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Sticks and Stones

Kremlin officials have become even more indifferent to international opinion than their Soviet-era predecessors. From openDemocracy.

by Vladimir Shlapentokh 10 June 2013

Throughout the 19th century and the 74 years of the USSR, Russian leaders displayed varying degrees of sensitivity to international public opinion, often suggesting that their officials avoid any behavior that might bring down on them the ire of the West. Western travelers to Russia, such as the Marquis de Custine (Empire of the Tsar: a Journey Through Eternal Russia, 1839) or Sir Moses Montefiore (who visited Russia in 1849 and wrote a memorandum of his impressions) noted the often awkward attempts of Russian officials to present their country to foreigners in the best possible light at the behest of Tsar Nicholas I. 


In the 20th century, those who attended the 1980 Olympic Games remember the energetic attempts made by Brezhnev’s officials to please foreign visitors. There were hundreds of Soviet jokes about the ruses devised by the authorities to try and present Russia to foreigners in a favorable light.


Under President Putin, however, Kremlin attitudes to international public opinion have changed radically. He has put a stop to attempts to gain the support of Western public opinion, rejecting any public criticism of his regime and sanctioning any act that will support it.


Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Space Launch Center in Aprill. Photo by the Kremlin press office.


The Khodorkovsky case was the first sign of Putin’s growing indifference to Western public opinion. His arrest in 2003, first trial in 2005, and the second in 2010 aroused a storm of protest in the United States and Europe, but Putin was implacable and a third trial could even be in the cards.


The 2009 prison death (actually murder) of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer and accountant who had revealed a multimillion dollar embezzlement by government officials, triggering an angry international campaign and demands for punishment of the relevant law enforcement agencies.  Once more the Kremlin refused to react to the international outcry; or to the threat by the U.S. Congress to introduce a law banning those officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the United States. When the Magnitsky Act was passed and signed by President Obama in 2012, Moscow reacted defiantly, barring the adoption of Russian children by would-be parents in the United States.


The new law on “foreign agents” and the closure of the Russian USAID program, one of the American government’s most important agencies, were the next steps aimed directly at insulting the United States and international public opinion.


The Kremlin displayed the same contempt for Western outrage in the Pussy Riot case. Perhaps the group’s unauthorized guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was both tasteless and deserving of disapproval, but sending three young women to prison for two years can only be described as cruel overreaction.  Western political figures and musicians protested, but to no avail.


Protests at the Kremlin’s evident intention to jail the charismatic blogger Alexei Navalny, now on trial on a trumped-up charge, have also been ignored by the Kremlin, which has remained similarly unmoved by the flight to the West of the economist Sergei Guriev, under threat of arrest for his connection with Navalny.




The history of sociology in Russia serves as a good illustration of the new policy toward international public opinion.


In the late 1950s the Kremlin permitted the emergence of empirical sociology in the Soviet Union as a demonstration to both its own intelligentsia and, more importantly, the West that it had embarked on a path of gradual liberal reform. In 1958 the Institute of Concrete Social Research was established, a powerful argument to Western observers that the Soviet regime had changed course. Soviet scholars were allowed to attend international congresses as full-fledged members of the profession, and in 1966 some sociologists (well-monitored by the KGB) attended the International Congress of Sociologists in Evian.


There was, of course, a system of tight controls: every word in a questionnaire had to be endorsed by three or four levels of academic and party hierarchy, though the authorities required the sociologists to conceal from their foreign colleagues just how restricted they were in their activities and how much under the control of the party and the KGB.


The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia resulted in a Kremlin attack on honest sociologists. This was disguised as a debate within the sociological academic community and had at its center the figure of Yuri Levada, one of the discipline’s main theorists. In his Lectures on Sociology (1968) he denounced the tank invasion of Prague, for which he was sacked from both Moscow University and the Institute of Sociology. He refused to repent, though his challenge to the party meant that he would spend the rest of his life cut off from professional work and living with the threat that at any moment he could be sent to the Gulag.  Had he actually been arrested, public interest would have been minimal. He was under constant KGB surveillance and was unable to teach, publish, run seminars, or participate in conferences. There was, of course, no question of him traveling abroad. His students, including the future director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, were unable to find jobs. The Kremlin was incensed by the social scientist who had challenged its power, but did everything it could to hush up the scandal. The media said nothing about the attacks on Levada.

Yuri Levada

By the first years of the Putin regime, Levada had not only the reputation of a staunch (former) Soviet dissident – a status awarded by public opinion to very few intellectuals – but an active career in circumstances he could only have dreamed of during the long dreary years of the 1970s and 1980s.


Boris Yeltsin had invited him to become a member of the Presidential Council and, together with the radical scholar Tatyana Zaslavskaya, he became the director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), the first social survey organization in the history of Russia, asking the Russian public questions that would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. Levada’s greatest achievement was to put together a group of young people devoted to the quest for truth – as far as possible in social research – and ready to fight for their freedom as researchers. Articles by him appeared regularly in the press and he became a familiar figure on television. A complete change of fortune for someone who for so many years had lived with the constant threat of imprisonment.


But the fairy tale started to unravel when Putin came to power. When he decided to do away with any doubt as to the legitimacy of his position, Levada once more found himself in the firing line because Putin recognized in him a pollster who, unlike many of his colleagues in other similar organizations, could not be bought off or scared. The Kremlin decided to exploit the formal connection between Levada’s company VTsIOM and the state (the center was officially part of the Labor Ministry): in 2003 Levada was removed from his position as director and replaced with a yes-man. This time public opinion at home and abroad did react: Putin was travelling to the United States and, at a meeting with journalists, was attacked with questions about Levada. But there was no question of Levada’s re-instatement and the outcry in the American media was ignored.




The mass protest movement of 2011-2013 produced the same effect on Putin as the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Once more Moscow regarded the United States as the instigator of the protests, whether sincerely or not is immaterial. This time the Kremlin decided to escalate the fight against the opposition and eradicate the last oasis of resistance. The ideological device for the new offensive was the “foreign agent.”  In our globalized world practically every organization in Russia has some connection with the West, even with the United States, so it is not difficult to brand any group, association or company as “foreign agents.” With an enviable self-confidence, Putin’s henchmen dismissed any criticism from the United States as irrelevant and not meriting any attention.


After a raid on the Levada Center, the Kremlin officials wrote a warning memo to the center about its foreign companies, which subsequently became a laughingstock throughout the world. This quasi historical document accuses the center of engaging in political activity by producing data that can be exploited, for instance, “in an election campaign or a debate in parliament.” In the mind of Putin’s ruling elite the Levada Center’s guilt is compounded by the fact that the firm is in receipt of monies from abroad, chiefly the United States, even though this represents no more than 2 percent of its total income. The accusation is that the center is turning into a “foreign agent” representing the interests of a foreign country in Russia.


The implications of this accusation are many. Firstly, as Lev Gudkov said in his statement on the subject, it signals a return to the political climate of the pre-perestroika era. As in many other areas, the fact that there is some freedom conceals the restoration of elements of totalitarianism. On the surface, sociologists are not monitored on a daily basis by political minders as they were before 1985, but the indirect methods of control, including self-censorship and fear, are enough to make sociologists and the media react instantly to signals from the Kremlin. Every polling company in Russia keeps its eye firmly on the ball: there is no need for state intervention or memos to compel the bosses or their subordinates to engage in self-censorship or to contemplate becoming an informer for the authorities. Russian sociologists enjoyed freedom of social research for such a relatively short time; now it is once more gone and probably for a long time.


The 2013 attack on the Levada Center was indeed a clear message to all sociologists and pollsters that Russia’s boss will not countenance any data that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of his leadership. Many observers have pointed out that Putin’s attention is constantly focused on two sets of data: the price of oil and his popularity rating in Russia. The head of the Kremlin may have no leverage over the first, but he is confident that he can regulate the second.


Indeed, the lack of free and fair elections or a strong ideology makes Putin’s ratings one of the few props available to the regime. The Kremlin has virtually said it will not allow a recurrence of the situation in May 2012, when social survey companies loyal to the government reported approximately 64 percent support for Putin among Muscovites, whereas the Levada Center figure was 20 percent. The center also published data showing that 51 percent of Russians agree with Navalny’s description of United Russia as the party of “crooks and swindlers.” The argument of some Russian liberals that the Kremlin leaders are depriving themselves of real data on the state of affairs in the country is no more convincing than suggestions to the Soviet leaders that it would be in their interests to support empirical social studies. For the Putin (as for the Soviet) regime objective information is more of a danger, because it helps the enemy, than a benefit that would provide information as to how best to remain in power (which they know without being told). 


Putin will certainly get good ratings from polling firms now.  The old joke in Alexander Zinoviev’s 1977 novel Yawning Heights about the Kremlin leaders who were disappointed with their sociologists because the popularity rating of the General Secretary was reported as 120 percent when they expected 140 percent has once more become relevant. In recent years the Russian public has doubted the validity of much of the data produced by various organizations, but been more sure that Levada Center information is still reliable. Now they will doubt that the center, if it survives, has been able to preserve its independence without having to yield to Kremlin pressure.


The attack on the Levada Center was the culmination of the Kremlin campaign against “foreign agents” (for “foreign” read “American”).  Many organizations in Russia have been harassed, but the Levada attack is particularly significant because it was aimed at freedom of speech. It is in effect yet another indication that for Russia the United States is public enemy No. 1 whose agents have penetrated every single cell of Russian society.


Vladimir Shlapentokh is a professor of sociology at Michigan State University who has worked on Soviet and Russian society and politics. This article originally appeared on

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