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 independent 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?
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.