Saturday, November 14, 2015

Putin’s Poll Numbers High Because Russians View Surveys as ‘Loyalty Tests,’ Eidman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 14 – Russians say they support Vladimir Putin not because they do but because “many if not the majority” of those taking part in polls view them as “a kind of loyalty test, something like the examination for political literacy in the USSR,” according to Igor Eidman.

            Eidman, himself a Moscow sociologist and political commentator, says that “public opinion appears at a definite level of freedom and culture, but fear and total propaganda kill it.” Consequently, “public opinion does not exist in all countries” and therefore reports about it cannot be easily compared (

            It is obvious to all that “it would have been senseless to ask serfs about their attitudes toward their lords or Soviet citizens during the time of the Great Terror about what they thought about Soviet power,” he continues. But it is not recognized by all that “in the contemporary world, public opinion exists in far from all countries.”

            It doesn’t exist in North Korea or among the aborigines living in the Andaman Islands, and “contemporary Russia is an unfree country where live a large number of people who are afraid or are unable to express or even formulate an opinion which is different from the predominant one.”

            Consequently, the Moscow sociologist says, Russian responses to polls “often are not the result of a personal choice but of the views imposed by the regime which they simply translate as a radio translates the voice of a broadcaster.” And they must be evaluated in those terms rather than in the ones used to consider polls taken in free countries.

            Some of his acquaintances in Moscow, Eidman says, say privately that they are afraid to “like” or comment on opposition texts which appear on Facebook. “Such people will thus not openly tell sociologists about their political positions,” either refusing to take part or giving the answers they know the authorities want.

            Such behavior is “quite widespread in contemporary Russian society,” the sociologist says, and “this is one of the reasons why polls do not reflect a real picture of societal attitudes. Fear makes impossible a serious investigation of public opinion,” and “total propaganda excludes the chance for its formation.”

            Eidman points out that there is a serious distinction between propaganda and “total propaganda.” The first exists everywhere, but the second exists only where the state monopolizes the main channels of information, as the Kremlin does with television. That allows for “brainwashing on a broad scale which kills individual opinion.”

            The late Vladimir Shlyapentokh, the pioneer of mass polling in the USSR, he continues, sought “a non-existent public opinion much as medieval alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone.”

            “That public opinion does not exist in Russia any more is shown, for example, by the rapid and radical change of declared views of respondents after the beginning of the government campaign to intensify hurrah-patriotic hysteria in 2014-2015,” Eidman says. Such changes in the actual opinions of Russians so quickly are improbable.

            Exactly how much of these changes are the result of government brain washing and how much are genuine, of course, is impossible to say. “But the very presence in society of fear and total propaganda affects the outcomes of the polls as the presence of doping in the blood of athletes affects his achievements.”

            Thus, Russian polls are useful but not as a measure of public opinion, which doesn’t exist. Instead, they show what the regime would like people to say and the willingness of people to go along.  But that means they do not have any predictive value: “As soon as fear and propaganda disappear or change directions, the opinions of people will be radically changed.”

            They can sometimes tell both the direction the regime is moving and the willingness of Russians to go along. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 61 percent of Russians now think that “parts of neighboring countries belong to Russia,” a view that opens the way to more territorial seizures in the future.

            And polls in Russia are also useful in showing just how large a share of the population is prepared to declare its disagreement with the authorities.  At present, some ten to twenty percent are.  But “this is only the tip of the iceberg: the majority of those who disagree in current circumstances are hardly prepared to declare their opposition.”

            Consequently, Eidman says, “the behavior of respondents in Russia does not show that the Putin regime is in reality as strong as it is typically believed.”

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