The grim reality: polling shows that the vast majority of Russians stand by their president. Photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Russian pollster: Putin is genuinely popular here—for now

As the war in Ukraine grinds on his approval rating may well slump
May 12, 2022

At the end of March the Levada Centre, the independent Russian polling agency where I work, published the results of a survey it had conducted into Russian attitudes. The survey showed that 83 per cent of the population approve of President Vladimir Putin and 81 per cent support what Russian troops are currently doing in Ukraine. Many both within Russia and around the world have been depressed by these results—some have refused to believe in their veracity, and claimed something was wrong with the polling techniques of the Levada Centre or that the Russians being interviewed were hiding their true opinions out of fear. 

But we can reassure those doubters that our polls are conducted in the same way as they are in the west, using standard methods developed by US pollster George Gallup. The Levada Centre is politically independent and sticks strictly to the proper methodological rules for conducting surveys. We are completely independent and are funded by Russian and international companies who pay us to conduct market research—just like polling companies in the UK do. 

In Russia, the most reliable way to conduct political surveys is still a face-to-face interview at home, during which the respondent will be asked multiple questions about their attitudes. Although to some this may seem an outdated methodology, in our experience you get better and more detailed answers in person. Finding the right respondent takes a lot of time and effort—and by “right” we don’t mean people with the correct opinions. 

We are often told that it is only people who conform to the government’s view who agree to answer our questions, and that nonconformists do not bother responding. But this isn’t the case. We have conducted special studies which conclude that people with a firm non-conformist position are ready and prepared to defend their position. Those who refuse to answer are those who are uncertain what to think—or simply apathetic. 

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that some Russians are so supportive of Putin. Prospect readers should be made aware that their picture of what is happening in Ukraine is directly contradictory to what the rest of the world is seeing. Under the influence of television propaganda, Russians believe that their army is engaged in “the liberation of civilians in Ukraine from the oppression and excesses of the ‘Nazis.’” Viewers are told that the casualties and destruction that they see are not committed by Russian soldiers, but by these “Nazis”—in other words, the Ukrainians. As such, many are ready to show support for their army. Putin, in their opinion, is acting “in the interests of Russia, and is giving a worthy response to Nato.”

Are people afraid to participate in polls conducted by the Levada Centre, which has been called by our Ministry of Justice “an organisation that performs the functions of a foreign agent”? Most respondents simply do not know our reputation in government circles. For most of those who do know, they have told us it doesn’t bother them. 

Under the current extraordinary political circumstances in Russia, it has been said that conducting polls is impossible and thus should not even be done. We understand these doubts but, so far at least, the Levada Centre has not experienced any obstacles from the people in charge. It cannot be ruled out that the authorities themselves find the accurate information we provide about the mood of society to be of some benefit.

Another factor worth recalling when considering Putin’s popularity is that, in previous times of war, the president reached a similarly high level of popularity. When Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008, and when Crimea was annexed in 2014, Putin’s domestic popularity rating was at 88 to 89 per cent. Russians also believe that by acting in defiance of the whole world, as the USSR did a good many times, Russia is acting like a great power.

So, the results that we got are not false or exaggerated. We must face the reality: the vast majority of Russians are ready to express their loyalty to the regime, its leader and his politics. But we shouldn’t think that there is complete unanimity. Of course, there are people outraged by his Ukraine policy, some of them expressing their indignation publicly and at great risk to themselves.

But will Putin’s general popularity last? During his previous conflicts, especially the Chechen campaign between 1999 and 2009, his high approval rating dropped by a third or more. Over time, Russians may move from supporting the military operation to demanding an end to the war.