Tag Archives: polling

‘I’m looking for an unobjectionable face to vote for’: on Russian voters going, or not going to the polls in 2021

One of many examples of invisible electioneering in a local newspaper. The candidate gets many stories printed about her in 2021 in her ‘official capacity’ as the Children’s Ombudsman of the Region, even visiting factories and parks with no real connection to her job.

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.’ 

Why do 66% of Russians regret the collapse of the USSR?

2018-05-11 18.52.56

I was asked today to answer this question by a journalist, so I thought I’d share my responses. Thanks to Jesper Hasseriis Gormsen for asking it. And check out his [Danish language] podcasts on Russia http://intetnytfravestfronten.dk/

This is a really tricky question, but what I want to stress is two things – like many other polls, the answer might not be telling us what we think it is. The answer might be to a different buried question in the mind of the answerer. That question (among others) might really be ‘why do so many people live so badly now, when in the USSR they did not (or at least everyone was in the same boat, more or less)?’  Thus eliciting the answer: ‘Yes, I do regret the collapse of the USSR.’

Note (and I guess it needs saying), that this is not my opinion of what the USSR was like (as if there can be a single ‘reality’ of lived experience of an incredibly diverse state that existed for 70 years), just an interpretation that might well be ‘real’ to the person who is asked the question.

The second thing is that poll answers are overly and frustratingly simplistic answers that actually express (or, as I have just said, obscure) very complex feelings and values of the people they are asked of. It is amazing that when I talk to political scientists, they often don’t really believe this in their heart of hearts. Take for instance Brexit or Trump. These ‘answers’ are not merely, or even mainly, about ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’.

Thirdly, the devil is in the detail of the question. It’s well known that survey questions can be phrased and ‘hacked’ to significantly change the result – and pollsters know this (or should do). I don’t think that’s the case here. However, Levada, by using the term ‘collapse’ [raspad] does set out a particular ‘framing’ inadvertently, of the ‘ending’ of the state called the USSR in 1991. One that sets up in the mind of the person answering it, even if they are too young to experience it themselves, the trauma of postcommunist transition. Here we might add – why wouldn’t someone sensitive to the past, or lacking clear ideological support for ‘actually-existing capitalism’ answer: ‘Yes, I do “regret” the passing of the USSR, the state I was born in, or that my suffering parents were born in and worked hard all their lives for.’

Let’s turn the phrasing around. If Levada asked: ‘Do you regret the founding of the Russian Federation in 1991?’ I’m pretty sure the majority would say ‘no’ and so the poll would in a way be reversed.

Here’s the poll in question.

https://www.levada.ru/2018/12/19/nostalgiya-po-sssr-2/

Note the fluctuation since 1999 of around 20 % of the ‘regret’ vote (however, most ‘regrets’ are in a band between 53% and 65% since 2005). (Don’t look at the graph, look at the table). This fluctuation could be to do with people with direct experience of the USSR (positive or negative) dying along with people with no personal experience thinking in more rosy terms about the period – hence a kind of up and down wave effect.  But, you would also expect nostalgia to rise according to periods of crisis. When people feel their lives are not going to plan they might well look back to a ‘simpler’, more ‘stable’ time with nostalgia.  That’s plausible for the figures in 1999, 2000, and 2001 when people took a massive cut in living standards due to the Defolt. However, that is not borne out by the data here when taken in terms of trends over time since then. So perhaps there is not clear answer as to ‘why’ the numbers fluctuate. Here we could have an aside about polling most often telling us ‘nothing’ directly related to the question.

Now to the question of the meaning of nostalgia.

In her wide-ranging book The Future of Nostalgia, the wonderful Svetlana Boym identifies two distinct types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ nostalgia and ‘reflective’ nostalgia.  Restorative nostalgia, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps.”  Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “dwells in algia(aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance.”

Boym was first and foremost a Russian cultural scientist with a deep commitment to the personal insights lived experience provides for research. We can ‘read through’ her descriptions to suppose that both forms could be operative for nostalgia towards the Soviet Union. And as their psychology origins suggest, nostalgias can be personal quirks, irrationally warm ‘affective’ feelings, passing infatuations, or indeed pathologies bordering on madness. I suggest that all these are operative in different people at different times in the last three decades.

Lastly, we can break down nostalgia into a scale of more ‘rational’ interpretations by people. I rank these not in order of importance, but in terms of macro-to-micro social scale. All, some or one may be simultaneously operative in a person’s mind when they answer the pollster’s phone call – in fact none of them might be operative and the person getting the call might just want to get the pollster off the line!

  1. Nostalgia for Great Power status (empire and the respect for the geopolitical might of the USSR). See Mazur below (and Kustarev) on the ‘myth of achievement’ and the ‘myth of power’.
  2. Political order (totalitarian as a system that ensures a lack of political and civil strife, that obviates the need for the citizen to perform any political roll – relief at this and thankfulness – particularly effective in those that see the 1990s as ‘chaos’). See for example, ‘We grew up in a normal time’ – the title of a chapter in a book by Don Raleigh on Soviet baby boomers.
  3. Social order (“to each according to his needs”) – the Soviet social contract (which Linda Cook shows was failing in large part by the 1980s). Related to this, as in the West, a period of sustained social mobility. See, for example, Liudmila Mazur’s ‘Golden age mythology and the nostalgia of catastrophes in post-Soviet Russia’, although her polling data paints a more complicated picture of the ‘myth of prosperity’.
  4. An emphasis on the sincerity in personal relations, the intensity of personal trust and reciprocity given the ‘heartless system’ of the USSR – note how this is contradictory to point 3, yet perfectly possible to hold this belief at the same time as number 3. People are like that.
  5. Nostalgia for the time of one’s youth (probably universal – hey, I think the early 1980s in the UK were great, but ask a miner or other person from the North that). Nostalgia for personal and more widespread idealism (the BAM-romanticism factor) that accompanied this. See Mazur on the ‘myth of achievement’.
  6. Recognition of Labour(due recognition given to labour as the primary factor of production). Not that I am not saying that work was more ‘dignified’ or better paid than in the West during the Fordist period after WWII. Merely, and this is what most of my research interrogates, many working-class people feel nostalgia for what they perceive as a better time before the present. They highlight particularly, relative lower inequality (everyone was paid badly!), relative degrees of social compensation for labour (the social wage and labour paternalism included subsidised childcare, faster routes to social housing for workers, subsidised food), the team-level autonomy of work given the dysfunctional industrial system – bottle-necks, old equipment, distant management, shortages – all these led to a large degree of control over work, as enterprises looked to individuals and teams to find quick and dirty hacks to solve these otherwise intractable structural problems with the Soviet economy. Another way of looking at this is to say that workers had little or no political or associational power in the USSR, but they did have structural (work-place bargaining, or ‘contingent’ power).

Also operative are the answers that regret ‘loss of homeland’, ‘destruction of kinship and other ties’ – these are offered as options in the more detailed poll question. However, I think my 6 are more heuristically persuasive than the dry promptings of Levada, including the most important one: ‘the destruction of a united economic system’, although my points 2, 3, and 6 could be version of that.

Note that nowhere do I find it persuasive that there is nostalgia for the overly abstract notion of ‘communism’ as a system or the ‘communists’ as a ruling party… I intended to reference this piece on the mythology of the Soviet Past by Kustarev, but didn’t have time in the end. I highly recommend it. Александр Кустарев, Мифология советского прошлого «Неприкосновенный запас» 2013, №3(89)