. The foundations for this already existed in the past, in the valorous deeds of previous generations. So this pride or self respect takes on a quasi-moral value. This is best seen at “Immortal Regiment” celebrations and Ribbon of St George demonstrations — but what is the source of their pride? They have absorbed the triumph and glory of their parents’ generation and made their own capital out of them and a reason for demonstrations of strength. 

Take all the graffiti that you seen on Russian cars — “To Berlin”, “We’ll do it again if we have to” and so on. It’s a compensatory mechanism: the appropriation of someone else’s glory for your own ends. In a certain sense it’s real piracy in relation to the previous generation. But it has worked very well before and still does — just look at what’s happened in Crimea and the Donbas. Propaganda would be useless if it didn’t have a basis in real structures and complexes of mass consciousness, and an appeal for respect.


Акция "Бессмертный полк", Москва, 2016. Присвоение символов - или попытка найти свое место в истории? Фото CC BY 2.0: Владимир Варфолемеев / Flickr. Некоторые права защищены. The “Immortal Regiment” parade in Moscow, 2016. Simply assuming comfortable symbols, or an attempt to find one’s place in history? Photo CC-by-2.0: Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For us Russians, it’s not individual figures that are important, but a change in the whole configuration of symbolic names and ideas. The last 25 years have seen the disappearance of all the symbols of revolution and Soviet ideology: Marx and Engels have simply vanished, and Lenin has dropped in the poll of the greatest figures from history from first to fourth place (after Stalin, Putin and the poet Pushkin): in the first poll, in 1989, he took 72% of the vote; now he has a mere 32%. The old Bolsheviks and other figures from the early Soviet years have been forgotten, replaced by imperial symbols, with Peter the Great at number five in the chart. But then the rehabilitation of Stalin began: by 2012 he was at number one, with 42% of the vote, having become the symbol of the grandeur of Soviet power and pride, the very model of a decisive ruler overseeing the rapid modernisation of his country and bringing it glory. 

One factor in this is a critical assessment of the present (the contradiction between powerful state and corrupt rulers), but, more importantly, an inability to come up with a moral assessment of the past and the wiping from history of the destruction that took place before our time. The most interesting thing is that people know that there were mass executions and imprisonments (although in the last few years there has been a tendency to underestimate their scale). We keep being told that Stalin is undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people, but we are told just as often that without Stalin there would have been no victory in 1945.

And when we put the next question, whether Stalin should be seen as a state criminal, people say: “No”. Otherwise, the logical next step would be to recognise the entire Soviet system as criminal. And that would contradict all the collective identity, military glory and so on. So we are left with the answer: “We don’t know who is good and who is bad: we don’t have all the facts, so let’s just turn over this page of history and get on with our lives.” 

A lack of understanding of the past is a crime committed by intellectuals against a society that has no interest in unravelling its history 

In some sense, a lack of understanding of the past is a crime committed by intellectuals against a society that has no interest in unravelling its history. It’s not a question of individuals, but of the stance of the academic community as a whole. There are fine books by historians about the Stalin era; there is a series of publications brought out by the academic publishers ROSSPEN. There is, finally, Memorial. But they are all ignored by the media and therefore not in the public eye, so their work goes unnoticed.

In this situation, what role can be played by the social sciences? There are scholars who believe that sociology has a responsibility to the public, that sociological findings arrived at through research should be fed back into the public sphere and that people who have taken part in polls should be able to read about themselves not in a scientific paper, but somewhere more accessible. What opportunity do you have for conversations with the public, particularly since the Levada Center now has “foreign agent” status? 

That’s a difficult question. We, as you know, are criticised from all sides: the Kremlin claims that we work for the Pentagon, while the opposition says that we corrupt the public by publishing data on politicians’ popularity.

From my point of view, the Russian intellectual community’s main problem is a lack of understanding and an extremely poor perception of the Russian public, the nature of our country and the character of support for our system of government. There are no channels for understanding. Sociology could provide those channels, despite the fact that what we usually mean by the term here — that is, mass public opinion polls — are mostly used to legitimise our rulers. But that isn’t sociology: it’s merely surveying procedures and methods that have been built into a system of political technology.

What we usually mean by “sociology” here — that is, mass public opinion polls — are mostly used to legitimise our rulers 

Sociology isn’t a matter of figures. Putin’s popularity rating, if properly analysed, would be revealed as a very interesting thing, because it would uncover an ambiguous attitude to him. The “us” and “them” model, if turned the other way around and provided with a colon, works perfectly here. The indicators of approval of, and trust in, him, currently stand at 80-83%, having changed very little since the annexation of Crimea.

At the same time, Putin is regarded by a large proportion of respondents (around 55-60%) as the head of a corrupt, mafia-style state. It’s important to realise that these two ideas exist simultaneously in the same heads (I’m not even going into the persistence of an attitude to the Russian government as an absolutely corrupt, totally corrupt mafia structure, lacking in any sense of responsibility to the Russian people and totally unashamed of itself. And changes of government have not changed this perception: it has remained stable since the 1990s. 


Attitudes to the authorities in Russia today are more complex than you might think. Photo CC-by-2.0: cea+ / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

So we need to try to understand this split consciousness, this doublethink. Sociology as a science, as a means of understanding reality, having been imported into the USSR from a fundamentally different society, has turned out to be much more complex in its structure and potential for understanding than our academic community. 

Sociology was, basically, born out of a multitude of new social forms that arose out of a process of modernisation. When the German sociologist, philosopher, and critic Georg Simmel wrote his “Large Cities and Spiritual Life” here in Berlin (one of the first works from which the American Chicago School developed) and Talcott Parsons was a magistrate in Heidelberg, they saw these new forms with their own eyes, the diversity of social strata and groups, the transformation of a closed hierarchical system into an open society with new institutions and intellectual movements. Here, in our one-dimensional post-socialist era with its conscious policy of erasing class differences, there is none of this. 

So the idea of sociology is reduced to polls and ratings that describe the Russian population as one amorphous whole. If people can’t see any complexity in the social arrangement and structure of society or in the character of state institutions, they must either regard their country as a single organism or see only what is before their eyes, individual elements: here’s the protest movement; there are the truckers; that’s Pikalevo over there and so on. 

The reason why the opposition is so ineffectual is that it only represents itself, as it is incapable of recognising the problems being faced by the vast majority of its fellow citizens and seeing them as a subject for political work. Does anyone here talk about the problems that really worry ordinary Russians? From the start, the reformers have only represented that proto-middle class that was supposed to support them.

Check out the second part of this interview, where we talk to Lev Gudkov about Russian ideas of freedom and post-Soviet identity.

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