The Man Who Knew Russia Too Much

By Leon Aron
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Narod bezmolvstvuet. The people are silent.

Throughout Russia's history, this morbid stillness, immortalized by the last line in Pushkin's "Boris Godunov," was complicit in many of its tragedies. Silence from fear, hunger, exhaustion or hopelessness. In the last 20 years, few people in Russia did more to shatter this silence than the dean of Russian sociologists and pollsters, Yuri Levada, who died of a heart attack in Moscow last month at the age of 76. His death is much more than an irreplaceable loss for his friends and colleagues -- it signifies the end of a remarkable era for Russia's intelligentsia, one marked by a revolutionary vision of liberty for the nation and unrelenting efforts to make that vision a reality.

A philosopher by education, Levada began practicing sociology in the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinizing thaw brought this formerly "bourgeois" science back -- along with genetics, cybernetics and Einstein's theory of relativity. Although there still wasn't a single department of sociology in the Soviet Union, he was permitted to teach an immensely popular course at Moscow State University and even write his first book, "Lectures on Sociology." Then came the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the end of any liberalization; Levada was publicly denounced and fired from the university. Soon the purge spread to more than 200 other sociologists throughout the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika brought about the rebirth of sociology. In 1985, the Center for the Study of Public Opinion was established in Moscow, and Levada soon became its de facto leader. On Feb. 1, 1989, the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, a flagship of the new openness under Gorbachev with 4 million subscribers, published a long questionnaire designed by Levada and his colleagues, titled "What Do You Think?"

Within 10 days, almost 200,000 letters flooded into the newspaper. "I am 80 years old," one of the respondents wrote, "and no one has ever asked me for my opinion." Entire families and even "working collectives" carefully went over 414 possible responses to 34 questions about themselves and their country. When the full results of the study were published a year later, the title captured the spirit of the entire enterprise: Est' mnenie! There is opinion!

The portrait of the Soviet Union that emerged was startlingly different from the one on which four post-Russian Revolution generations had been raised. The respondents described a gravely ill society and an impoverished country mired in shortages, militarized and tormented by an incompetent and rapacious bureaucracy. A majority thought that the country was rife with corruption, alcoholism and thievery. Only one-third reported their incomes as "modest but sufficient." One in four had to limit themselves to bare necessities, and another quarter of the sample "could barely make ends meet" and had to borrow constantly from friends and family. Almost three-quarters of the respondents thought it was necessary to reduce defense expenditures.

Describing the French Revolution, Tocqueville wrote that "the entire political education" of the nation suddenly became the "work of its men of letters." They were a new "power in the land." After the Literaturnaya Gazeta survey, the small community of Russian pollsters joined journalists and political essayists in shaping the course of the post-Soviet revolution. The pollsters became political seismologists, detecting rapid movements in the tectonic plates of values and attitudes and then announcing their findings to a mesmerized nation -- an exhilarating task after decades of enforced muteness. "For the first time in history, we can study a social revolution from inside," Levada exulted in 1989. "Because at the time of the American and French and other great revolutions, there were no sociologists out polling. . . . It is very interesting."

In April 1990, Levada reported that 60 percent of the Soviet citizens believed that the Communist Party had "led the country along a wrong path." And half a year later, the center documented what its then-director and Gorbachev adviser Tatyana Zaslavskaya called "the crisis of socialist ideology." The "moral code" that cemented the regime was falling apart, and there was no "renewed socialist idea" to replace it.

Only between 10 and 20 percent of the Soviet population still supported the "socialist choice," and this group was made up largely of older citizens. The younger generations no longer believed.

A little more than a year later, the Soviet Union was no more.

As democratic politics began to emerge in the early 1990s, Levada became the first pollster in Russia to conduct so-called longitudinal studies of public opinion, in which the same questions are asked over long stretches of time. Four such "waves" were administered between 1989 and 2004, and one of the questions asked whether market-oriented economic reforms should stop or continue. In a memorial to the Russian people's wisdom and courage, "continue" almost always rated higher than "stop." The support for change was the highest during the economy's toughest times, between March 1992 and March 1994, when the monthly inflation rate reached double digits.

Together with his colleagues, Levada also traced Vladimir Putin's popularity to the people's wish for a stronger, more effective and more honest government -- one that would secure order, help the elderly and the poor and distribute income more fairly. Yet surveys also showed that this impulse was never a mandate for authoritarianism or neo-imperialism.

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