Yeah, Putin actually IS popular in Russia

Forbes contributor Mark Adomanis just wrote a refreshingly honest post about the fact that President Vladimir Putin’s polling numbers have not changed in the last 18 months – his popularity remains high, wavering around its current 65%. Yet, in spite of this, writes Adomanis,

“Putin’s swiftly declining approval rate is just taken as a given among most journalists and scholars, as the starting point for any serious conversation. First you assume that Putin is getting ever-less popular and then you debate about what this means for Russia.”

Adomanis stops just short of acknowledging that his own post title is a prime example: “Vladimir Putin’s Poll Numbers Still Aren’t Declining”. Yes, and do you still beat your wife? But I think Adomanis gets it really right in the end:

“I’m just trying to learn from my own past wrongness, and doing so requires acknowledging the possibility that Putin’s poll numbers are going to continue to head sideways.”

But of course this begs the question: WHY do so many pundits insist on imagining that Putin is becoming steadily less popular in Russia? One thing that could account for this is observer bias: which Russians are these pundits looking at? I would wager their gaze is fixed on the urban middle class, who have become increasingly vocal – and creative – about their disapproval of Putin. But although Moscow has a population of 11.5 million Russians (or more, if you count non-Russian immigrants), Moscow emphatically is not Russia. Moreover, the Muscovite opposition is also not Russia in any representative sense – it is a decidedly middle class demographic, as my last post demonstrated.

But the Levada Center, which provided the polling data cited by Adomanis, is a highly reputable sociological research institution, and when they do a poll, they go out into the rest of Russia beyond its urban centers. This “rest of Russia” rarely gets any attention in the media – you have to go looking for material on it. [1]  It is worth pointing out that the 65% approval rating cited by Adomanis is just one of a whole range of interesting things that Levada Center asks in its monthly omnibus survey, and which gets ignored by most Putin pundits (try saying that three times fast).

For example, Putin may be popular, but 41% of the respondents don’t think the country is heading in the right direction, compared to 40% who think it is – those figures have also been pretty steady over the last 3 years. Approval of the activities of the Russian government (the term used directs people to think about the ministries and their associated personalities) also hovers in the forties. When asked to name five or six of their favorite politicians, Putin comes in first at 38% – and second place goes to Shoigu, the charismatic former head of EMERCOM, the emergency response agency, who was recently appointed Minister of Defense. Tied for sixth place in the list goes to – wait for it – Patriarch Kirill. There you go, evidence that Pussy Riot were right about Russian church leaders being politicians in Russia. But in fact, that’s not entirely accurate – Kirill is in seventh place, because second place (22%) goes to “Nobody”. Another question asks who people’s least favorite politicians are, and I like the first place answer here: “I have no interest in politics or politicians” (23%). The number one actual person in the “least favorite” category is Vladimir Zhirinovsky – hear, hear, Russians show good sense on that score.

So there you go. If you want to be a better pundit, look beyond the center, and scroll down in the monthly Levada Center poll.

[1] I’ll put in a plug for my tribe here – the best scholarly material you are going to find is written by anthropologists and comparativist political scientists, people who go out and spend a year or more in the field living the local life. In fact, take a look at this timely commentary about the strength of anthropology in the Toronto Star. I recommend the work of Kate Graney, Bruce Grant, Caroline Humphrey, Margaret Paxson, Ed Schatz among others. I also wrote a book about a region at the far opposite end of Russia from Moscow, Chukotka (yes, the one Roman Abramovich was governor of for a while).

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