Saturday, October 26, 2019

New Russian Study Identifies Three Reasons Why Official Statistics are So Often at Odds with Reality

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 22 -- It is common ground that official Russian statistics are often at odds with reality, but that divergence has seldom been the subject of academic research. Now, Olga Molyarenko of the Higher School of Economics has filled that gap with a study based on 270 in-depth interviews with officials at various levels.

            In her article, “Generating State Statistics: а View from ‘Below’” ((in Russian), ЕСО  10 (2019): 8-34 at; summarized by Svetlana Saltanova at, the sociologist identifies three reasons why official statistics and reality are so often different.

            Her findings do not so much contradict what most have long assumed is the cause of this divide as provide confirmation and some additional details.

            The first reason for the divergence between official statistics and perceived reality, she says, is that the official statistics simplify reality both by ignoring certain things like the role of food raised in gardens and sold at hunting when talking about income levels and by failing to take into account regional variations in the mix of what is counted and what is not.

             This is compounded, Molyarenko continues, by the fact that for many measures, there is no single agreed-upon definition of what is included and what is not, with the result being that some officials count things that others do not in any particular category. This is especially often the case when statistics are gathered by officials who are not part of the same bureaucracy. 

            The second cause involves distortions that arise because some figures are actual counts while others are merely estimates, the latter being offered when there simply aren’t enough bureaucrats to do a count or when senior officials aren’t prepared to commit what resources they do have to a particular enumeration.

            These problems have become worse since 1991 and especially since 2005 because the government has significantly reduced the number of officials assigned to count various kinds of phenomena. Since 1991, Molyarenko says, the number of such people has fallen “approximately 40 percent” overall and in some sectors much more. 

            And the third cause is intentional lying either by simply inventing figures or more often by reporting and playing up positive news while underreporting or not reporting at all negative developments the powers that be do not want to know themselves or do not want people to pay attention to.

            “Statistics are a political instrument,” she says; and leaders often make choices about what they want to see issued. But both for that reason and also out of  careerist motives, officials lower down the bureaucratic pyramid may distort things because they believe that is what Moscow wants  whether it does or not.

            The divergence between official statistics and reality is greatest in the economy and demography, particularly in the relative position of various groups, and least about the size and holdings of the government, the number of hospitals, and so on.

            Because good policy requires reliable statistics and because the absence of those undermines public trust, Molyarenko continues, the government should work far harder to ensure that its numbers are accurate.  But, she says, that this is unlikely to happen in the near future given that the existing arrangements suit so many different officials high and low.

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