The Stupid Witchhunt Against Levada

I think the real situation is somewhere in between the Kremlin’s position and Mark Adomanis’ and the rest of the Western and Russian liberal media’s alarmism. So as far as this is concerned, I really do think Gudkov is exaggerating, not to even speak of the inevitable and hysterical comparisons to Stalinism cropping up in some quarters.

So what if Levada registers as a foreign agent? The fact will remained buried in the paperwork. Clients won’t care, so long as the sociological work is good.

Or it can simply refuse foreign financing, which according to Gudkov himself accounts for 1.5%-3% of its total.

The only danger to Levada is if it openly defies the law, and commits seppuku out of spite, so to speak. Which is not impossible, if very unlikely.

This does not however mean that the application of the foreign agents law to it is justified. As Gudkov himself argues, political research is not politics, period. While I do think comparisons of Russia’s law to FARA are valid, on paper, the application of them is not. Can you imagine US prosecutors going after the likes of Gallup or PEW if they do some contracts for foreigners?

The reason the witchhunt is stupid (in addition to being wrong) is that Levada actually supports the Kremlin’s record. 70% approval ratings for Putin coming from a state-backed pollster like FOM or VCIOM is one thing – the same numbers from a private pollster that gets money from Soros or the NED is a whole other level of credibility, at least so far as Western audiences are concerned.

If Bastrykin was wise and aware, he would waste no time reigning in the enthusiastic lower-level prosecutors going after Levada and other non-political NGOs. I am not sure he is either though.


  1. Fedia Kriukov says:

    Well, I would say political propaganda is a political activity, and besides conducting research Levada engages in it in the form of Gudkov’s own idiotic “editorials”. I don’t think foreign contracts should be exempt from the application of the law either, even if they’re purely commercial in nature. Otherwise, a loophole will be created for foreign gov’ts to keep sponsoring their agents of influence in Russia.

    The best outcome would be if Levada simply fires Gudkov… I mean eliminates that political activity from their practices.

  2. Dear Anatoly,

    I agree with all that you say but like Fedia I have to say that I also think Gudkov has to a great extent brought this down on himself.

    I don’t say that the head of a polling agency should have no political opinions. However given the nature of opinion polling a measure of discretion is surely wise if only to put the objectivity of the agency beyond doubt.

    None of the heads of the polling agencies in Britain is anywhere near as well known or as outspoken as Gudkov is. None is closely identified with a political party or movement as Gudkov is. If any were I am sure the results produced by his polling agency would be treated with considerable scepticism.

    The only head of a British polling agency I have ever known was Bob Worcester who was for many years the head of MORI. It was widely known by those in the know that he was a supporter of the Labour Party but on those rare occasions when he did give interviews he was the soul of discretion. Not only has Gudkov not acted in what I think is a very indiscreet way but given their reputation in Russia I think he was extremely unwise, to say the least, to accept money from some of the foreign donors that he has been identified as taking money from. I would say that if the very substantial sums Levada has been receiving from the foreign donors who have been identified really do represent such a miniscule percentage of its income, then Levada’s must be a very well funded agency indeed.

    To compound matters, whilst overall Levada is a reasonably reliable polling agency, I don’t think there is much room for doubt that on occasion it has tried to mould opinion in a way that fits in with Gudkov’s political beliefs. We previously discussed the question of a recent poll Levada did in respect of the Magnitsky law of which I took the view that the question it asked was both confusing and loaded. Levada has also been busy recently trying to talk up a supposed slide in Putin’s support. I notice by the way that Adomanis in his latest article admits that Putin’s support has barely shifted since the election last year. That is not what Adomanis was saying just a few weeks ago on the basis of information he got from Levada.

    None of this is to say I agree with the action that has been taken against Levada or that I think it is a good idea. On the contrary I agree with you that on balance Levada has helped the Kremlin and that the attack on it is a mistake. However talk of Levada having to close is overblown for the reasons that you say whilst Gudkov must take part of the blame if it finds itself in the position in which it is.

    • Fedia Kriukov says:

      But this goes against the principles expressed by the last two Russian presidents. Remember “dictatorship of the law”? “Legal nihilism”? In short, when applying a law you can’t take into account whether they’ve helped the Kremlin or not.

      Even if we put that aside, I’m not even convinced that Levada somehow works in favor of Russian propaganda. AK’s point would be valid if we assume good faith on the part of western media that shape opinions of western audiences. I don’t see them actually caring about the reality of the situation in Russia, they will write what they’re ordered to write. In this situation, does it really matter what Levada’s credentials are? If they report what fits into the propaganda line with regard to Russia, it will be picked up. If they report something that doesn’t, they will be ignored or attacked as a Kremlin mouthpiece.

      Also, forgot to mention last time: AK, please fix the spelling to “seppuku”. {AK: Done. 😉 }

      • Dear Fedia,

        I am not in total disagreement with you. As I said, I do think Gudkov has to a great extent brought this down on himself. Also, I find his response (though typical of liberals) overblown and petulant. What he could and should be doing is negotiating with the authorities to see how Levada can comply with the law. This could involve for example asking what part of Levada’s activity the authorities define as “political” and seeing whether this could be modified or dropped to bring Levada into compliance with the law. Or Levada could simply register as a foreign agent (which would have none of the dramatic consequences that is being alleged) or it could forego the foreign donations that supposedly account for such a small proportion of its income. Or it could challenge the decision of the authorities in Court.

        Having said of this, it is always up to the authorities to decide how they enforce a particular law. This law is (rightly) very flexibly drafted and like all laws of this kind sensibly avoids defining “political activity”, which is something best left to the Court. This however also gives the authorities the option of accepting that the sort of activity Levada is doing is essentially research activity that does not require registration under the law. Exercising this option in this flexible way would not contradict the law.

        As for whether or not Levada helps the Kremlin or hinders it, when enforcing a law that is or should be a non issue. My opinion is that on balance it helps the Kremlin. I entirely agree with you that the western media has no difficulty using or misusing what Levada says in order to attack Russia but it’s important to remember that the western media doesn’t need Levada to attack Russia and would surely “evidence” to support its opinions if Levada did not exist. By contrast for people like Anatoly and you and also ultimately for the government it seems to me that it is useful to have a pro opposition polling agency whose data when used properly actually bears out what you say.

  3. donnyess says:

    “The only danger to Levada is if it openly defies the law, and commits seppuko out of spite”

    Cultivating political opposition to the foreign agent law amounts to violating it. Levada should stop bitching and get with the program.