Lev Gudkov and the Levada Centre

ZOiS Spotlight 32/2017 by Alexander Libman (22 November 2017)

Opinion polls play a vital role in Russia. The Levada Centre is the only polling institute that is independent from the Russian government. © Andreas Breitling

Russia has an abundance of public opinion polls and thus of available information about the political attitudes and preferences of the population. As such, the country is an exception among authoritarian states. The data should not be taken at face value, because Russian respondents seem to have little faith in the anonymity of surveys and are therefore likely to bias their responses towards what they believe to be politically or socially desirable. But in most other authoritarian states, there are simply no independent polling agencies that make their results publicly available and are somewhat trustworthy. This unique feature of Russia is to a large extent due to the relentless efforts of the Levada Centre, an independent sociological research organisation directed by Lev Gudkov.

The Levada Centre follows in the footsteps of VTsIOM, the first polling institution in Russia, established in 1987 by the Soviet government and led from 1992 onwards by Yuri Levada, a leading sociologist of the Soviet era. VTsIOM invented the tradition of the new Russian polling industry, including the implementation of large nationwide surveys (in the Soviet Union, only limited industry- or region-specific surveys were permitted), covering a variety of political, economic, and social topics. Gudkov, a student of Levada’s who joined VTsIOM with him in 1988, played an important role in this process of establishing polling practices in Russia. In 2003, after a conflict with the owner of VTsIOM—the Russian government—Levada and his team left the organisation to establish a new research institution, which later became known as the Levada Centre. After Levada’s death, Gudkov became director of the centre in 2006.

Gudkov and sociology in Russia

In the highly fragmented Russian sociological profession, Gudkov stands for an approach that can be characterised by two main features.[1] One is a reliance on large empirical data sets drawn primarily from opinion polls as the main source of knowledge about social reality and, in particular, about big questions related to the functioning and transformation of societies. An example of this is the concept of Homo sovieticus, or ‘Soviet Man’. The idea came from large-scale surveys Levada implemented in the late 1980s and was developed further by him and Gudkov. The key element of this concept is to understand how the pressures of totalitarian states transform people’s values, leading to a decline in trust levels and a rise in cynicism and opportunistic behaviour.

Levada’s early work focused on documenting Homo sovieticus as a disappearing reality that should not have outlived the generational changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But more recent surveys confirm the persistence of the features of Homo sovieticus in Russia today. Soviet man lives on, it seems, and the past continues to cast a long shadow over Russian society and politics.

The second important feature of Gudkov’s approach is a focus on the social relevance of the research. Gudkov rejects the idea of the ivory tower of pure science as well as the notion of sociology advising decisionmakers. Gudkov emphasises the need to study the complex and contradictory developments of society and to communicate these findings to the general public. He does not hesitate to point out the political implications of the polling trends and has been an outspoken critic of the development path Russian regimes have taken since the early 2000s.

Gudkov also draws attention to the ways polling is conducted. For example, he has criticised attempts to use supposedly value-neutral language in surveys, when the researcher consciously avoids using words that can elicit strong emotions or be linked to value judgments. In his opinion, a Russian respondent (a mistrustful Homo sovieticus) will read more into these value-neutral formulations than the researcher assumes: the supposed value neutrality will be seen as the language of power—the legitimation of the political status quo—and will therefore influence the responses in a particular direction.

The Levada Centre and Russian studies

The relevance of the Levada Centre as a research institution goes beyond Gudkov’s methodological and theoretical ideas. The centre remains a reliable partner for many international researchers using complex techniques to study a wide range of issues of paramount importance for understanding contemporary Russia and for social-science research in general. Examples include studies on the effect of sanctions on popular support for the Russia regime or on the effect of electoral manipulations on trust in the government.

In 2016, the Russian Ministry of Justice declared the Levada Centre a ‘foreign agent’. So far, Gudkov’s main concern after the centre was forced into this status—that respondents would stop participating in the surveys—did not materialise. However, the label creates concerns for the future of the centre, which is important for the detailed study of Russian politics and society both within and outside Russia, and for the development of sociology as a discipline in Russia.

[1] See Lev Gudkov (2009), Est‘ li osnovaniya u teoreticheskoy sociologii v Rossii? Vestnik Obshchestvennogo Mneniya (1): 101–116.

Alexander Libman is a professor of social sciences and Eastern European studies at the Department of Sociology of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.