Saturday, October 8, 2016

Russians May Care Far Less about Foreign Agent Designations than Kremlin Thinks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – Vladimir Putin clearly expects that Russians will be put off by and avoid any organization his regime designates as “a foreign agent” because it receives money from abroad.  But the experience of the Levada Center, one of the institutions he has classed in this way, suggests that the epithet itself may not be having that effect.

            In the course of a discussion about recent poll results on declines in the Russian standard of living, Lev Gudkov, the Center’s director said that “no more than one percent of our respondents in connection with this status expressed to sociologists of the agency distrust by refusing to speak with our representatives” (

            If Gudkov’s experience is shared by other institutions Putin has sought to demonize in this way, it may mean that the Kremlin’s efforts in this direction are failing and that Russians view this as a kind of inside-the-ring-road politicking that has little or nothing to do with their real lives.

            And that in turn raises the more general question about how much Russians actually care about other Kremlin labels, even if they are prepared to give lip service to official polltakers rather than risk censure or the loss of benefits or position. Such attitudes might mean many Russians are far more indifferent to what the regime says that surveys often suggest.

            Gudkov’s other comments point to that conclusion. He says that there is a widespread opinion that Russians are unwilling to share their views on political issues even anonymously. “But,” he says, “pay attention to the fact that as soon as one talks about … corruption in the highest reaches of the state” and about the suffering of the population as a result of government policies, individuals “begin to speak directly about what they think.”

            If they are asked directly whether they are afraid to answer certain questions, Russians overwhelmingly respond that they aren’t.  But deeper studies suggest, Gudkov continues, that about 10 to 12 percent are “really afraid” to say things they believe the authorities would not approve of. The rest aren’t.

            Gudkov also commented on the widespread view that United Russia won an “unqualified” victory in the recent Duma elections. He said that “in fact, only 26 percent” of all those with the right to vote cast their ballots for it this time around, 10 percent less than the figure in 2011. 

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