Why Russia needs the Levada Center

Independent sociological research in Russia is under serious threat. The country’s leading non-governmental polling agency has been labelled a “foreign agent” and may have to close. Русский

Оксана Бочарова
14 September 2016

For 28 years, the Levada Center has remained the most important research institute in Russia. (c) Mikhail Metzel / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.On 5 September, Russia’s ministry of justice added the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, commonly known as the Levada Center, to its register of NGOs that supposedly function as foreign agents. The authorities accuse the center of receiving foreign funding to carry out political activity.

Lev Gudkov, the centerƒ’s director, has said that the ministry has no legal basis for this decision, and the Russian Association for Market and Opinion Research (OIROM), whose members include the country’s major sociological research organisations, has given the center its support.

The Levada Center is not the first organisation of its kind to have been registered as a "foreign agent". St Petersburg’s Center for Independent Social Research (CISR) and the Social Politics and Gender Research Center in Saratov, which has been forced to close, were already on the list.

Now any further work by the Levada Center is under threat. The authorities are evidently unhappy with the results of recent polls it carried out in the run up to the Duma elections, which take place on 18 September.

There are about 150 organisations already on the register, but the Levada Center is a special case: it plays a distinct role, and not just within Russia’s sociological community. Over the last quarter century, it has had a unique function within Russian society as a whole.

For engaged Russian citizens, the Levada Center’s name has become a synonym for “opinion polls”

For engaged Russian citizens, the Levada Center’s name has become a synonym for “opinion polls”. But its role in the recording, awareness raising and analysis of the processes taking place in the country today is, of course, more significant than the mere opinion poll results that get into the media.

Where it all began

The sociologist and philosopher Yuri Levada (1930-2006) first assembled his team of researchers in 1988, when he founded his independent institute to survey topical and headline subjects alongside the theoretical analysis and monitoring of processes in Russian society. Until 2003, the institute was known as the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

The centrt’s motto “From opinions to understanding” sums up precisely what the Levada team has always aimed to do: not just to collect and publish data on politicians’ approval ratings, voters’ electoral preferences and reactions to important events, but to describe and analyse ongoing processes.

It’s important to remember that Russia’s entire survey industry — now a large and expanding sector of the economy — more or less owes its existence to Yuri Levada’s “old” center, basically a school of applied sociology, for the study of public opinion. Many of today’s leaders in the area took their first professional steps at the institute and the research methods that have become universal, including street and telephone surveys, monthly monitoring of public opinions on a whole range of issues, focus groups, were first tested, developed and invented there.

The Levada Center was one of the symbols of the new age — full of hardships, upheavals and hopes

In the 1990s, when the old Soviet order and its symbols collapsed and the rhythm of Russian public life changed, Levada and his team were on the cutting edge of events. The Levada Center was one of the symbols of the new age — full of hardships, upheavals and hopes.

In that time of abundant independent media outlets, survey results appeared in the papers and on TV nearly every day. We’re not used to that any more, but then it was part of everyday life back then. Concepts that are now totally natural to us, that we use daily in conversations about politics or the public mood — trust ratings for the president and major institutions; readiness to vote and take part in elections; satisfaction with our country’s state of affairs — all entered Russia’s public consciousness thanks to the Levada Center (and its predecessor’s) opinion polls.

The center’s sociologists, with the help of the public, fixed key moments and ups and downs of the Russian public’s mood: the illusion of a rapid and painless transition to the market economy and European values; the ideological and symbolic confrontation between “communists” and “democrats”; attitudes to the Chechen War, the succession of elections and the gradual slide in the public mood towards distrust, apathy and isolationism.

Admittedly, even then, in the late 1990s, sociologists were already talking about tendencies within the population that have now become mainstream — anti-western sentiments, the search for a common enemy and people uniting around that search, and a turning back to the past in a search for positive values.

By the late 1990s, sociologists were already talking about anti-western sentiments, the search for a common enemy and a turning back to the past in a search for positive values

In the 2000s, despite the first wave of official harassment and the loss of its original “brand name”, the Levada Institute was still alive and at work. The first attack came in 2003, when the Russian government tried to put it under official control. The entire team, headed by Yuri Levada himself, resigned and set up a new organisation that we have known as the Levada Center for 13 years now.

In 2006, Yuri Levada died, and was replaced as director by his colleague and former student Lev Gudkov.

Levada polls are sociology

To use primitive sociological terminology, we can say that the Levada Center carries out a variety of essential functions for various classes and groups within the population, and talks to everyone.


For the man or woman in the street, for example, Levada polls are sociology. Sure, “ordinary people” are only interested in the basic facts, are unlikely to read sociologists’ analytical articles and rarely listen to their commentaries. But they know that there is this mirror of public opinion that it’s sometimes useful to look into, although they’re not always inclined to believe what they see. Director of the Levada Center Lev Gudkov, during a broadcast of “Mr. Good”, a popular programme on Dozhd TV. (c) Valery Levitin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.For the “educated classes”, the Levada Center is the embodiment of independence, objectivity and professionalism.

The government, which personifies the “officious” quasi-patriotic position and viewpoint, and those who directly or indirectly do its bidding, are everywhere, especially in the media. But the public needs to hear other voices, and the Levada Center is undoubtedly one of these. In the last few years the center has produced some highly disputed poll results, especially those presenting Putin’s approval ratings at a high of 86%, and has been accused of dishonesty, but its staff have explained the figures in detail.

When commenting on their data, the sociologists of the Levada Center do not hide their critical position towards the authorities, but this does not distort the picture they paint. This is precisely why society needs their sober, sensible and diligent work.

But as well as conducting polls and calculating ratings, the center is also a major research body for the social sciences and their community. The people who have created its reputation and fame — Yuri Levada himself, current director Lev Gudkov, the late Boris Dubin who headed the socio-political research department, analytical department head Aleksey Levinson — nonetheless founded a scientific school that from the mid 1980s has discussed the social and socio-cultural changes taking place in Russian society.

This research team, effectively created from scratch, developed and invented the language and concepts that can be used to describe and understand the social processes going on in Russia. It was they who saw, named and speculated about such concepts as doublethink as an element of the mass consciousness of “Soviet man”; negative identification (the desire of society and mass consciousness to unite around the idea of the “enemy” and “negative” attitudes; imperial consciousness (a tendency to adopt imperial attitudes and symbols and appeal to government to take decisions for them); adaptation as a reaction to social change; self-isolation (“we take our own road”) and the atomisation of society (weak horizontal connections; distrust of social institutions; reliance on family and a close circle of friends).
When commenting on their data, the sociologists of the Levada Center do not hide their critical position towards the authorities, but this does not distort the picture they paint 

Perhaps the Levada Center’s most famous and fundamental concept is the “Soviet Man” project. This is a long term programme that is already in its third decade, its aim being to use the data collected in its surveys to “expose”, examine from various angles and try to understand the socio-anthropological human “type” that was formed in the Soviet era.

In the early 1990s, the “Levadovites” thought that this was a “dying breed” which needed to be studied as soon as possible, before it disappeared. But with time, the illusions faded, and the aims and subject matter of the project changed. Sociologists are now trying to understand why the inertia of “Soviet man” is so strong in our modern post-Soviet citizens, how and in what way we are still Soviet and how these attitudes and values mutate from passive lack of involvement in public life to an ostensible mobilisation.

Now isn’t just sociologists who increasingly talk about neo-conservatism, about a symbiosis of patriarchal values and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, about hunting for enemies — and all this is happening against a backdrop of continuing economic difficulties and a general feeling of instability, uncertainty and even fear for the future. At the same time, we lack mutual trust and respect, independent public institutions and other mechanisms of civil society that could help us through this systemic social crisis.

We need the Levada Center, if only to stop us from deceiving ourselves.

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