An interview between Der Spiegel and Lev Gudkov of Levada made for a surprising read. It was framed as another piece on the amoralism and pro-war sentiment of Russians, but the actual survey results contained a bombshell: a third of Russians apparently feel moral responsibility for the death and destruction dealt Ukraine.
However, one wouldn’t realize that from the spin: One of the most circulated tweets read “‘It is disappointing’: Lev Gudkov, head of Levada Centre, on Russian society’s enduring pro-war consensus, the ritualisation of the war, & many Russians’ lack of compassion for Ukrainian victims. Stark results, bracing analysis, depressing read.’
For me, on the contrary the piece’s astounding findings were a very ‘encouraging’ read. Apparently, a third of respondents who sat down with Levada’s field researchers answered ‘yes’ to the question: ‘What do you think, do people like you bear moral responsibility for the death of civilians and destruction in Ukraine?’
Immediately, anyone with knowledge of doing fieldwork whether as a sociologist or pollster would have been gobsmacked. Not by the result (unbelievable as it is) but by the reported methodology. Yes, you read that right: Levada researchers conducted interviews in people’s homes to get this data. Where people sat down with them and not only admitted their country was morally culpable, but also committed serious criminal offences in stating something that could ‘bring the Russian Armed Forces into Disrepute’. It’s hard to believe.
Lev Gudkov – to those who know his history – is not to be trusted as a neutral and objective party especially concerning interpretations. The rest of the interview is a rehash of what he always does and says – make accusations about Russians as dupes and willing accomplices. More on that later. However, he’s got a point. The other ‘data’ still show strong support for the “actions of the Russian armed forces” (almost identical figures for months on end – another hint why survey data is a problem). Younger people are already disengaging from the war completely. TV viewers (as if this is meaningful sociological distinction to make) are much more likely to support the war.
I could write a long blogpost about methodology and so on but maybe I don’t have to? When even survey data does such a great job of showing how contradictory ‘opinion’ is, it does the job for me. We should pay less attention to survey data. Or at least we should be more honest that it’s what we call a ‘construction’ – telling us as much about the framing and political biases of the people administering it, than ‘reality’. I’ve written about this too many times on this blog before, here, and here (one of many posts on Levada) and here.
As I said on Twitter, I feel chagrin that I’m forced to defend findings like this when they kind of prove my long-held view that Levada and polling in Russia should never be taken seriously as a mirror of public opinion, when it shows public opinion doesn’t really exist (Bourdieu’s trademark here).
Of course, this being Twitter, I couldn’t leave it there. Twitter is dominated by nodding donkeys so one has to provoke. I continued my thread about the astonishing question and asked: where’s the Yougov polling on whether British people feel moral responsibility for the deaths of 70,000 civilians in Afghanistan? (sidenote – yeah I know that’s a questionable stat, especially regarding Nato-related, but hey. It would have been better to use the well-documented 7300 Iraqi civilians killed – mainly – by US forces between May 2003 and 2005 – that’s more than 10 a day).
This isn’t about Whataboutery. It’s about sociological thinking. The fact that a third of Russians admit moral responsibility in a state where such sentiments are both criminalized and socially undesirable, is pretty remarkable. Which probably means the poll is flawed, unfortunately. As one observer said: a classic quant question that says nothing. Because the answer ‘no’ itself can mean many things: ‘It’s right that we are bombing’, ‘I didn’t take the decision and cannot do anything’, ‘I feel a member of the in-group and would feel ashamed to answer differently’, ‘there is no destruction so I’ve nothing to feel ashamed about’.
Shall we return to Gudkov? Though the interview is published in English but likely was carried out in Russian, we can still dig into to things that give away Gudkov’s ongoing bias: e.g. he always emphasizes that Russians are not really internet literate and are TV focused, which is a ‘partial’ fact, to say the least. Little things, like Gudkov harping on about how little curiosity or ability to distinguish between sources Russians have, give away the projection – a highly ideological one. “Russians are a dumb bunch of cattle, willingly going into the grinder and lapping up the Soloviev.” Gudkov is just the respectable academic version of Yulia Latynina, in many ways.
Nothing could be further from the truth than Gudkov’s outdated, Soviet-era liberal-intelligentsia view. But even while admitting some opposition, Gudkov goes for the most polemical position possible. One that’s frankly fantastical and fantasist… “No [the war is not questioned], the attacks on Ukraine and the massacres play no role. The Russians have little compassion for the Ukrainians. Almost no one here talks about the fact that people are being killed in Ukraine”… which is kinda not supported by his own evidence. Once more a dead giveaway: “Russian society is amoral.” Absurd statement no sociologist would ever make. But if you know history of Soviet sociology you’ll realize Gudkov made his career on this frankly bizarre statement which was repeatedly disproven by scholars.
Gudkov goes on to make more bizarre polemical statements in the Spiegel interview. He will continue to say there’s massive support for war of conquest… right up to the point where he will flip 180 degrees… This ain’t sociology folks. Parsonian functionalism died for a reason…but lives on in Gudkov: “if I feed my dog later than usual, he doesn’t bark at me, he barks at the corner where the food usually is. It’s the same with these women. In principle, they are opposed to the war, but they can’t say so.” I’m not saying there’s nothing useful or analytically astute in the interview. There is. The point is really that Gudkov lacks any capacity to confront or interpret the massively controversial findings on moral responsibility his own data provides.
And a little aside on the ‘meta’. You find scholars/journalists alike taking Levada at face-value because our ideas of ‘public opinion’ are so impoverished. That this is privileged as knowledge over real sociology is of course a symptom of our times. Academics don’t want to look behind the curtain or criticism because they rely on the polling ecosystem for their research and ‘access’ to the field. Journalists don’t want to criticism because they are also embedded in relationships with Levada – as responses to the article and discussion around it show. Without labouring the point, it’s only people like me, with more rounded, and dare I say it, diverse, sources who are completely disconnected from the polling ecosystem who can afford to be critical. Nonetheless others questioning this production of knowledge are Sam Greene, K. Clement…to name a few writing in English.
Having said that, I can speak from a position of authority about the pitfalls of polling because, alongside doing actual sociology, I worked as a pollster, and for pollsters, and know many survey fieldworkers. See this recent post on the topic. Tldr: polling is a dark art. Back to the actual poll. Some other people commenting on it wondered: who on earth would let pollsters into their apartments for an hour interview about the war? Is this a pool of village idiots and town crazies the Levada Center curates? The mind boggles at the mechanisms to access this ‘pool’ of respondents (once again, if it is a pool and not really random – which I suspect – then that’s a big problem). Another astute observer noted: if this is ‘in person’ interviews at home, who gave access? Certainly not more middle-class people who all live in gated communities. Think about it for a moment: imagine your own milieu: who would open their door, in the middle of the day, to a pollster asking you about a war of conquest that it’s even illegal to name as such, in a society where talking about such a conflict is to put it mildly, controversial? It’s all very very fishy and none of the different explanations are good. Once more giving the word to others is instructive: ‘In a house-to-house survey you most likely have dodgy people (neither working at home, nor leaving the house for leisure) who are simultaneously willing to open the door to a stranger [a big no-no in Russia].’
Look what’s buried at the end of the interview: “The response rate hasn’t changed that much in recent months: It is between 24 and 26 percent. For comparison: In Germany, it is only slightly higher at 28 to 33 percent.” What an endorsement of method! Anyway, here’s a related write up by me for Post-Soviet Affairs of the challenges to gathering data about the war is here and has links to other scholars writing about polling.
Here’s the original data from Levada, which is of course missing many important details of how it was produced and curated: https://levada.ru/2022/12/23/konflikt-s-ukrainoj-otsenki-dekabrya-2022-goda/. The very long and convoluted Tweet thread is here: https://twitter.com/russophiliac/status/1612053135085666306. My initial tweet (‘it’s encouraging that some Russians feel the reality of war’) got 64k impressions. The tweet by another Russian observer but which reinforced the negative framing of the Der Spiegel piece got 277k. Another day, another Twitter. All ‘Russian expert’ accounts tweeting the article repeated the Spiegel headline uncritically: ‘Russians have little compassion’. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s tweet of the article got… 20k views. Thank heavens for small mercies.