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Russian Sociology Under Assault

Science isn’t safe in Russia today. That, anyway, was Lev Gudkov’s message this morning in a public statement published [ru] to the website of the Levada Center, one of Russia’s oldest and best-respected sociological research organizations. The institute is also home to scholars with attitudes widely critical of the Putin regime. Gudkov, who leads the Center, announced that prosecutors in Moscow contacted him five days ago, on May 15, to issue an official warning that his outfit is operating in violation of a recently minted federal law requiring politically-active NGOs receiving funds from abroad to register with the government as foreign agents.

Gudkov posted to slideshare.net scans [ru] of the Moscow prosecutors’ official warning, as well as his own public appeal in defense of the Levada Center. In that latter text, Gudkov announced that the application of the “foreign agents” law to the Center increases the odds that it will have to discontinue its work in the near future. In the statement, he insists that foreign funding comprises at maximum just 3% of Levada’s income, and argues that the organization's scientific work does not amount to political meddling.

Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, 26 January 2008, photo by Andrei Romanenko, CC 3.0.

Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov, 26 January 2008, photo by Andrei Romanenko, CC 3.0.

Specifically, the state accuses the Levada Center of conducting political work between 2009 and 2012 in exchange for donations from a handful of prominent Western institutions, including $150 thousand from the MacArthur Foundation, $290 thousand from the Ford Foundation, and $337 thousand from the OSI Assistance Foundation. (Disclosure to readers: RuNet Echo is currently funded by the Open Society Institute.) Additionally, Levada fulfilled several market research projects between 2010 and 2013 for foreign organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (for $40 thousand) and the University of Massachusetts (for $8 thousand).

Gudkov concludes gloomily:

Следуя логике Предостережения прокуратуры, мы должны были бы прекратить выпуск нашего журнала и закрыть сайт Левада-центра, перестать публиковать, открыто комментировать и анализировать результаты наших опросов в среде специалистов и в публичном пространстве – в СМИ, на семинарах и конференциях, на что согласиться мы не можем.

Following the logic of the prosecutors’ warning, we would have to stop publishing our journal and close the Levada Center’s website, stop publishing, [stop] publicly commenting and analyzing the results of our surveys in both the professional sphere and the public space—in the media, in seminars, and at conferences. We cannot agree to this.

On the Levada Center’s Facebook page [ru], the organization has called on netizens [ru] to disseminate Gudkov’s statement, which refutes the claim that sociological work amounts to political activity. At the time of writing this article, the Center’s Facebook post has attracted 158 “likes” and 1,159 “shares.” Many prominent sociologists have also weighed in [ru], arguing against conflating sociological study and political activism. In a Facebook post [ru] that has 79 “shares” of its own, sociologist Vladimir Magun alluded to Russia’s history of Soviet crackdowns on the autonomy and integrity of science:

Какими бы словами и легалистскими аргументами эта постыдная кампания ни прикрывалась, речь идет о войне против современной науки, и ее организаторы и вдохновители должны ясно осознавать, что их имена навсегда войдут в позорный список безграмотных душителей мысли – таких, как Лысенко, Жданов или Трапезников.

Whatever words and legalistic arguments this shameful campaign is hiding behind, this is a case of war against modern science, and its organizers and masterminds should clearly realize that their names will forever be on the shameful list of crude stranglers of free thought—home to men like Lysenko, Zhdanov, or Trapeznikov.

Political analyst and former Kremlin-insider Gleb Pavlovsky wrote [ru] on Facebook to ask the heads of Russia’s other two major sociological institutes, FOM and VTsIOM, what they thought of Levada’s legal troubles. The latter’s chief, Valery Fedorov, responded [ru] an hour later to report that VTsIOM, too, has received such warnings from state prosecutors.

On Twitter, Russian Internet users competed for wittiest remark about the prosecutors’ warning to Levada. With 132 retweets, activist Ilya Yashin appears to be in the lead, having written:

ВЦИОМ и “Левада” зафиксировали снижение рейтингов Путина и ЕР. Прокуратура зафиксировала снижение шансов ВЦИОМ и “Левады” на существование.

VTsIOM and “Levada” have established a decline in the ratings of Putin and United Russia. Prosecutors have established a decline in the chances that VTsIOM and “Levada” will [continue to] exist.

In another popular post (which now enjoys 20 retweets), oppositionist Alexander Zalessky made light of the fact that Levada’s main competitors, VTsIOM and FOM, are notorious for close ties to the Kremlin:

ВЦИОМ сообщает, что после закрытия Левада-центра рейтинги Единой России за неделю выросли на 35%.

VTsIOM reports that United Russia’s [approval] rating has grown 35% in the week since the Levada Center’s closure.

Not everyone, however, has rallied to Levada’s defense. The predictably pro-Kremlin e-zine politonline.ru posted excerpts of Gudkov’s public statement, tacking on the following question [ru]:

Стоп. Директор “Левада-центра” говорит, что иностранные гранты составляют лишь жалкие крохи – от 1.5% до 3% бюджета социологической службы. Но если это такие маленькие средства – почему же “Левада-центр” не готов от них отказаться и работать дальше без статуса “иностранного агента”? Вместо этого Лев Гудков говорит о “закрытии” центра. Вам тоже кажется, что это нелогично или где-то здесь нестыковка?

Stop. The director of the Levada Center says that foreign grants amount to just a few bread crumbs—from 1.5% to 3%—of the sociological institute’s budget. But if these funds are so small, why isn’t the Levada Center ready to reject them and continue its work without the “foreign agent” status? Instead of this, Lev Gudkov is talking about the “closure” of the center. Readers, does this also seem to you a bit illogical or somehow a bit off?

Stanislav Apetian, another RuNet presence commonly associated with the anti-opposition camp, raised the same questions on Twitter, writing:

Если в доходах “Левада-центра” иностранные деньги составляют 1,5%, то почему нельзя просто от них отказаться? К чему вопли о закрытии?

If in the Levada Center’s income, foreign money is just 1.5%, then why can’t it just reject such funding? What’s the use of bawling about getting closed down?

As most of Russia’s educated, Internet-conscious citizens share their disgust about the crackdown on Levada, the organization could do more to tackle questions like Apetian’s. Is Levada’s defense that it stopped receiving foreign donations after 2012, as its Twitter account indicated in a tweet [ru] earlier today? If that’s the case, why does the prosecutors’ warning mention OSI funding into mid-January 2013, and market research for foreign clients also into 2013?

Most important in the long-run, however, is the likely chilling effect that today’s news will have on Levada’s ability to maintain both clients (and donors) and key groups of respondents for its survey research. Indeed, in an interview [ru] with Kommersant Radio today, Gudkov revealed that clients and respondents alike are already increasingly reluctant to cooperate with an organization that carries Levada’s political baggage.

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