Almost a year into the Kremlin’s war on civil society, the legal veneer looked familiar: A May 15 letter from prosecutors informed the Levada Center, Russia’s most authoritative independent polling firm, that in publicizing the results of its polls it “aimed at shaping public opinion on government policy” and was, therefore, a “political organization.” And, as a political organization receiving foreign grants (from the likes of the Ford and MacArthur foundations), it had to register as a “foreign agent.”
Every assault on civil society is a tragedy for Russia. Nongovernmental organizations are, first and foremost, schools of democracy, teaching personal responsibility, self-organization, peaceful dissent and compromise. Left in their rubble are stagnation, hatred and radicalism. Yet even among the myriad instances of this state-directed civil catastrophe in the making, the (likely fatal) assault on the Levada Center stands out.
The last line of Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov” — still a primer in Russian political tradition — is “Narod bezmolstvuet”: “The people are silent.” In a history strewn with tragedies and bad luck, it is hard to pinpoint the most damaging malady, but this silence is among the worst of Russia’s ills. Of course, the people were never silent: They thought and they talked to one another, even if only in whispers. But all venues for influencing their country’s course were severed — short of the periodic “bunt,” or “Russian revolt, senseless and merciless” (Pushkin again). “We did not know the country in which we lived,” Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in 1988.
So it was only natural that glasnost and public opinion polling in the Soviet Union were born in the same year: 1987. It was among the first and most exhilarating miracles of glasnost — a miracle of self-discovery: People learned what their fellow citizens thought! It was also among the surest signs that democratization was real. At long last, the country’s leaders wanted to know people’s views.
Leading the way was the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion. Known by its Russian acronym, VTsIOM, the center was soon headed by the dean of Soviet sociologists, Yuri Alexandrovich Levada, who made it into the country’s most respected polling firm.
But in September 2003 the Kremlin decided to “reclaim” VTsIOM, which was still nominally state-owned, and installed a new board of directors. The tipping point reportedly was tepid support for the four-year-old war in Chechnya. (The center publicized that 58 percent of Russians were against and only 27 percent for continuing it.) Levada quit — and the center’s entire staff, more than 100 people, left with him. There was, however, still enough space unoccupied by the state for a new and independent polling firm, bearing Levada’s name, to garner enough customers and supporters at home and abroad to sustain itself. Today, however, the government appears to have resolved to finish off the center.
For a regime that seems determined to deny the country desperately needed institutional reforms because they involve democratization — ensuring its short-term survival at the cost of the country’s long-term stagnation — the letter was a logical move. All manner of findings routinely reported by the Levada Center in the past few months have flat-out contradicted the official propaganda narrative.
One in five Russians, the center found, were considering emigration, with the rate skyrocketing to 44 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds and 36 percent among those 25 to 39. A majority of Russians (57 percent) said that that the Magnitsky Act — U.S. legislation that bars Russian officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses from entering the United States and from keeping money in U.S. banks — was aimed at those who “misuse power and violate human rights,” or at the “meretricious and corrupt Russian bureaucracy,” or at the country’s leadership that covers up the misdeeds of “swindlers and embezzlers.” By contrast, the government’s assertion that the act was aimed “against Russia” was supported by only 23 percent. The final straw for the Kremlin may have been polling data on Putin’s approval rating: It was at the lowest level in 12 years, Levada reported in January. Less than two weeks ago, the center found that if the presidential election were held this month, only 29 percent were ready to vote for Putin.
“We will continue our activity, although we are in a very difficult situation,” Levada Center director Lev Gud kov, a man of a quick smile and impeccably objective analysis, recently told an interviewer. But it was “out of the question” for the center to register as a “foreign agent.” “A totally new period has begun in Russia,” he added, “the suppression of all independent organizations by the Kremlin.”
Six and a half years ago in this newspaper, I said farewell to Yuri Levada, a great political sociologist and a dear friend. This news from Moscow is like burying him again.
Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.