oDR: Opinion

Russia’s polling industry is gravely wrong. Here’s how to change it

Yes, ‘Family Fortunes’-style questions could go some way to help better inform a Putin-manipulated electorate in a distorted political landscape

Sergei Erofeev
14 September 2021, 12.01am
"Let's vote together!" reads this election poster in Sochi, Russia
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Public expectations ahead of Russia’s parliamentary elections this month are, reading between the lines, low.

For many, the elections to the State Duma seem to have little bearing on what comes next. But while an opposition politician can respond by revealing evidence of election manipulation designed to reduce people’s interest in the vote, it falls to sociologists – of which I am one – to analyse and often criticise how the public opinion data was collected in the first place.

Alas, the basic tools used by Russian sociologists are imperfect even for measuring superficial public opinion – let alone capturing public sentiment.

Indeed, it is people’s deeper moods, not opinions – which are often superficial and distorted out of fear of giving a socially unacceptable response – that can signal the potential for political action, and how events in Russia may develop in the future.

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A regularly used catch-all term for these “moods” is public sentiment. And to describe and analyse these sentiments, mass polls can be useful. As a rule, they produce a lot of quantitative data but are not, in fact, sociological research on their own. However, they can be used as a tool to test a sociological idea.

Socially desirable responses

Indeed, by observing how these polls are carried out in Russia today, we can come to the conclusion that mass polls are “corrupt” – in the sense of their institutional depravity.

This description can be applied for two reasons. First, the Russian state exercises excessive control of the country’s polling industry. Second, there are defects in the polling industry itself.

While the Russian presidential administration pressures pollsters to help respondents produce socially desirable responses, state propaganda conditions public opinion in various ways – from lies about Russia’s international “partners” and the country’s past to promoting a cult of Vladimir Putin.

With an undercurrent of fear hindering expression of socially undesirable opinions, respondents cannot provide sincere and informed answers. Thus the “absolute” numbers that Russian pollsters claim about public moods in the country – for example, the famous claim that 70% of Russians have a positive attitude towards Stalin’s role in history – hardly inspire confidence.

CC BY NC ND 2.0 Amy Allcock / Flickr. Some rights reserved

That said, some long-term trends revealed by these mass polls can be trusted. For example, the significant drop in the ratings of Putin and United Russia, the ruling political party, in recent years. Not even the Kremlin pollsters can hide the elephant in the room (which could lead to a ban on publishing this kind of data in Russia).

At the same time, even the relatively independent Levada-Center, which received additional media attention in 2019 thanks to the aforementioned Stalin poll, demonstrate a certain refusal to adopt new methods. Their pollsters are yet to change their survey tactics to see what lies beneath superficially gleaned “opinions”.

Opinions on Stalin

However, with all the limitations of mass polls, they could present a more complete and profound picture of public attitudes – but only if the questionnaires were composed differently.

To see how easy it would be to deepen our understanding of public sentiment via mass polls, we can look at the Russian public’s attitudes towards Stalin or the 2020 amendments to the Russian constitution, which prolonged Putin’s rule potentially until 2036.

In the first case, mass polls miss the opportunity to study what can be called “public meta-opinion” – i.e. how respondents imagine public opinion – and in the second, the opportunity to compare moods before and after an event with long-term consequences.

Let’s start with meta-opinions. This is how people envisage public opinion without necessarily sharing it. The popular TV shows ‘Family Fortunes’ (UK) or ‘Family Feud’ (US) – where participants have to guess how a majority of ordinary people will answer questions (“What did you hide from your parents when you were in school?” or “What food do the French like the most?’) – show how this principle works. When contestants answer the first question with “cigarettes” and the second – “baguette”, they are not expressing their own opinion, but are trying to guess how other people would answer those questions.

Anti-corruption protest, Moscow, May 2018
(c) Celestino Arce/NurPhoto. All rights reserved

However, a sociological study can go further than a TV show: it can move from asking respondents what the general public think to revealing meta-opinions – that is, answering questions about why the Russian public holds certain beliefs. Thus if you ask people “How do you think the majority of Russians feel about Vladimir Putin?” or “How do the majority of Russians view the government’s response to the pandemic?”, you can ask them what their perceptions are based on in order to get a clearer picture of public feeling.

Asking people about meta-opinions reduces their responsibility for giving the socially unacceptable response. Thus you can test, for example, assumptions about “grassroots neo-Stalinism” in Russia by asking “why do Russians have this kind of opinion about Stalin?” rather than asking people directly about their attitudes. It may well turn out that behind the Russian public’s apparent love for the Soviet dictator lies a dissatisfaction with the current government – a critical attitude to the authorities and Putin, rather than a popular desire for a return to dictatorship.

Reducing the ‘white noise’

Unfortunately, despite hypotheses about the role of grassroots social criticism in shaping certain moods in Russian society, mass polling on meta-opinions is yet to be used to test them.

A well-prepared meta-opinion poll is better suited to reducing sociological “white noise” (i.e. piles of data) and false impressions over respondents’ pessimism regarding their participation in socio-political action – for example, at elections. By relying on carefully prepared answers to the questions “Why do people think this?”, a meta-opinion survey can reveal less subjective and freer judgments connected to deeper sentiments underpinning potential political behaviour.

Another way to better understand the way people’s political sentiments can change, and not just to collect “opinions”, is to record attitudes to a certain event with long-term consequences.

A striking example would have been the 2020 referendum on amendments to the Russian constitution. When the referendum was held, it was suggested that the true meaning of the 206 amendments to the constitution – namely, the legalisation of Putin’s unrestricted rule and other anti-democratic measures – would reach broad public opinion in 12 months.

But if this rewriting of the constitution was carried out under the guise of affirming shared values – for example, economic growth or environmental well-being – then after a year, it would be time to ask respondents questions about how effectively this worked.

The major Russian sociological firms – the Public Opinion Foundation, Levada-Center and Russian Public Opinion Research Center – have ignored the opportunity to analyse this issue, although it could deepen understanding of public sentiment ahead of elections to the State Duma and other bodies this month.

Navalny’s smart voting

Instead of losing faith in the democratic process, critical citizens need mass polls not only to see how complicated the situation in Russia is, but that their political actions still have meaning. Political knowledge requires different efforts from everyone, but first of all from those whose professional duty is to convey knowledge about society to society itself.

Recent events in Belarus, a similar authoritarian state, show how voters’ political awareness can emerge under oppressive rule.

Prior to the 2020 presidential elections, Belarusian society began to gain a critical mass of knowledge about itself after the emergence of a political alternative – despite the de facto ban on sociological research on fundamental political issues in the country.

Alexey Navalny
(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Not so in Russia’s 2021 elections: first, these elections are not presidential, and therefore not the most “existentially significant” for citizens; second, against an absence of political alternatives, the best thing that regime critics can do is to fight Putin’s ruling United Russia party with the Smart Voting programme – a tactical voting scheme run by Alexey Navalny’s team, which shows Russians how to consolidate their protest votes, i.e. vote for a single opposition candidate in their constituency.

The problem, however, is that before it presents its results, the “smart voting” system cannot by itself be a means of self-knowledge for Russian society. You would need to deploy huge outreach efforts, including on the part of social scientists, to help voters jettison their sense of helplessness which has been instilled by state propaganda and electoral manipulations, such as the falsification of political preferences by state-controlled pollsters.

Reintroducing uncertainty into an emasculated electoral process

A more versatile picture of social sentiment will help everyone better understand the potential power of their own voices and votes. If this understanding is strengthened, then even before an opportunity for a normal democratic vote emerges in Russia, the consolidated protest behaviour of voters will already be more effective.

If we consider sociology not as an abstract science, but as a means of self-knowledge of society, then we can try to make sure that, under Russia’s electoral authoritarianism, mass polls help voters to calibrate their civic behaviour despite the absence of favourable candidates at the ballot box.

Thus smart consolidated protest voting acquires two of its most important functions: first, it can undermine attempts by the Russian authorities to remove any real competition from the contest and second, it can ensure some kind of relationship between elected officials and voters.

Under smart voting, it is not the personalities of winning politicians that are important, but the very fact of electing a representative, rather than them being appointed “from above”.

Navalny’s smart voting campaign has reintroduced uncertainty into a seemingly completely emasculated and predictable electoral process – and this also requires more active work of sociologists.

We do not know what the results of this September’s elections will be, what will be the public or international reaction to them – whether, for example, the international community could choose not to recognise them, as happened with the Belarusian elections in 2020.

Most likely, street protests à la Belarus cannot be expected this time, but even with the relative defeat of United Russia at the ballot box, the prospects for strengthening the position of society in opposition to the authorities may significantly improve on the eve of the presidential elections in 2024.

Here, a huge field for responsible social science emerges. Progress in collecting mass quantitative data, of course, cannot be reduced to the innovations outlined above. But even a small effort to combat Russia’s polling “rut” could help shape the entire polling industry to better serve the country.

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