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Russian Voters' Poll Position: Fear, Uncertainty, Apathy

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 23 1996; Page A31

Alexander Oslon was an early pioneer in the high science and black art of polling in Russia.

In the years of glasnost, or openness, under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Oslon discovered to his delight that Russian voters could not stop talking. Even when his interviewers reached the end of their questionnaire, he recalled, the voters, freed from seven decades of stifling domination, wanted to say more, and more.

But then a startling thing happened. When post-Soviet Russia began the tumultuous shift to a free-market economy and multi-party democracy four years ago, voters began slamming doors in the face of pollsters. "People are unwilling to talk about politics now," Oslon said. "They say they are not interested, no time, sick and tired of it."

This sea change in attitudes is one reason why measuring public opinion in Russia's nascent democracy has become even more difficult with the collapse of totalitarian rule. As an open society, Russia continues to fulfill Winston Churchill's famous observation about the Soviet Union that "it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

Russia's pollsters have been on the scene for only seven years, and they repeatedly have been wrong. In two successive elections, some of the leading pollsters, but not all, were confounded by the rise of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Last year, some of them also underestimated the strength of a radical Communist splinter party, while overestimating the vote for the party headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

A month before the presidential election, the confusion and complexity in public opinion are deepening.

It is clear the Russian electorate is gradually polarizing into two broad camps behind Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and President Boris Yeltsin. It also is clear that Yeltsin, who trailed badly a month ago, has gained on Zyuganov recently. But beyond that, the dynamic of the contest is murky.

Russian pollsters face a gantlet of obstacles. Russia has the largest land mass of any country in the world, stretching across 11 time zones. Random telephone polls as used in the United States are virtually impossible here. Millions of rural villagers are simply beyond the reach of telephones, and even in urban areas they are unreliable. For a nationwide survey, pollsters must set up their own networks across the country of stationary points from which to launch person-to-person interviews, a time-consuming and expensive effort.

The pollsters send their workers into the field, usually to conduct 20- to 30-minute interviews. But in trying to capture a representative sample of such a vast country, the pollsters face a welter of unknown factors. The last census was eight years ago, in the Soviet era, making it extraordinarily difficult to sample the population accurately.

"Quite often it is difficult to reach some rural areas, and we must make a selection of 3,000 people to poll," said Vsevolod Vilchek, director of sociological research for Russia's public television channel. "These 3,000 must be an exact model of society. Very often we fail to do that. Inevitably there is a big margin of error."

Oslon, a sociologist who is the head of the Public Opinion Foundation, the second-largest polling outfit in Russia, said 15 percent of those approached by his interviewers refuse to participate. Other pollsters say the number is higher. Oslon said these people are ignored in the survey results.

"We still have these fears living in us," said Vilchek. "They are fears from the Communist times. People still do not believe these polls are really anonymous, that they won't be used to inform on somebody, and later on they wouldn't be arrested. It is difficult to convince people that we are just scholars and researchers, and not KGB agents."

"There are times when people deceive you on purpose," said Oslon. "It exists especially when the question concerns some socially taboo subjects." The most glaring example is Zhirinovsky, who consistently has outperformed the polls. "He is an eccentric phenomenon, and to say you sympathize with him wouldn't be pleasant," Oslon said, so many people do not admit they will vote for Zhirinovsky.

Russia's political culture is still weak. Many people do not know how to answer complex political questions. "If you ask difficult questions, you can't count on the answer being what people really think," Oslon said. "For example, `What is your attitude toward privatization?' Twenty percent say positive, 30 percent say negative, and the rest don't know what to say. People don't understand the word `privatization,' or what it means.

"That is why you can make judgments only about very simple questions, and the question `Who are you going to vote for?' is not a simple question," he said.

Oslon, attempting to overcome such hurdles, often adds indirect questions to his surveys in hopes of detecting hidden intentions and trends. Russians still exhibit a strong sense of conformism -- wanting to be with the majority -- so asking "Who do you think will win the election?" can be more revealing than a direct query on voting plans, he said.

Russia has a plethora of polling groups and companies. The largest, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, known by its Russian acronym Vitsiom, is regarded as highly professional, but it remains government supported. Oslon left Vitsiom in 1992 to form a nongovernment, nonprofit firm; he said his clients include a Yeltsin campaign headquarters.

In recent weeks, most nationwide polls have show Yeltsin catching up with, or overtaking, Zyuganov, with other candidates falling behind. There officially are 11 candidates on the June 16 ballot, and if none receives more than 50 percent, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

But there has been one voice of iconoclasm in the brotherhood of Russian political polling. Nugzar Betaneli, director of the six-year-old Institute for the Sociology of Parliamentarism, an independent group, was right about Zhirinovsky in both the 1993 and 1995 elections.

Betaneli's approach sets him apart from the others. His weekly polling sample of 6,000 respondents is four times as large as each of the others.

Moreover, his speciality is "prognosis," or forecasting the outcome, based not only on surveys but on a multitude of other factors and judgments about the public mood. Betaneli said he tries to understand large trends in public attitudes and small changes in daily life that could affect the election, and he weaves these conclusions into his predictions.

Betaneli said he is not working for any candidate in the current race. Recently, he issued a "prognosis" that forecasts a first-place finish by Zyuganov, with Yeltsin a distant second. Given his track record, the forecast sent chills through the Kremlin and was followed a few days later by the public suggestion from Yeltsin's bodyguard that the election should be postponed.

Unlike the other pollsters, Betaneli said he tries to provide confidentiality to those interviewed, which puts them more at ease, often outside their home. He said he also asks forward-looking questions, rather than presuppose an election being held immediately. He said he purchased updates to the old census to sharpen his sample.

"You have to be a psychologist here," said Vilchek, "to imagine the hidden part of the iceberg."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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