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Writing in Novaya Gazeta, Andrei Vladimirovich Kolesnikov argues that the branding of the opinion pollster Levada Center as a “foreign agent” marks Russia’s return to the bad old days of Lysenkoism.

A Sociology of Dvoechniki

Levada Center is being destroyed with Stalinist methods.

Sociological data is dope for the present-day vlast. She looks at sociological reports just like a certain famous fairytale character, and with much the same question: “Who’s the fairest of them all?” But smoothing the wrinkles spreading all over the carcass of the political system requires ever more applications of the tonal cream of court sociology. Meanwhile, real sociology – incorrect, inconvenient – is being exiled. The method for this has been found: Amendments to the law on NGOs, so that they could be exiled as “foreign agents,” involved in “political activities.”

The Levada Center is being destroyed for the second time in its history. Founded at the end of the 1980s under the name of the exceptional sociologist Yuri Levada, this professional sociological organization has already once been demolished once – few now remember that VCIOM is, in fact, the old name of the Levada Center. In 2003, when Yuri Levada was still alive, the hostile takeover was successful, but not fully so – the re-branded sociological service remained the source of the country’s most reliable sociological data. I remember well that press-conference at Izvestia’s media center – Izvestia as it was then {Translator: It was more oppositional then} – I remember Yuri Alexandrovich’s bewilderment, and the sense of surrealism about the whole thing… And now we have the second attempt to destroy it, this time by tagging scientific work with the mark of politics. The Savelovskaya prosecutor’s office took upon itself this difficult mission.

This is unadulterated Stalinism. As far as today’s vlast is concerned, sociology is no different from what state statistics were to the Stalinist vlast. No coincidence that the spirit of the era became encapsulated in the following brilliant aphorism from the economist Stanislav Strumilin: “Better to stand for high growth rates, than sit for low ones” {Translator: To “sit” in Russian can simply mean to go to prison}. The Levada people aren’t sitting yet, but the continued exist of the Levada Center has come under threat; and not only of the Levada Center, but of independent, scientific sociology such as it is…

At the same time, we see the elimination of competition on the market on sociological services: Instead of a “Big Troika” – FOM, VCIOM, and the Levada Center – we are left with just a “Big Deuce.” And with all due respect to their colleagues, it will also be a sociology of dvoechniki. Where are the voices of other professional sociologists in defense of their colleagues, of science, and of honest research? Only crickets chirping. Are they afraid?

Even if the Levada Center somehow survives, it will be easy to bankrupt it via “market” mechanisms: Such agencies mainly live off marketing research, and how many of their clients will continue dealing with an organization branded as a “foreign agent”? They would henceforth go only to Kremlin-certified agencies, which had pledged allegiance to the “correct figures.”

On this account I also have an old anecdote, which I was told by the academic Revold Entov. The unchanging director of the Soviet statistics service Vladimir Starovsky, having passed through all epochs and outlived all leaders, became famous for the following phase addressed to a colleague: “I present you with the Order of Lenin for your ability to give the correct socialist figure.” Maybe it’s just the case that of all today’s surviving Russian sociologists dream of the Order of Lenin? But as is said: Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

Any honest research, any honest civic activism, any honest voluntary movement, any honest science, any honest newspaper or magazine article, is – by the logic of the Savelovskaya prosecutor’s office and of Prosecutor D. D. Minkov, whose names will enter the annals of history in the Saltykov-Shchedrin, if not the Gogolian, sense of the word {Translator: The latter two were famous 19th century Russian satirists} – equivalent to political activity. And if it is paid just a single cent by a foreign fund, then it becomes not only political activity, but hostile to boot. Vladimir Putin was lying when he claimed that the concept of a “foreign agent” carries an exclusively legal meaning, with no allusions to darker times. The semantics here are entire Stalinist, repressive, and propagandistic. According to the Levada Center’s own surveys, our compatriots quickly got the correct bearings: More than half of all Russians support harsh sanctions, up to and including liquidation, as regards NGOs that engage in politics, receive money from abroad, and don’t register as foreign agents.

The vlast is cutting off the very branch on which it sits. It deprives itself of reliable social feedbacks. It destroys studies of the humanities. And it risks being left alone with some kind of “Orthodox sociology.” But so what? “Orthodox sociology for Orthodox Chekists” – sounds about right.

At this rate it won’t be long before we get to the “rootless cosmopolitans,” and the “Weismann-Morganists,” and finally the academician Lysenko to top things off.

Reader comments

Дмитрий Кузьмин: The vlast isn’t cutting off any branch on which it sits. The Levada Center has open statistics, while the Chekist accounts are closed… Why does the alpha crane need people to know even part of the closed statistics. Better make the people into a herd of cattle, who don’t know their past or their present reality – and then, they have no more future!!

александр46 марков: Just register as a foreign agent and continue working! But wait a second, weren’t you saying earlier that you didn’t get any money from Gosdep!?

Сергей Аникин: The foreign agents are trying their utmost to conceal their true faces.

Не Гражданин (replying to above): And what is their “true face,” in your opinion. Do think, that instead of a face, they have a Botox-inflated ass, like our beloved Mr. President?

Previously, “enemies of the people” – now, “foreign agents”; previously, “witches” – now, “blasphemers”… But, at least, yesterday, “militaria” – today, “police,” that is modernizaton Medvedev-style. Modernassization.

That’s the problem with this country – the dominance of cattle, slaves, ready to lick the ass of anybody who comes to power, which itself consists of the same artiodactyla.

Don’t blame the mirror if your mug is skewed!

(Republished from Russian Spectrum by permission of author or representative)
 
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In an interview with Kommersant’s Ksenia Turkova, the director of the Levada Center Lev Gudkov argues that opinion polling isn’t a political activity – and as such, that his organization is not a “foreign agent.”

“The Sphere of Public Opinion Cannot Fall under the Rubric of Political Activities”

The opinion polling agency Levada Center may cease to exist. The sociologists have received a warning from the Prosecutor’s office, in which they were accused of carrying out political activities on foreign money. The director of the Levada center Lev Gudkov discussed the situation with our Ksenia Turkova.

Why does this warning threaten the organization’s existence?

I didn’t say that it threatens us directly, but it does create serious problems which could eventually put a stop to much of our research efforts. The main essence of it is that as an in dependent research organization, we are in a sort of cul-de-sac, where the vague definitions of the concepts of “political activity” and of “foreign financing” creates scope for complete arbitrariness.

Which research efforts are under threat, precisely?

Primarily, these are electoral studies, and research into political culture, popular approval of institutions. Everything related to that wide range of areas where the citizen comes into contact with the authorities.

So one possible scenario is that the Levada Center will continue to exist, but will no longer have a political dimension to its research?

That’s what has me most concerned.

You will study what Russians like to eat, what films they like to watch?

We have now spent 25 years theoretically and empirically developing these studies, and ceasing them is pretty much the same as shutting down the Center.

In principle any opinion poll, presumably, can influence public opinion?

Just like anecdotes told in kitchens.

It could apply to anything.

That’s exactly what I’m saying, that there exists a very wide interpretation. If we lived in a normal law-based society, then the borders of politics would be clearly defined – it’s institutional activities, in the framework of party activities, and of the electoral and legislative process. The sphere of public opinion – is the sphere of publicity, or what is known in the West as the sphere of public debate and civic engagement, and in no way can it fall under the rubric of political activities.

We are not politicians, and we do not do politics. We are a research organization. Trying to equate the study of politics and politics itself is pretty much the same as doing it with the study of cancer, and cancer itself. It’s completely absurd.

Many linguists study political discourse. What are they to do now?

Shut down, and shut up – just like many others.

Did you have any specific problems with your partners after this warning?

Yes.

With whom?

I don’t want to talk about it. But the problems are real enough.

Could you at least say what kind of problems they are?

Our interviewees refuse to continue working with us.

You’ve lost respondents?

You have to bear in mind that we don’t just interview ordinary people, we also pose questions to certain groups of officials, teachers, and employers, who shy away from the mere mention of foreign agents.

What are you going to do next?

Right now I can’t tell you anything for sure. We are consulting lawyers, and trying to find ways out of this situation.

Was there any reaction your open letter?

Only if you count journalists flooding our phone lines.

(Republished from Russian Spectrum by permission of author or representative)
 
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Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party and political old-timer, argues in a Vedomosti editorial that the Kremlin’s crackdown on NGOs is not only ethically wrong but ultimately self-crippling.

The Exile of Citizens from Politics

Unfortunately, the Russian nomenklatura has an exceedingly poor understanding of why we need independent public organizations, and the meaning of citizen control and social feedbacks. Hence the rhetoric of “a billion dollars in four months,” the war against those who help children, and the branding of crane sanctuaries as foreign agents. {Translator: Refers to alleged scale of foreign NGO financing, and the woes of the Crane Homeland).

But this isn’t the full extent of the problem. The state’s deliberate defamation of NGOs that fulfill vital functions of citizen supervision in various spheres of life is but a continuation of the same pattern that includes systemic electoral falsifications, the creation of a compliant parliament, and the open and insolent rejection of the separation of powers written into the Constitution. This amounts to nothing less than an exile of citizens from politics and social life, and the transformation of the socio-political sphere into the exclusive prerogative of the state.

The issue of foreign involvement in NGO financing is of secondary importance. The government simple took advantage of a situation inherited from the 1990s – when not only NGOs, but many vitally-important national institutions in science and culture – were forced to apply for foreign grants just to survive and continue operating. To this day there are no transparent, nonpartisan, and autonomous state or private financial groups in Russia that could act as interested and impartial sponsors 0f educational programs and citizen control. So it turns out that the only way out is to get financing from abroad. This is not to say this makes anyone particularly happy – from our conversations with NGO representatives, we are well aware that that foreign bureaucratized structures neither have a good understanding of what is really happening in Russia, nor are they all that interested in it for that matter. But expecting anything from within Russia is even more pointless: Our oligarchs think even less about the development of their own country than do foreigners.

These indiscriminate charges of foreign financing are nothing more a stigma, intended to make people buy into the government’s siege mentality. In this case, stupid references to American norms and traditions – as in many other cases – are totally inapplicable to our situation, and only underscore the brazen impudence of the entire exercise.

There are other, similar stigmas, which do not contain the word “foreigner” – for instance, “enemies.” And the bureaucracy, in implementing this policy, considers its enemies to be anyone who shows independence and autonomy.

The mass checks of NGO finances, and the resulting absurdities that accompany them, are part of that policy. The aim is to dredge out the undesirable elements from public life – as they are understood by the government – and pit them against the “majority,” “healthy society,” and the country itself. Moreover, those undesirable elements include not only human rights defenders, but also independent politicians, deputies, and public figures for whom the powers that be wish to a sort of latter day “philosopher’s ship.”

This is contrary to Russia’s interests. Squeezing everybody independent, civilly active, and passionate – and hence, dissenting – from political and public life only serves to further weaken the unstable and problematic relationship of the state with its citizens. As far as national development is concerned, this is a strategic stalemate. The state must, if anything, thank NGOs for the civic, supervisory, and advisory roles they perform – even if the level and slant of several groups leaves something to be desired (but that is just a mirror of what is happening in general). Meanwhile, many other NGOs, even those in dire financial straits – it’s not like foreigners actually give out billions – perform exceptionally high-quality and critically important work for the benefit of Russia, which will be valued by history and which the Russian state should already be valuing today.

The author is a Russian politician.

(Republished from Russian Spectrum by permission of author or representative)
 
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The latest US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel focuses on whether Russia was correct to expel USAID on the grounds that it interfered in domestic Russian politics to an acceptable degree. Here is my contribution:

I have no connection to USAID, or indeed to any American NGO operating in Russia or anywhere else. I do not pretend to have much of a clue as to what extent the Kremlin’s claims that it interferes in Russian politics to an unacceptable degree are true or not, and likewise for US denials of these allegations.

To a large extent I have to agree with Nicolai Petro, writing in the NYT’s Room for Debate, that foreign democracy assistance has “outlived its usefulness in Russia.” As he points out in his article “Local Groups Must Not Rely on the US“, the Russian government’s own funding of NGO’s now dwarfs US contributions, and contrary to popular belief, this includes Kremlin-critical organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee of Soldier’s Mothers.

Furthermore, Russia is now an increasingly rich and middle-class society, so in most cases, a cutoff in foreign aid should not be a critical issue to the continued operation of the recipient NGO. If anything, shifting to exclusively domestic funding – as Golos once considered doing – would altogether free them from the potential stigma of being labelled “jackals scavenging for funds at foreign embassies”, as Putin described the non-systemic opposition in one his less charitable moments.

Yet with all that said, I doubt that banning USAID is a good move. Speaking of Golos in particular, which has been singled out for using USAID funds, it typically refrained from taking concrete political stands during the last election season and instead focused on the technical standards of the elections and data compilation from its own and other election observers. This is a good thing, because like it or not, there were severe falsifications in those elections, to the sum total of about 4%-5% in the Presidential elections, and up to 10% in the Duma elections. That the former figure however was much lower than the latter may in fact be partly attributed to the efforts of organizations like Golos, which helped increase the prominence of observers and increased demands for clean elections.

This is undoubtedly a good thing for Russian democracy, keeping it from slipping away into complete illegitimacy like in Belarus or Mubarak’s Egypt. It is also a good thing even for Putin himself, even if many of his acolytes don’t realize it; he is genuinely popular, and a truly fair and overwhelming victory (i.e., the c.59% he should have gotten) is surely far superior to a dirtier but only marginally more overwhelming victory (i.e., the 63.6% he actually got).

Should Golos or USAID be blamed for lifting the lid on an electoral system that looks like something from 1950′s Italy or Uganda today?

If it’s true that USAID tried to interfere in Russian politics, or even “ordered” the protests (which to be honest sounds rather far-fetched to me), that still doesn’t mean banning it is a good idea. If its aim is to subvert the Russian political system, then surely it would make more sense to just increase scrutiny of its activities? If undermining the Russian political system is part of America’s goals there, then they can just use other NGO’s… and if Russia bans them too, then there will always be the spies in its Moscow Embassy. What is to do then – take a leaf from North Korea?

Even if the Kremlin’s cynical (realistic? paranoid? – I don’t know, I suppose it depends on your political sympathies) view of USAID’s activities are correct, it would still behove it to listen to Michael Corleone’s advice: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.