Thursday, December 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Is ‘National Conservatism’ the New Ideology of the Russian People?

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 4 – A poll suggesting that “national conservatism” – defined as support for ethnic Russian values at home and ethnic Russians abroad, the strengthening of the state, and the growth of Russian power abroad -- is now the most popular ideology among Russians has attracted a great deal of media attention since its release two days ago.
But now a leading Moscow sociologist who specializes in polling has challenged that finding, arguing that the VTsIOM polling which conducted the survey violated fundamental sociological rules in order to come up with a result that either that agency or those who ordered the poll wanted (
On Tuesday, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a polling agency known for its close ties to the Kremlin, presented the findings of its latest survey. Among those were that “the most popular ideology among Russians, inspire of the assertions [of the left] is not socialism or communism but national conservatism.
Thirty-three percent of the sample told VTsIOM that they supported “the defense of traditional Russian values, national independence, the strengthening of a strong power, and the defense of the interests of Russians,” while only 24 percent said they supported “leftist, socialist ideas [like] social justice, equality, the defense of the interests of workers, and anti-globalism.”
Another VTsIOM conclusion from this survey is that “the most left-wing party is not the KPRF [the Communist Party of the Russian Federation] but [the party of power] United Russia,” with 47 percent of the sample saying that they associated United Russia with “leftist” values but only 30 percent saying they thought of KPRF in that way.
The apparent contradiction between these two conclusions, with VTsIOM saying that Russians identify United Russia as both the embodiment of national conservatism and the best articulator of “leftist” views might have given commentators pause in using this data. But over the last two days, most Moscow outlets have simply repeated what VTsIOM concluded.
Now, however, Sergey Chernyakhovsky, a specialist on political science and polling at the International Independent Ecological-Political Science University, has challenged VTsIOM’s findings and thus by extension the conclusions Russian commentators and politicians have drawn from them (
Chernyakhovsky says that VTsIOM’s findings are “very interesting,” but he warns that the way in which they were gathered raise some serious questions as to their reliability. Indeed, he argues, the agency’s pollsters asked questions in a way that guaranteed they would get the answers that they or someone wanted.
Moreover, he points out, the VTsIOM pollsters defined the basic categories in ways that are either internally inconsistent or consciously distorted. Thus, “liberalism is an ideology less of the right than of the moderate left,” despite the views that clearly stood behind and informed VTsIOM’s inquiries.
And even more seriously, Chernyakhovsky continues, “VTsIOM contradicted its conclusions about ‘Russian conservatism” because it did not ask any questions about conservatism as such. Instead it asked about “traditional Russian values,” something that ignores the reality that those values have been and remain quite varied.
Within Russian history, he writes, “there is a tradition of serfdom and there is a tradition of peasant uprisings. There are the values of autocracy and there are the values of those who struggled against it. There are the traditions of tsarist Russia and there are the traditions of Soviet Russia,” patterns that VTsIOM did not take into consideration in preparing this survey.
It is hard to believe that the employees of VTsIOM “do not know this,” Chernyakhovsky says, “and if they do, they simply and deceitfully formulated their guest ions so that they would get the answers that they wanted.”
This is not the first time analysts have accused VTsIOM of this, but Chernyakhovsky’s commentary which includes numerous details about the agency’s specific questions is devastating. And he concludes by pointing out that it is entirely possible to do honest polling on these questions in today’s Russia.
A year ago, he notes, the Levada Center asked Russians which economic system they considered more correct: one based on state planning and distribution or one based on private property and market relations. Fifty-four percent said they favored the former, with only 29 percent indicating that they wanted the latter.
Could it possibly be, Chernyakhovsky asks, that “specialists of VTsIOM suppose that a planned economy exists in ‘immemorial traditional Rus’’?”
And in the same Levada Center poll, Russians were asked whether the government should be under the control of the citizenry or whether “if it acts in the interests of the people,” the government need not be under popular control. Sixty-six percent of the sample chose the former; only 27 percent chose the latter.
“Perhaps,” Chernyakhovsky asks again, “VTsIOM thinks that pre-revolutionary Rus’ was an example of a state where power was under the control of society?”
Unfortunately, the Moscow political scientist concludes, it appears that VTsIOM is a polling agency that gets the answers its leaders or those who pay for its research want. And that is why, he says, “many honest sociologists who had worked in this center are trying today to distance themselves from it.”

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