Long before the Russian state declared the Levada Center, Russia’s only reputable independent polling organization, to be a “foreign agent” in September, its director, Lev D. Gudkov, knew this was going to happen.
For the last four years, Russia has required nonprofit organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they receive funding from abroad and engage in “political activity.” The law requires an organization to identify itself as a “foreign agent” in all public communications and imposes stringent financial reporting requirements.
The latest amendments to the law, proposed by the justice ministry in February and passed in May, added polling to the list of activities considered political. When I visited Mr. Gudkov in April, he said that these amendments seemed intended specifically to target his center.
For most nongovernmental organizations, it’s the reporting requirements that effectively paralyze the work. For a polling organization, it’s the designation itself: Who is going to answer questions from someone who calls and introduces themselves as a foreign agent?
So when in September the Russian justice ministry declared the Levada Center a foreign agent, Mr. Gudkov was not surprised. He had been warning about a dark turn in Russian politics longer than anyone else had.
As far back as 1994, he and his colleagues at what was then the Russian Public Opinion Research Center were challenging the narrative of a smooth transition from the Soviet system to a democratic one. By the early 2000s, Mr. Gudkov was writing about the need to revisit the concept of totalitarianism, which Kremlinologists had long retired: He thought that Russia was beginning to show symptoms of the old disease.
Totalitarian regimes have a conflicted relationship with sociology. On the one hand, they have no elections or free media from which to learn about the public mood, so they need sociologists even more than democratic governments do. On the other hand, their fear of information is directly proportional to their need for it. They fear that sociologists, if allowed to work freely, will obtain knowledge about the vulnerabilities of the regime. An ideal totalitarian regime would find a way to obtain sociological data without the sociologists.
This push-pull relationship with sociology kept playing out throughout the Soviet period. For decades, sociology was effectively a banned discipline. Even Karl Marx, in official Soviet scholarship, was stripped of his sociological credentials, retaining the title only of “founder of scientific communism, teacher and leader of the international proletariat.” But starting in the 1950s, a little bit of sociology was allowed, under the auspices of philosophy — Marxist philosophy, of course.
Mr. Gudkov first encountered sociology in the late 1960s, when he was a journalism student at Moscow State University. He signed up for an elective taught by Yuri Levada, a pioneering Soviet sociologist. Mr. Gudkov fell in love with the discipline and began begging Mr. Levada for a job.
In 1970, Mr. Levada gave the college student an administrative job on his small research team. Mr. Gudkov has told me that this was the happiest time of his life. But within two years, it was all over. Mr. Levada’s work was deemed to contain an “incorrect understanding of important political issues,” his department was eliminated and his staff had to look for jobs elsewhere.
For the next two decades, Mr. Levada’s dozen students worked at various Soviet institutions. Mr. Gudkov changed workplaces several times; in some, he was allowed to do a little bit of research, but not to publish it.
But Mr. Levada’s group continued to exist: For two decades, his former employees and a few others who joined along the way gathered at his office or at his apartment every couple of weeks, to discuss what they could learn about contemporary and classic Western sociology. Together, they kept themselves in shape academically.
In 1987, at the height of perestroika, Mr. Levada was finally allowed to reassemble his team: Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s government needed to understand the country it was trying to change. The All-Union Public Opinion Research Center was formed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it became the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
A few years after Vladimir V. Putin came to power, the Kremlin took over the Russian Public Opinion Research Center. Mr. Levada was forced out, and his team left with him. The center got a new Kremlin-appointed director and began producing research to the Kremlin’s taste.
Mr. Levada started his own shop. It was a smaller outfit, and it had lost its academic outlet, a bimonthly journal that was now in the Kremlin’s hands. The center’s staff could no longer afford to write long scholarly articles, but it continued to conduct and interpret public-opinion surveys. When Mr. Levada died in 2006, Mr. Gudkov — his youngest student — became the director of the center.
The Levada Center retained its reputation as the most reliable source on Russian public opinion. Even federal ministries occasionally commissioned surveys from it. Sometimes the results of those differed little or not at all from those produced by the Kremlin-controlled pollsters.
But the Levada sociologists could not be controlled by the Kremlin, and that sealed their fate. In the end, the Kremlin’s fear of information became stronger than the desire to know, just as Mr. Gudkov knew it would.
Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region.