Sunday, February 12, 2023

Despite Criticism, Public Opinion Polls Remain a Reliable Source on Public Attitudes, Volkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Feb. 10 – Russians have always been suspicious of the accuracy and reliability of public opinion polls; and these suspicions have only intensified in the year since Vladimir Putin launched his broader war in Ukraine and expanded crackdown inside the country, Denis Volkov says.

            Used carefully, analysis of recent polls suggests that public opinion polls “remain a reliable tool for understanding what is going on,” the head of the Levada polling agency says, much more accurate and therefore useful than “various journalistic and political speculations” (

            In a new article, Volkov deals with the most common criticisms. It is true that the number of Russians who refuse to take part in surveys is higher than in most countries, but the level has been remarkably stable rather than going up in times of crisis as one might expect and thus can be factored into analyses.

            Moreover, there have been only a handful of cases when Russians have agreed to be surveyed but then refused to answer questions about politically sensitive issues like the war in Ukraine, the sociologist says. If the results were truly politicized as some suspect, there would be a very different pattern.

            Moreover, because pollsters ask about a variety of questions, it is possible to establish whether there is a broad consensus or not. In fact, polls showed that Russians had lined up behind Putin on Ukraine long before he acted on February 24, a pattern that explains why there have not been the changes in attitudes one would have expected if the reverse were true.

            Volkov then addresses the objection to polls that is perhaps most often heard now: that respondents are under increasing pressure from the powers that be and “therefore will never say what they really think.” But that criticism fails to recognize that “surveys are not conducted using a polygraph and only record what people are willing to share.”

            They do provide information about a key variable: “how people are ready to behave in public.” There is no question that they are under increasing pressure but the main goal of that pressure is to get people to change their behavior. But neither polls nor any other source show that the powers that be have been entirely successful.


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