A story on how sociologists made Russians love Putin and the war in Ukraine
Katya Arenina, assisted by Mikhail Rubin and Roman Badanin
July 7, 2022
Since the beginning of aggression against Ukraine, the whole world has been occupied with the question of whether the vast majority of Russians really support this unjust war. The Project’s investigation proves with concrete examples that most polls published in Russia simply cannot be trusted. Since taking office, Vladimir Putin has been so worried about his approval ratings that the Kremlin has taken full control of the opinion pollsters, and the latter have learned how to get the right answers from citizens.
If Putin visits the websites of the main sociological services — VTsIOM
What Putin’s indestructible approval rating looks like
FOM: In your opinion, is President Putin performing relatively well or relatively poorly in his position?
VTsIOM: Do you generally approve or disapprove of the performance of the president of Russia?
Percentage of respondents
In fact, over the past few years, Putin’s approval rating has been constantly fluctuating up and down. The full picture should look like this:
Actual approval rating
Approval: In general, do you approve or disapprove of the performance of the president of Russia? (closed-ended question, the graph shows only the period when Vladimir Putin was president)
Trust: We all trust some people and do not trust others. And if we’re talking about politicians, who do you trust and who would you not trust solving important state problems? (open-ended question, the respondents say the names themselves)
Percentage of respondents
Source: VTsIOM archival data on approval of the performance of state authorities and the level of trust in Vladimir Putin, 2012-2022
The decline in 2018, which is clearly visible on the graph, seriously worried Kremlin officials, who knew that the president places a high value on his approval rating and could get seriously upset about such fluctuations. They came up with a simple solution: they asked the Federal Public Opinion Research Center (FOM) and the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) to publish new polls without comparing them with the old data
The Project spoke with employees of polling agencies, as well as with people who worked in the presidential administration at different times, compared their stories with public data and found out that Putin places so much importance on his approval rating that the authorities resorted to significant manipulation of public opinion polls for the sake of it.
Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Putin was worried about the approval ratings of Dmitri Medvedev and the governors — he did not want them to equal his level of support. Because of this, the Kremlin started giving opinion pollsters instructions about which data could be published and which could not.
In the early 2000s, Kremlin officials often asked each other the question: “How am I going to show these figures to Vladimir Vladimirovich?”
Another mishap occurred in 2003. All year long, on the eve of the Duma elections, the state-run VTsIOM was publishing data which indicated that United Russia might lose to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF)
How the correction factor failed to work
In January and February 2000, VTsIOM forecast that Putin would get 57-62% of the vote, while the CPRF candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, would get 15-19%. But in the election, Putin got 52.9% and Zyuganov 29.2%. A gap of 10% is a serious mistake for sociologists. FOM experienced the same problem. They realized that they were neglecting the Communist supporters, and tried to fix it by applying a correction factor based on the results of the last election. This did not help: before the August 2003 ratings scandal, VTsIOM gave 23% support for United Russia and 28% for the CPRF, while FOM gave them 22% and 20% respectively. In the December elections, United Russia received 37.5%, and the CPRF 12.6%.
The threat quickly materialized — Levada was summoned to the Kremlin and sacked
Fedorov never missed a meeting at the Kremlin. Sociologists were very important participants in “political planning” — they often even began with Oslon’s report on the weekly dynamics of the Kremlin’s approval ratings
Who conducted the “political plannings”
Until his resignation in 2003, Alexander Voloshin, head of the presidential administration, used to conduct these meetings to discuss the president’s plans, the current political agenda, and how the media would cover the president’s work. After Voloshin’s resignation, meetings on the political agenda were conducted first by Vladislav Surkov, and then by his successors in the position of domestic policy curator, Vyacheslav Volodin and Sergei Kirienko. At the same time, there was a separate meeting for the heads of television channels, which was eventually taken over by Alexei Gromov, the curator of propaganda.
In 2010, under Dmitry Medvedev, the “national leader”
How Medvedev was catching up with Putin
Do you approve of the work of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin? (Percentage of respondents)
Data: Levada Center
The pro-Kremlin pollsters simply concealed this data. FOM got exactly the same figures, but the Kremlin has forbidden them from being published
The Kremlin was jealous not only of Medvedev’s approval rating, but even of that of the governors. “Some regions were told: ‘Why is your governor’s rating going up, while Putin’s isn’t?” — recalls a political technologist who worked on gubernatorial campaigns.
Since 2018, for the sake of the president’s peace of mind, VTsIOM stopped comparing him to other politicians altogether. They simply stopped asking people how they would vote in the next election. (* as recalled by a sociologist who worked at VTsIOM during those years; his words are confirmed by the data from VTsIOM’s database). But even the lack of competition wasn’t enough for Putin — pollsters began to employ instruments of manipulation in order to get the right answers.
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The Right Question Gets You the Right Answer
Pollsters wanted to get the answers the Kremlin wanted from respondents and started asking citizens questions with a prompt
In 2018, when Putin’s previously colossal rating collapsed by 20%, the Kremlin did not just come up with the idea of hiding old data on the approval rating of the head of state
First of all, respondents were frequently asked so-called formative questions in which they were immediately pointed to the right answer.
A typical example is the VTsIOM poll before the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, in which opposition candidates were not allowed to participate. Right in the text of the question, the pollsters reported that the election commission had discovered invalid signatures in support of Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Yashin, and Lyubov Sobol. And then they asked:
Some people think that in this situation, the electoral commission should act in accordance with the law and deny registration to candidates who have committed signature collection violations. Others think that despite the violations, the electoral commission should have registered all candidates. Which point of view do you agree with more?
The questions about participation in protest rallies were worded similarly — in them, people were also immediately hinted at the right answer:
On July 27, an unsanctioned protest rally was held in Moscow. Do you agree or disagree with the opinion that in such situations, the authorities should act in accordance with the law, even if harsh measures have to be applied?
Not surprisingly, by giving people a clue as to what complies with the law and what doesn’t, the pollsters got the results the Kremlin demanded: more than half of respondents agreed that opposition candidates should not be registered, while 61% of Muscovites supported the government’s harsh actions at the rallies.
Such polls have recently become the norm.
On the eve of the war, VTsIOM asked citizens if they supported the recognition of the independence of the LPR and DPR, once again with an interesting wording:
Please tell us, do you or do you not support the president’s decision to have Russia recognize the independence of the DPR and LPR?
That is, this question was not about the Donbass problem, but about approval of the president, explains Alexei Titkov, a lecturer at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences. Once again, the Kremlin got the result it wanted — 73% supported Putin.
The pollsters phrased the question about the Russians’ attitude toward the agreement with the LPR and DPR, which was the basis for the aggression against Ukraine, even more clumsily. VTsIOM asked this:
Yesterday the president and the heads of the DPR and LPR signed treaties on friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance. Do you or do you not support Vladimir Putin’s decision to sign these treaties?
78% of respondents were in favor of the “friendship”.
Life by own rules
In May 2022, VTsIOM published a press release with the headline “Life by own rules.” Its main conclusion: “89% of Russians believe that today Russia should live by its own rules, without looking back at Western countries.”
“They invented some abstract West, attributed some rules to it, and set it against some abstract Russia,” a former VTsIOM official, who held a senior position there, said indignantly. “What is Russia — its president? What are the rules — to continue the war? Ask if Germany should live by the rules of China, and you will get the same results. Either the pollsters were told to ask it this exact way, or they are very stupid.
Secondly, the drop in Putin’s approval rating has also affected the options for answers — the pollsters have now practically stopped asking people open-ended questions, i.e. those where respondents can give their own answers
But the biased answer options are best seen in the FOM poll about the purpose of the “special operation” in Ukraine. Three out of four answers are for supporters of the war: “to ensure the security of Russia,” “to protect the residents of the DPR and LPR,” and “to remove Ukrainian nationalists from power.” There is only one option for opponents of the war, and it is not the most obvious: “to liquidate the statehood of Ukraine and annex it to Russia.” Young respondents aged 18-30 chose it one and a half times more often than all the others — but it does not usually make it into press releases or news reports
Do young Russians want war?
Do you or do you not support the decision to conduct a special military operation of Russia in Ukraine?
Percentage of respondents
All of The Project’s interlocutors, including former employees of both centers, affirm that neither VTsIOM nor FOM “draw numbers” — all they have to do is ask the right questions to the right people. Then the answers will be “right” too, especially since citizens are becoming more and more afraid to talk to pollsters with each passing year.
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Answers out of Fear and for Food
Russians and residents of the captured regions of Ukraine have become afraid of pollsters and often give “correct” answers out of fear
One can find many messages on social networks lately from users saying that they took part in opinion polls, but were afraid to answer honestly. “The atmosphere of fear” in the country is so great that it affects polling data and it is now difficult to take polling data seriously, argues a political technologist working with the presidential administration on condition of anonymity.
The questions are structured like this: first they ask about the approval of the authorities, then about support for the special operation. (Somewhere in between these questions was a very funny one about Mishustin and Shoigu, whether I approve of their activities. There was also a similar question about Putin.) The funniest one was: if they call a protest rally this weekend, will you take to the streets to support it? I asked them if they would send a paddy wagon to pick me up if I answered “yes”
This spring, VTsIOM conducted polls twice, in late April and late May, in towns and villages in the Donetsk region that had just been seized by Russia
It’s clear why this happened — in Volnovakha, Mangush, Volodarske and Bezimenne, pollsters worked in the temporary accommodation centers, says The Project’s interlocutor. According to him, in Mariupol, at the end of April, they only worked at a point of distribution of humanitarian aid from the United Russia party. It was not until May that people were polled on the streets, i.e. in places where they did not feel so dependent on the occupation authorities.
Почему так делать нельзя?
Polls should not be conducted on occupied territories, says independent sociologist Elena Koneva.
“The combination of demonstrative humanitarian actions with brutal repressions creates a feeling of complete unpredictability. Terrified citizens will give ‘safe’ answers, opponents of the war will give ‘right’ answers, and at night they will draw graffiti against the occupiers.”
The answers are simply unreliable, but Koneva is sure that the Russian authorities are not interested in their reliability — the results will be used primarily for propaganda purposes, to say: “We’re welcome here.”
Even inside Russia, polls by VTsIOM and FOM show a high (65-76%) level of support for the invasion of Ukraine. But few admit it — most refuse to talk to pollsters. For example, Russian Field researchers, together with Maxim Kats, conducted a survey of attitudes toward the war — 29,500 people out of 31,000 abstained from answering
However, sometimes the authorities are still interested in finding out the real opinion of the population — but such polls are kept secret from the public.
Answers without publication prospects
The Kremlin forbids sociologists to publish poll results that are bad for them, including those about Alexei Navalny. And the data from the disloyal Levada Center is simply forbidden from being cited in the media
In the spring of 2022, the results of a VTsIOM poll on how Russians use YouTube landed on Putin’s desk, a source close to the leadership of the presidential administration told The Project. There was a lot of talk in the Russian administration about whether to block the world’s largest video hosting site, and eventually the officials decided to see how citizens would react — they were asked if they used the service often, whether they thought an information war was waged through it, how they felt about the blocking of the Duma channel
The FOM poll gives a rough idea of the answers: the company did not specifically ask about the service being blocked, which is probably why their data ended up in the public domain. According to the poll, more than half of Russian Internet users watch YouTube; a third of those users watch it every day. Families with children under the age of 10 were polled separately: half of them watch YouTube every day.
YouTube for the people
How often Russians use YouTube
How often families with children under 10 use Youtube
Most likely, the results of these polls influenced the future of the service
The YouTube story is more of a rule than an exception. If the results of a poll indicate growing discontent among Putin’s supporters, the authorities do not publish such data, but they can respond. For example, in the spring of 2017, VTsIOM conducted a survey about the renovation program in Moscow
Overall, at least a third of the poll results are not published, says Dmitri Rudenkin, a former VTsIOM employee. A former FOM employee put the figure at 50-70%. So it turns out that people don’t have the right to know their own opinion on most issues.
Polls about Alexei Navalny are frequently not published. VTsIOM asks about people’s attitudes toward him in almost every phone survey
Among the respondents there are both those who sympathize with Putin and those who feel antipathy toward him, many have a neutral, indifferent attitude toward him. But almost no one would vote for him now.
From the FOM survey on the values and political sympathies of young people
At a time when the Kremlin could easily prohibit the publication of any materials by FOM and VTsIOM, only the Levada Center spoiled the picture. But the authorities have found a solution even in this situation: they have banned all controlled media outlets — which includes almost all media outlets remaining in Russia — from publishing news based on their polls. This happened two years ago
Who was banned from publishing Levada Center data
The last article covering a Levada poll was published on the Kommersant website in August 2020
It’s the same with Vedomosti: the latest story was published in August 2020
On RBC’s website, it’s April 2020
Since January 2020, RT has not published any news based on Levada polls either. From the same moment.
Gazeta.ru has only released two news items on the service’s polls — about waste sorting and Russians’ attitudes toward nuclear power.
Since February 2020, there has been no such news on the 360 TV channel’s website.
Thus polling has finally become a tool in the hands of the authorities.
Voting at First Sight
Pollsters were not just publishing the right questions — with their help the authorities were constructing an alternative reality in the country
In late June 2022, in the midst of another Russian offensive in Ukraine, the media began to spread a seemingly totally irrelevant article: “Museum and exhibition attendance in Russia has increased by 1.5 times over the past 30 years.” This survey that feels as if it were from another reality was conducted by VTsIOM.
Sociologists began to help the Kremlin create an alternative agenda long before this case — back in 2017, when anti-corruption protests were held in Russia after Navalny’s film “Don’t Call Him Dimon”
VTsIOM: Russians’ expenditures on preparing children for September 1 have decreased by 14% over the year
VTsIOM: the image of the Far East has become positive for Russians
VTsIOM: Most Russians do not feel lonely
Sometimes, with the help of polls, the government tries to program public opinion. A few years ago the Kremlin decided to promote the New People party — back then, VTsIOM began to publish regular polls which implied that this then-unknown party would get into many regional parliaments, and would eventually make it into the Duma
How the polls “predicted” election results
Political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky used a similar technique back in 1999 — he published exit polling data on his website right on the Duma election day. At the time, the Day of Silence rule applied only to the media — and Pavlovsky took advantage of that by declaring that the Internet is not the media.
The exit polls showed that the Unity bloc (transformed into United Russia in 2001), established to support Putin in the next presidential election, was in first place, with its allies, the Union of Right Forces, in third. These results were even read live on the Vesti news program, before voting had even finished in all regions. Naturally, the parties made it into parliament.
Loyal media often help pollsters promote an alternative agenda. In 2021, RIA Novosti reported: “Half of Russians experienced positive emotions while watching Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.” The article did not say how this study was conducted. But the VTsIOM website, which the journalists based their story on, said explicitly: this wasn’t an all-Russia poll, but a 123-member focus group. Thus 66 and a half people turned into half of Russians.
Not surprisingly, such important services are expensive for the authorities. And there are people who make money on this.
Corruption is evident even in Russia’s opinion polls: the family of a Kremlin polling supervisor receives expensive orders from the Kremlin for public opinion surveys
VTsIOM and FOM are the Kremlin’s most famous, but not only assistants. In recent years, representatives of Insomar
However, it does not stop at meetings: the company has received orders, for example, to conduct research and exit polls for the 2021 parliamentary elections
In 2012, Volgograd sociologist Yevgeny Mikhailenko, who had previously worked with United Russia and VTsIOM, joined the presidential administration. Soon after he joined the Kremlin’s domestic policy bloc, he became head of the very same department responsible for polling, which includes analyzing public opinion poll data and assigning tasks to pollsters
At almost the same time, his wife Anna
Insomar and Bolshaya Strana regularly receive orders for opinion polls and, accordingly, payments from so-called Kremlin “operators” — structures that distribute money among contractors of the presidential administration. One such operator is EISI
Who sponsors public opinion research
Belongs to persons related to Anna Mikhailenko
₽ 171.6 million
United Russia and related funds
₽ 5.7 million
₽ 5.5 million
Polylog Agency (affiliated with the Presidential Administration)
₽ 0.6 million
Established by Sergey Haikin, former owner of OOO Insomar, who has in fact delegated the management of the companies to Anna Mikhailenko
United Russia and related funds
₽ 123.9 million
Ministry of Finance of the Ulyanovsk Oblast
₽ 6.5 million
Ministry of Finance of Udmurtia
₽ 6.3 million
Polylog Agency (affiliated with the Presidential Administration)
₽ 1.2 million
ANO Bolshaya Strana
Co-founders: Anna and Yevgeny Mikhailenko and Anna’s brother Alexei Paramonov
₽ 99 million
Regional foundations linked to United Russia
₽ 8.5 million
Government of the Tver Oblast
₽ 8 million
EISI, the operator of Kremlin grants
₽ 7.6 million
Owned by Yevgeny Mikhailenko’s mother, Galina
₽ 97.4 million
Government of the Tver Oblast
₽ 9.9 million
Owned by Yevgeny Mikhailenko’s ex-wife Anna
₽ 8.6 million
ANO Tsentr Prisp
₽ 4 million
At the end of 2021, immediately after the State Duma elections, which brought his company many orders and hundreds of millions of rubles, Mikhailenko left the presidential administration. Now he passes on his experience to the new generation as head of one of the faculties of the Higher School of Economics, from which many liberal professors have been dismissed in recent years.
* * *
When war broke out in Ukraine and the pro-government media began publishing news about Russians’ support of the military action at the behest of the Kremlin, sociologist Sergei Haikin tried to convey to Putin that this was not entirely true. Together with a group of sociologists, he conducted a study that showed a high proportion of dissent among young people and residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Haikin, who used to work with the Kremlin, periodically submitted the data of his polls to the president and hoped that it would work this time, too. But officials he knew told him: “We shouldn’t upset Vladimir Vladimirovich.”
Editing by Mikhail Rubin
Fact checking by Mikhail Maglov