Sociologists in the US and abroad have been watching the slow erosion of freedom of speech and thought in Russia for some time. In 2008, many of us moved to the defense of Russia’s best postgraduate research university. Now we should act in defense of the Lavada Center, an independent polling group manned (and womaned) by sociologists.
The Center has been (with other non-profit organizations) asked by its government to identify itself as a “foreign agent” because it receives money from outside Russia and engages in political activity. As this NY Times article on the crack-down on Levada makes clear, approximately 3% of the Center’s funding comes from abroad, namely, grants from MacArthur, Ford, and the Open Society Institute. The Center provides us with the only social scientific polling data on Russians I’m aware of that isn’t generated by the state. The Center’s origins actually lie in conflict with the state over political attitudes:
The center’s founder, Yuri Levada, incurred Mr. Putin’s wrath a decade ago by publishing polls that showed waning approval of the United Russia party and the Chechen wars. When Kremlin officials tried to assert control over his organization by appointing a new board of directors in 2003, Mr. Levada resigned and formed a private company, the Levada Center. His employees followed him.
Consequently, the Levada Center staff went about their business, sorting out what Russians really think about their country.
An April survey, for instance, found that 51 percent of Russians agree with a derisive nickname for United Russia, “the party of swindlers and thieves.”
Levada’s data often tells a different story from that of Kremlin-affiliated pollsters. For instance, Levada has reported that around 20 percent of Muscovites support Mr. Putin, far lower than the 64 percent found by a Kremlin-affiliated pollster that included only respondents who voted.
There’s an excellent page of resources on the Center & the crackdown on NGOs, with materials available in English, Russian, and German (plus others, in a “multilingual” section), which I strongly recommend you examine.
I’d like to ask that sociologists and social scientists in particular educate themselves about the Levada Center, and consider signing a petition, linked here: http://www.change.org/petitions/president-of-the-russian-federation-stop-the-stigmatisation-of-the-levada-center-as-a-foreign-agent
I hope you’ll join me in signing. And I hope you’ll pass this along to others.