Monday, October 5, 2015

Two Encouraging Russian Polls: Few Back ‘Foreign Agent’ Law and Many Torture Victims Protest

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 5 – Fewer than one Russian in five thinks the Kremlin’s “foreign agent” law which requires NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register as such and almost half of those who have been victims of torture by the Russian siloviki say they have turned to various agencies for defense against such abuse, according to two new polls.

            The first of these findings, Asmik Novikova, a researcher for the Public Verdict Foundation, shows that Russians have been far less swept along by the regime on this issue than many think; and the second that Russians are less “nihilistic” about law than many suppose and are ready to invoke the law in their own defense (

            The Kremlin has argued that Russians need to know who is paying for those who publish books, conduct meetings or engage in other kinds of activities, but, the sociologist says, “half of those polled do not see any use for themselves in such information.” Twenty-eight percent found it hard to answer, and “only 18 percent” said that the law was useful.

            Thus, Novikova continues, “a little more than 80 percent, that is the overwhelming majority either do not understand why it is necessary to have the ‘agent’ status’ or do not consider this demand of the law as useful for themselves.” Moreover, Russians were divided on whether such a label harmed the NGOs involved.

            Roughly a third (31 percent) said such labelling was insulting, 40 percent said they didn’t see any problems with it, and roughly another third (29 percent) said that they couldn’t say whether it was or not. That suggests, the researcher argues, that Russian society is roughly divided in thirds rather than monolithically united.

            A second poll about how many Russians have been victims of torture by the authorities and how they react to it reflects a similar division in society, she says.  Seven percent of Russians – approximately 10 million people – say they have been victims of police torture, with a third turning to the authorities for redress, a third to NGOs, and only a third not protesting.

            Almost half (42 percent) of Russians who have been victims of torture say they have made use of legal means to defend themselves against it. According to Novikova, this is a very high figure and suggests that the widespread view that Russians will not make use of law to defend themselves is at a minimum overstated.

            Moreover, and even more encouraging, victims are quite prepared to spend money and often a lot of it on lawyers or on organizations that can help them seek redress for the crimes committed against them by the authorities, the sociologist says.

            Torture remains a major problem in Russia. About half of those queried (46 percent), Novikova continues, say that the police engage in torture. Just under a quarter (23 percent) say they don’t, and almost a third (31 percent) say they are unsure, a pattern that gives context to other reports that the attitudes of citizens toward the police have improved of late.

            (Some groups in the Russian Federation are particularly likely to be the victims of torture by the police and penal authorities. Among the most common victims are Chechens incarcerated there, as a new survey of that problem “from hell” provided by Radio Liberty’s Russian Service shows (

            But on the basis of these two polls, Novikova draws what she says are two “cautiously” optimistic conclusions: the Kremlin’s “foreign agent” campaign has not discredited NGOs involved in the defense of the rights of Russians, and Russians themselves increasingly see such groups as “effective provides of legal help,” at least in the case of victims of torture.

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