Vladimir Kornilov: The Art of Interpretation – How “Sensation” About Russia Is Created in the West

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



It is no secret that attempts were being made to manipulate public opinion long before the emergence of the term “public opinion”. And since the moment of its emergence the manipulation of the results of the analysis of public opinion became one of the hobbies of many politicians and sociologists. And it happened more than once that in the West “sensation” about the opinion of Russians was invented from polls that didn’t exist.

A poll conducted in the US in the 80’s, when political passions stormed surrounding the plans of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan to advance the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program became a classical example of such manipulations. Back then the same company carried out two parallel polls in which equal categories of the population were proposed to define their attitude towards to SDI and the “star wars initiative” (it is exactly like this Reagan’s critics called his initiative).

And although it was a question of this same program, sociologists received completely opposite results. This emphasises once again that concerning public opinion polls it is important not only who asks who the questions, but also how the questions are formulated too.

By the way, now it is precisely in this way that the opponents of Brexit try to disrupt the country’s exit from the EU. Sounding ideas about holding a repeated referendum, some of them call to formulate a question on leaving/remaining in the EU in such a way that even inveterate eurosceptics can’t answer in the affirmative (like: “Do you agree with the costs of Brexit?”).

But it is even more amusing to observe how politicians, sociologists, and journalists try to manipulate the interpretation of the results of polls that have already taken place, twisting the answers of citizens so they match the desired conclusions.

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For example, many of you, dear readers, for certain saw the other day the headlines “The Level of Support for Putin’s Foreign Policy Decreases”, “Russians Started to Approve of Putin’s Foreign Policy Less and Less”, and so on.

This “news” was spread by practically all Russian liberal media, and also the foreign Russian-speaking “voices” and “waves”. They referred to a survey that was conducted recently by the sociological “Levada Center” company, recognised in Russia as a foreign agent [funded by America – ed].

In this “sensation” what’s more surprising is that the mentioned company didn’t carry out any polls on this topic, which was confirmed by its leader. And the hype was inflated only on the basis of the original interpretation of one of the possible responses in the poll conducted by “Levada” in July and published on August 9th.

It is enough to glance at the original information of the sociologists concerning this poll (which western “voices” obviously didn’t want to do) to be convinced that people weren’t asked to define their position neither in relation to the internal policy, nor to the foreign policy of the Russian president. And the question sounded like this: “What is it that you like about Vladimir Putin?”

Respondents were given a list of possible responses, which they could choose several of (or, correspondingly, just one). Here is what options there were: “He is a skilled politician”, “He is a vigorous, resolute, strong-willed person”, “He is a far-sighted politician”, etc. I.e., Russians were simply asked to rank the possible answers that they consider at this moment to be the most important when evaluating the personality of Putin. And nothing more than that.

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Among this list there was indeed the answer “I support his foreign policy”. In March, 2016 22% of respondents singled out this answer among the determining criteria. And it is precisely from this fact that the liberal and western media tried to inflate “sensation” of a universal scale.

They didn’t pay attention to the fact that in 2011 this answer was chosen by 6% of respondents, and in March of 2015 – 15%. Does it mean that before the events in Ukraine or in Crimea the level of support for the foreign policy of the Russian president was at a low-level? Of course not.

These figures testify only to the priority of these or those topics for Russian citizens. I.e., before the events in Syria and in Ukraine foreign policy interested them much less than it did in 2014-17, i.e., these topics appeared among the priority ones during the period of hot events in the specified countries. But this year the events in Ukraine develop at a slower pace, and the war in Syria factually came to an end with Assad’s victory. It is clear that foreign policy now fades into the background a bit.

By the way, before 2009 the “Levada Center” didn’t include this choosable answer in this question at all. Do it mean that, according to the “logic” of those who try to inflate sensation from this poll, ten years ago Russians didn’t know what foreign policy was at all?

And here the head of “Levada” Lev Gudkov was forced to recognise that “some media agencies incorrectly interpreted the results of the opinion poll carried out by this organisation. There is no talk here about a direct assessment of Putin’s foreign policy”.

But does this prevent Kremlinologists of all colors from building their “analytics” in the western media proceeding from the headlines of the aforementioned “voices”, and not from real polls? Soon you will see how immemorial “Russia specialists” in the leading American and European newspapers will start providing rumours about “condemnation of the foreign policy of the Kremlin” as something already proved, not needing any confirmation.

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Well, actually they already started to do this. Here, for example, is what the Daily Beast wrote: “Meanwhile the public approval rating of Putin’s foreign policy continues to melt down, sliding into the teens”. It is clear that the author of these words didn’t look at the results of the poll. This is the kind of “analytics” we will soon see in many columns written by western authors.

Foreign Kremlinologists and journalists writing about Russia are constantly excited when they see any figures from polls that can be interpreted as the subsidence of the level of support for Putin and the Russian authorities in general. It immediately enters the mind how in the spring of 2012 on the eve of presidential elections the western media actively wrote about the allegedly “incredibly reduced ratings” of Putin and argued that from this moment onwards the numbers will never rise.

It is approximately in the same way that they beat on the topic of a “low turnout” before the 2018 elections and how it will affect the “legitimacy” of the authorities. In the end, the results of the elections constantly became a cold shower for all these “analysts”.

But some time has passed, and they again invent from thin air near-sociological “sensation” and again feed themselves with false hopes.

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