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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Silencing VTsIOM's Sociologists

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It's been 14 years since Yury Levada and his team published a full-page questionnaire in Literaturnaya Gazeta headlined "What Do You Think?" It was 1989, and Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost was in full swing. What did the citizenry make of it all?

The sociologists hoped for 3,000 respondents for an adequate (if self-selected) national sample. Instead, they got back an avalanche. At their cramped offices, the bathtub in the bathroom was filled with mail sacks stuffed with 200,000 letters, more than the sociologists could ever read. It was a spectacular start for what would become the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, Russia's most respected scientific polling agency.

Enter the Kremlin. VTsIOM receives no budget money and funds itself with private-sector polling contracts. But on paper it remains a state-owned agency. That was foolish of Levada and his team to leave unaddressed, and VTsIOM will soon get a new board, made up of officials from the Cabinet and the presidential administration. None of VTsIOM's sociologists has been invited to join it. And the board will decide what sort of questions to ask from now on.

Levada held a calm, ironic press conference in Moscow to announce that VTsIOM polls will soon be Kremlin-crafted. He talked of recent months spent going from official to official: "I'd ask: 'What problems do you have with VTsIOM?' [They'd answer:] 'No problems.' 'What problems do you have with me?' 'No problems.' And a bit later, in a confiding whisper, with shaky voices, they'd say: 'We've been ordered to cut off your head.'"

The Kremlin-take-over of VTsIOM has gotten precious little attention. The coalescing conventional wisdom seems to be that this is a footnote to the larger story of the Kremlin's drive to control TV.

It's not. It's a new and deeper level of pathology. It's one thing to try to control the airwaves. It's something entirely new to try to control study of what a populace thinks (even after it's been spoon-fed information by state-manipulated media).

Every political regime would like to steer or direct journalism; few are so far gone as to want to control science itself.

Levada, 72, has seen this before. In the Khrushchev era, he was the first professor to teach sociology at Moscow State University, and his lectures were collected in 1969 as a tame little book. In one lecture, he had asserted that tanks can't change ideologies, a slap at the 1968 invasion of Prague. In others, he had cited polls showing that children of peasants rarely got into the best universities (gasp!), and that no one read Pravda's editorials (double gasp!). Pravda denounced him -- the first victim of a Brezhnev-era purge of some 200 sociologists driven from institutes and universities.

"I've been shut down many times," Levada said at his press conference (which was Tuesday, and still there's no Kremlin response). "But mostly this was many, many years ago. And there would be many commissions brought in to 'solve the problem,' many discussions negotiated, so many papers and resolutions drawn up."

Today's repression, he added, offers fewer opportunities to appeal to logic or plead for clemency: "Someone, somewhere, for some reason, suddenly, unexpectedly, raises an eyebrow -- and that's it, a clean break, the line goes dead, and then -- silence."

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine.