Glasnost and Polling

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV'S recent tirade against Argumenty i Fakty, the extremely popular Moscow weekly (with 26 million subscribers and at least three times as many readers), brought back memories of my first contacts with Americans in 1979, when I came to the United States after 15 years of extensive sociological research in the Soviet Union. Upon my arrival, I found that even the most sophisticated American politicians and social scientists were unaware (and extremely skeptical) that Soviet leaders are deeply hostile to sociology. Americans asked, ``Are not sociological data indispensable to those who make decisions regarding the vital issues facing their country? How then can Soviet leaders persecute the sociologists whose work can only help the leaders enhance their power?''

The events surrounding the recent Argumenty i Fakty affair provide clear validation for the answers I gave to these questions more than 10 years ago.

When Soviet leaders first come to power, they look rather favorably on sociology. During the early years of any regime, blame for the social flaws revealed by sociologists can be shifted to previous regimes.

Over time, however, the attitudes of general secretaries toward sociology become increasingly ambivalent, and then openly hostile, as emerging sociological data either prove unflattering to the leaders, undermine their authority, or, most importantly, provide ammunition for their opponents. Under such circumstances, leaders prefer a dead (or at least ritualistic) sociology to one that provides objective information damaging to their cults.

During the first years of the Gorbachev regime, like the early years of the Brezhnev era, Soviet sociology slowly emerged from the stupor of the previous period. Two major Soviet sociological institutions - the Institute of Sociology and the Center of Public Opinion Studies - began conducting polls regarding the political attitudes of the Soviet people and publishing their results, including data on attitudes toward such sensitive issues as the party's role in society.

Recent developments in Moscow, however, suggest that, despite his much-touted glasnost, Mr. Gorbachev is following the well-worn path traveled by his predecessors. Gorbachev took Argumenty i Fakty to task because, in a poll of its readers regarding the popularity of various people's deputies, he not only failed to top the list, but he failed to show up on the list at all.

Moreover, many of Gorbachev's liberal critics received enthusiastic support from the weekly's readers: 60.9 percent of the readers praised Andrei Sakharov, 43.2 percent endorsed Gavril Popov, 39.4 percent backed Boris Yeltsin, and 39.0 percent commended Iuri Afanasiev. Gorbachev's rage was so great that he demanded the resignation of the editor.

The poll, which was based on 15,000 responses from readers, was less than scientific, and reflects not the views of the Soviet population as a whole, but rather those of the magazine's readers, mostly Russian-speaking city dwellers. Argumenty i Fakty apparently resorted to this type of survey because the major sociological institutions capable of conducting nationwide surveys with random samples are still prohibited from regularly asking about the popularity of Soviet politicians.

The uproar created by this poll underscores the fact that Soviet sociology remains strongly controlled, unable to do its job (which is to fathom the mood of the Soviet population and report its findings), and susceptible to the caprice of the general secretary.

IT has become increasingly evident that genuine democratization and normal parliamentary activity are impossible without unobstructed polling. Deputies in the Supreme Soviet regularly argue that their positions are supported by the masses, but because they lack information from scientific polls they are usually able to cite as evidence only the letters that they receive from their constituents. People's deputies desperately need a permanent flow of information regarding popular attitudes.

It has also become evident, however, that official sociological institutions remain thwarted in their efforts at providing the deputies with such information. Thus, information can only come from the independent sociological units that have started to emerge in the Soviet Union. Given this state of affairs, and the crucial role played in the democratic process by the independent pollsters, the moral and scientific duty of American sociologists to lend support and help to these pollsters can hardly be overstated.

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