A belated reflection on the Duma elections of 2021. I’d hoped to get this out before the vote itself….
How useful is political polling in Russia? Can we really talk about political preferences in a system where massive manipulation is an open secret to everyone? What does it mean to measure voters’ ‘interests’ in such a system? This looks even more of an issue after the failure of smart voting.
There are other problems too. As Greg Yudin, the public sociologist has repeatedly pointed out, the three dominant pollsters in Russia repeatedly conduct surveys with questions worded in such a way to reproduce their own political biases and those of their funders.
But what if the problem with measuring public opinion were far worse than methodological? What if polling completely fails at really capturing the worldviews of Russians, who are, in social or economic terms, quite distant from the institutions that collect opinions? What if a more important question relating to the current election was about why people don’t vote, despite a lot of pressure in the Russian case. Or if they do vote, but don’t really identify with their political party of choice, what would that tell us? And if they voted against all (by spoiling their ballot paper), or against the ruling party of United Russia, what could that tell us about Putin’s legitimacy and the prospects for change in Russia?
As a sometimes political ethnographer my job is to try to get beyond superficial measurements of party preferences and get inside people’s understanding of the political – if they have one. Many political phenomena lend themselves poorly to quantitative, or polling analysis, and Russia – where opposition and dissent has been expelled from the public sphere, is a case in point. Like the ‘shy’ Conservative voter, those voting for the ruling party in Russia or against it might have many reasons for concealing their preferences, even to friends and relatives. Similarly, polling even when longitudinal, still struggles with the gradations and contingency of opinion – how it is a process, and not a fixed end point. Talking to people at length and taking their worldviews seriously is an important supplement to polling. Before and after the previous parliamentary election in 2016, I asked my long-term research participants about how they’d vote. Remember this is when United Russia got a stonking constitutional majority and everyone knew this would happen before the fact.
The little commented elephant in the room in 2016 was collapsing turnout, officially less than 50% and a record low. Official turnout this time was 51%. Probably it was substantially less than that, even in places where politics was still viewed as partially competitive such as Moscow – perhaps 38%. Certainly, most of my long-term participants had long given up voting even then. Now, voting is largely confined to two groups – pensioners in Moscow supporting the status quo that has insulated them from the economic weakness of the Russian economy since 2014, and those in state service who are effectively forced to vote. Beyond Moscow there is a sea of indifference. Only that’s not quite true – there is resentment, disappointment, tristesse. Tristesse is a term – listlessness and cynicism as symptoms of a loss of political faith – that some sociologists view as a harbinger of internal collapse of authoritarian regimes. But let’s not be so naïve, the parallels with the late Soviet period are limited.
There is a core vote of loyalty, and it’s genuine. There are enough people – the minority of 20% – who materially have done well, whether by moving up the ranks of state service, or in business. In fact the only public political talk among people that I hear is quite divided. On the one hand heartfelt praise of Putin – ‘he’s done so much for the country. He’s doing his best!’ is the ambivalent summary of one neighbour. I point out that her relative’s business was forced into bankruptcy – doesn’t she link that with the economy? ‘Oh, no, it’s because of the enemies that Russia has – because they envy Putin.’ Being surrounded by enemies, real and imagined, internal and external requires visible and symbolic acts of loyalty, and voting is one of the only ones possible. And it’s not only pensioners – there are many others whose material circumstances demand that to avoid cognitive dissonance they make sure their consumption of news and current affairs is suitably hygienic – ‘no, no, don’t talk to me about that thief and fascist Navalny!’ As if the very name could summon an army of LGBT Ukrainians to the Spassky Gates. They voted for UR with gusto. On the other hand, there are small business owners, crushed by Covid and the general economic malaise who blame Putin directly. For me, open and public condemnation of the government in the last couple of years is still surprising and noteworthy.
In 2016 in the sleepy deindustrializing corner of Kaluga region where most of my research takes place I discovered a political conspiracy. ‘Smart voting’ avante la lettre. Of course this ‘discovery’ merely revealed my blindspot – in reality Russia’s turn to authoritarianism has not spelled the death of politics. Just because popular representation does not exist, doesn’t mean even the most marginalised snatch hold of the political wherever they can find it. Mostly it reveals itself in ecological and municipal activism. But to my surprise in 2016, I only had to ask and the most apolitical of people would suddenly reveal that they’d weighed up with their trusted circle – usually in a smart-phone messaging app – the pros and cons, and they were going to vote KPRF. To stop UR. These were mainly young people – but from all walks of life. Older people and some of the more stark losers of the postcommunist transformation were always sympathetic to the carnivalesque national populism of LDPR, but again, for the first time in 2016 they were making a rational choice for Zhirinovsky’s party, for his more populist social policies, and to stop the constitutional majority forming for UR.
So what has changed since 2016? In some respects, Navalny’s smart voting tactics are late to the party (pun intended). Those groups he needs for a broad anti-Putin coalition – the kind of disaffected younger people at the heart of my research, are now largely demobilized. It’s true as this report shows, that smart voting could (without the fix we observed) have a measurable effect in large cities. And, as Felix Light observes, the communists were making something of a comeback – but the real noteworthy shift was already taking place five years ago online, with dissenting political personalities cutting through on Instagram clips shared in the safety of Whatsapp and Viber. This re-activated interest. Vlogs and blogs from people like KPRF’s Nikolai Bondarenko – regardless of his political affiliation – convinced people that political voice was still meaningful. Navalny in this world was almost nowhere in sight. Bondarenko has one and a half million subscribers in YouTube, but his Instagram videos were already going viral – under the radar of most Moscow observers – years ago. However, in the best traditions of Muscovites noticing transformations in the wider Russia after they’ve already happened, this brief moment of political activation is on the wane now. For the most part, people are realists – ‘we’re stuck with this system till the end’, a young security guard and former ER, turned 2016-KPRF voter told me. ‘Why should I waste my time voting, now?’
As I found in 2016, the main response is ‘we would vote KPRF, or LDPR if it made a difference, but it doesn’t. We’re not stupid, why would we vote?’ Others go further in their perfectly rational reasoning about voting or not voting: ‘I would vote against all on principle. We have an artificial system and it’s not right, but why vote if the result is a foregone conclusion’. This was from a formerly loyal UR voter and even today a big Putin fan. Another pensioner, also a big fan of Putin, says she’ll not vote UR anymore. She pauses, looks a little sheepish and then breaks into a broad grin and whispers: ‘L-D-P-R!’ More pensioners: this time a couple who worked at the local factory. ‘We don’t know who to vote for. Putin is smart and knows how to talk, but other parties have more interesting policies. The Duma should be diverse. You need real discussion and debate. Maybe KPRF is the answer, but I’ve never voted for them before and they say some bad things about them on the TV.’
We focus so much on the national press and TV, but the local newspapers are still important outside Moscow and St Petersburg. This summer I noticed that in every single issue of the local paper there was some random story about the Kaluga Children’s Ombudsman visiting this or that place – often with no real connection to youth matters, and with a prominent photo of her at the head of the article. It took me a while to work out that this was the UR single-mandate candidate for this part of Kaluga Region – of course the newspaper mentioned her candidacy or even the elections. On the Ombudsman’s VK pages some noted with cynicism: ‘it’s a month to the elections, people, make the most of this chance to get your local playground fixed, or your school roof replaced!’ However, this invisible campaigning tactic is likely to be more successful than not. One of my professedly apolitical research participants is a municipal office worker. She tells me: ‘I didn’t ever vote before. I always reasoned: it doesn’t matter how you vote.’ I point out that she’ll be effectively forced to vote because of her job. But she objects: ‘well you can always spoil your ballot. I even know people who photoshopped their ballot when the boss asked people to prove they’d voted… I’d vote for a face that isn’t objectionable to me though – I’d just go purely on appearance now, as there’s no other way to judge.’