Elena Bashkirova (pollster), 1992

Elena Bashkirova interview, 1992 (?)

Bashkirova (B): … all sorts of international congresses. It’s the NATO meeting last October, I think, and then … meeting … .

Probably I’ll give you the most recent paper that I presented. It is called something like “The ways of changing public opinion” [here]. It is going to be published in the United States. I’ve just sent it to an American magazine, to Mr. Elvin(?) Golin(?). I don’t know whether you know him or not. We have so much data on everything. And of course my hypothesis is that public opinion changes here, probably not only here, have a wavy character. I’ve been a sociologist for more than twenty years. I’ve conducted all sorts of public opinion polls. And we noticed that public opinion changed very slowly. Changes were really tiny for many, many years. Now we have quite a different situation. If you look at the results of the surveys that were conducted just at the beginning of perestroika when Gorbachev came and proclaimed his new era of political and economic changes (that was in 1985), you’ll see that there were no real changes in public opinion until 1987 I would say.

In my surveys I used ten or maybe more indicators to assess changes in public opinion. The indicators were chosen so that they would reflect a real atmosphere, climate in society. Those indicators were the ones showing satisfaction with life here (housing, the education system, democracy, etc.). So it was a complex system of indicators. Among the indicators we had ones showing the approval ratings of political leaders (Gorbachev, Yeltsin, etc.). We also had indicators reflecting public attitude to different public institutions, like the church, the KGB, the army, the Communist Party, the Parliament (first of the USSR and then of Russia), the juridical system. We had indicators reflecting satisfaction of the people with the way the economy was developing, the financial situation of the household, democratic changes (or lack of them) in the country. We also assessed public attitude towards market economy, private property, and so on.

Then I started analyzing the results of the surveys done during the period from 1987 till 1992.

Spencer(S): Are you doing the polls about annually?

B: No, more often. So, out of a big number of surveys I chose only those whose results could be comparable. That means that the wording of the question was absolutely the same, or the scale was absolutely the same. It was not the case with most of the surveys (there were just a few cases like that). Or the wording and the scale were respectively very close. And the method of interviewing was the same. Sorry, I am not quite correct. I used two methods of interviewing – face-to-face interviews and telephone interviews. I did telephone interviews only in Moscow and big cities. Because you cannot do telephone interviews all over the country.

I did at least two surveys a year. Like, one, say, in May-June and the other in fall, closer to winter. My hypothesis was that there would be some waves – rises and falls – in public opinion. I expected to see all the indicators changing in time – rising and falling and rising again… And I wanted to see whether there was some correlation between the changes in those indicators on the one hand and what was going in the country on the other, and also how quick the reaction of public opinion to the changes in the country was. So I expected that changes in public opinion would have a periodic character. And I think that theory proved to be true. And even the periodiocity was the same – three years(?). Normally for the first two years public opinion changes very, very slowly. During that period of time it gets adjusted to the new idea (I am talking here about something really new). So it grows slowly in support [of this new idea]. Like it was with perestroika when Gorbachev came in 1985, wrote his book,etc. The support was growing slowly, there were people who were skeptical about perestroika. And then during the third year, in mid-summer when I conducted my poll, I registered real big enthusiasm and support, really the peak of it.

S: In 1987?

B: It was 1988 already. In 1987 it was still growing slowly. But in 1988 we had a lot of enthusiasm, support for perestroika here. People were ready for everything. There were more emotions in it than a realistic assessment of the situation.

After that it [support] started going down slowly. People began to come to the realization that such things couldn’t happen overnight. They understood that it was going to take hard work on their part, and that it had its cost.

So now it started going down slowly. People didn’t become disappointed overnight, didn’t deny Gorbachev their support. But Gorbachev’s popularity started going down, and Yeltsin’s, who reappeared on the political scene, going up. And in 1990 we had coup d‘état. That was the lowest point.

S: The lowest point for Gorbachev?

B: For everything. All the support indicators (economic changes, democracy,etc.) were down. People showed their big dissatisfaction. I did a survey just two months before the coup. And it showed that people were very disappointed in everything; Gorbachev’s approval rating was very low, the opinion about the performance of the Communist Party was very low, people were not satisfied with the way democracy in the country was developing, etc. So if the coup plotters had known the results of that survey, they would have probably seen that they had no chance of success (with no support for the KGB, the Communist Party from the people).

S: So does what you’re saying mean that not only did the government have no support but you don’t think that there would have been any basis for any institution to try to intervene?

B: Not so much for an institution in itself. I’m talking here more about lack of support for concrete people who were in power. For instance, the Russian Parliament was rather high as an institution. But the people didn’t have respect for those who were governing this particular institution.

So popularity went down. You can see it at graphs. It’s very evident.

And after the coup another rise began. Now we are at the beginning or even in the middle of it. It would be wrong to say that after the coup there’s a lot of enthusiasm in our society. But there are some hopes again. They can be explained by the continuing development of democracy, by having a new leader – Yeltsin – who is becoming more and more popular though there was time when his popularity was going down also). And again we are moving very slowly. So if my logic works again, and there’s no coup or something, then we are going to have another peak of enthusiasm and support in about three years.

S: Is it because of the fact that Yeltsin is in fact starting some of the reforms that Gorbachev toyed with? Is that the main factor?

B: Of course. That’s because people see real attempts [to change something], real results.

At the same time I can’t say that public opinion homogeneous and everybody supports Yeltsin. There are all kinds of forces. There was a demonstration just a few days ago. Maybe you saw it in the News on TV. Hardliners are still there. Communists are fighting for the Communist Party, for the privileges they’ve lost. And there’s another stratum of the society, what we call common people, who feel a sort of nostalgia for what we had before, for that stability, and we did have it. They had confidence in tomorrow. They knew that they would get the same low salary, but they knew that they would get it. They knew what was going to happen to their children. Some claim that at those times we had more order, not that much crime. And that is true too. Though here it should be said that then people didn’t have as much access to information as they do now, and very often they had twisted ideas of the real situation in the country. Like then as well as now we did have drug addicts, prostitution, etc. But then that information was not published.

S: What about the popularity of Yeltsin now as compared with Gorbachev’s peak?

B: It’s a lot lower. And it’s very difficult to compare these two people. Sometimes Yeltsin’s opposition would say that he is a populist, that he gained his popularity trying to show that he suffered from Gorbachev a lot, which is, to a considerable extent, true. And that was probably Gorbachev’s mistake that he was really trying to put pressure (?) on Yeltsin [the word used by Ms. Bashkirova was “to haunt”]. Because that gave a lot more popularity to Yeltsin.

Let’s take Gorbachev. Why did he become so popular? He started the reforms. He proclaimed that he wanted some changes in Russia. What’s also important is that he became extremely popular in the West. For a variety of reasons, among which his personality is not the last thing. He knew how to dress, how to behave, how to gesticulate. And then he started losing his popularity when people saw that there was a lot of talk on his part, a lot of trips, a lot of changing dresses and fur coats by his wife, and nothing was really changing for the better in the country.

Gorbachev moved to the top very gradually and naturally. A tractor-driver’s son he went to the university, got his education, went to Stavropol where he was a Communist Party functionary, a young one with new ideas. But nothing drastic happened in his life, he was not expelled from anything. It was really a smooth way to the top.

With Yeltsin it’s quite a different thing. He also started as a party functionary. Then he worked in Sverdlovsk Oblast (Region). And he had an enormous support from the people there. Because he always was a little bit different in his everyday life(?). Probably he had the same mentality. We should not overestimate Yeltsin. He was a communist and obeyed orders of the party. But in his everyday life he was different. He never wanted any privileges for himself and was always trying to do something good and practical for the people. Why do people in Sverdlovsk support him? Because he tried to make their life easier. He opened new hospitals, new shops. His wife would queue at shops together with other women. He himself would go to the market, talk to people. He was not just showing off like Gorbachev did. People can feel it very easily.

When he came to Moscow he was appointed the First Secretary of the Moscow Party Committee. And we all felt that immediately. It was a very simple but very practical thing. There are so many people coming to Moscow, from all over the Soviet Union, from other countries, and there are not enough food service establishments. There are not enough places where people could have a snack quickly and relatively inexpensively. And he bought abroad a lot of the …

S: food…

B: Very cheap, very nice. It’s good, it’s for the people. And we started to think that that was the guy who could help us. He thinks about us, not about some theoretical things like Gorbachev did. We should improve the quality of life of the people. So let’s do it. And Yeltsin did it. And then that Plenum of the Communist Party came when Yeltsin was expelled. He criticized Gorbachev for not doing practical things, for not thinking about the people. And as it can be seen from the minutes of that Plenum everything was done to have it Gorbachev’s way. And we felt that there was something wrong about that. So he was expelled. And his popularity started growing at that time. Because he was seen as a sort of an opposition to Gorbachev. Strategically he was not too much of an opposition, because they were basically the same. But tactically he was different. He wanted more things to be done, done quicker, not just talking but doing something. And people appreciated that. And that was only natural. That was Mr.Gorbachev’s mistake. He never cared about public opinion. He even said it publicly. I heard it myself on TV. When somebody told him that his approval rating as the President was going down, he said, “Who cares about this?” That’s a great mistake. He showed his disregard for public opinion. And of course it happened. Because(?) he is so …, so clever person, I mean, Gorbachev. He could have done it very easily, but he didn’t. And Yeltsin was really trying to do that. And then he was elected. It was the first time in our history a free election was held. And he was elected by the majority of the people. And all this when the whole big propagandistic machine was working against him. Gorbachev used it because at that time the machine was still there. And it worked to preserve the communist regime. So Yeltsin’s victory was a great success for him because everything was against him including KGB. He came to power and started to work. I repeat we should not overestimate him. KGB worked very hard to create a negative image of Yeltsin abroad. You know he’s been traveling. And he was received very badly and his image was just terrible, partly due to his own mistakes. I mean his neglecting the way he dressed. I saw him in Paris when he was late for the meeting with the journalists. That’s terrible. But he has learnt a lot. The accusation that he is drinking a lot is just unfair. KGB prepared special films to create that image of Yeltsin, especially abroad. There were some nasty articles about him in the West. But it didn’t work. Yeltsin recently visited the United States and you know what happened in the Congress. But of course he is working in a terrible situation. I mean what Gorbachev left for him. I know it was a very difficult time when he got everything what Brezhnev left for him. But with all these Gorbachev’s mistakes, with the country’s economy effectively in a state of collapse, with the Soviet Union itself collapsing, that was a real crisis. And all that Yeltsin got. And we couldn’t think about him as a … who could do everything. He can’t. But there are a few things for which a lot of people, like intelligentsia for example, support him very much. And I personally support him very much for many things that he’s doing. Of course he’s making mistakes. In Russian we have this proverb: The only one who doesn’t make mistakes is the one who doesn’t work. What we respect Yeltsin for is for his consistency. He is not doing any manoeuvring like Gorbachev did, which was a sort of political prostitution. One moment he would support the left forces then would go to the right. Of course you can call that flexibility or say that being a good diplomat is very important for a politician. But I think he showed too much of that. Sure you should have your political feelings, or affiliations, etc. And Yeltsin has always been so. He was never lying, he was always straightforward. He would never deny something he had said five or ten years before. And that’s not because he’s that rigid(?). But because he had very stable(?) political views and he tries to stay true to them.

S: What is the position of the intelligentsia in these changes? Were they changing a little earlier than others? Did they always go in the same direction? Or can you make any distinctions about different sections of the population when changes took place?

B: Changes during what period? Perestroika, Gorbachev’s Presidency(??)?

S: Yeah, you’ve treated them as a … as if it’s one single direction during the whole … .

B: Of course it would be a great mistake to say that the whole society was going in the same direction. Of course not. We have different categories of people in our society. And I would say that one of the most…,well, “progressive” is not the word to use here, one of the categories that would really seek to implement democratic changes would be the intelligentsia. By “intelligentsia” I mean people who have higher education, that is people working in research institutions, psychiatrists, medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, people in the arts, musicians, actors, and so on. I can’t say that they would follow, of course, they had that mentality much earlier, much earlier than Gorbachev himself. He was not a founder of something.

B: Were you doing such analysis before his period in a way that you could have some confidence in?

S: Yeah, we did some surveys, some questions … . We didn’t have any specific surveys to do that(?). Some of the questions in the surveys could be analyzed by that(?). But to tell you the truth I didn’t do that because I didn’t have time.

The intelligentsia, the educated people have always been more critical of what’s going on in the country. They were against sending troops to Afghanistan, they supported Sakharov.

S: You actually had polls during that period?

B: Of course.

S: I was just not certain about how free people would feel to [talk about that kind of things].

B: Well, we talked very freely. It would be wrong to think that we all were so frightened here that we couldn’t open the mouth. No, we did of course. And I conducted a lot of polls myself, not only in Moscow but all over the country. I did them in Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, and many other places(?). But the problem was not that people were afraid to express themselves, though of course some were, some would just refuse to speak. Some people didn’t want to do that by telephone because they said they were working in KGB.

S: Did they really say that? I’ve never thought that anybody working in KGB would acknowledge that.

B: I remember conducting a poll in Leningrad. And there was a woman there who was … me. Then her husband came and he didn’t like her to talk. She told me that he was a KGB guy. But she said, “I don’t care”.

Side B.

B: And so they were very much influenced by this huge powerful propagandistic machine. And they accepted what was said and, in case of Afghanistan for example, they sincerely believed that it was our duty to help a neighbour who had asked for this help. They saw on our TV how those Afghan guerrillas were killing children. I even know some young men who volunteered to go to Afghanistan as soldiers.

But the intelligentsia was not fooled by what was shown on television. They could always read between the lines and understand what stands behind all that. And of course there were such people as Sakharov who knew everything ten years before that.

S: How about exposure to foreign radio?

B: Well, exposure to foreign radio was considerable in cities where people had short-wave receivers.

S: And can you show whether there is evidence that listeners were affected by that and that the opinions differed according to whether … they listened to foreign radio?

B: Of course they were affected but we shouldn’t overestimate the influence of foreign radio. You know this propagandistic machine really worked and influenced people a lot more than foreign radio. Soviet propaganda was saying that the stations like “Radio Free Europe” and “Radio Liberty” were anti-communist, telling lies all the time, were real bad. So even those who listened to those stations might have believed some facts broadcasted but not the interpretations of those facts by the stations’ analysts.

The attitude towards the BBC and the “Voice of America” was a little bit different. The “Voice of America” was at the top(?) and the BBC … . They don’t practically listen to “Radio Free Europe” because, you know, the language … … in East European countries. “Radio Liberty” was listened to but a lot less.

S: Could you say that statements of dissidents as represented in “Radio Liberty” and other sources had any influence here?

B: I don’t think so. Because the majority of the people, especially common people, I would think, believed that those dissidents were really enemies of the country. And that’s, as I said before, because the KGB machine was very effective in creating those negative images. They can create a bad image of anybody, of Gorbachev itself, if they want. They can make him look awful.
And there was a huge propagandistic campaign against dissidents. It was in all newspapers, magazines, on TV. They were pictured as the ones who are not working for anything good for the people but are just trying to get something for themselves, stealing money, that kind of stuff. Just imagine an ordinary person who can only watch the Russian TV, read Russian newspapers, sometimes listen to some foreign station getting pour reception because of severe jamming.

S: Was it any more likely to have influenced the opinion of intellectuals?

B: Yes. But again I would say that people were skeptical. They would not lend too much support [to those ideas – ?]. Of course Sakharov had a lot more support [than others]. Some people knew him personally. Like my husband worked at the same [research] institute as him. He’d been at his seminars. So those who knew him didn’t believe what they read in newspapers about him. But it was not the case with other dissidents.

S: What was the main basis of the conflict between Gorbachev and Sakharov? I remember that last awful scene when they were fighting about Article 6. But there seems to have been a lot more behind it. And this was also reflected in the attitude of all the dissidents I’ve interviewed. Do you have anything in your surveys that would shed any light on this?

B: No, I don’t think I have anything in my surveys because we didn’t ask people that question. We probably had a question about the support for Mr. Sakharov.

If you want my personal opinion, I think that Gorbachev has such a complex, controversial personality that nothing of what he says, as nothing of what he does could be explained by using just a few words. Of course there’s a lot behind this [conflict]. As far as I understand (and of course I don’t understand him fully, nobody does I guess), there are a few factors that play a certain role here. The first one is that as you know Gorbachev was always manoeuvring, he was always under the influence either of the reformers or of the hardliners. And at that period I guess he allied himself with the hardliners, the communists, because of their criticism that he had moved too far from them and listened to only the reformers. And I think it was not as simple as just him changing his mind. I think he was forced to do what he did. Maybe against his will. That’s my guess. And I’m sure the hardliners had a lot of information that they could use against him. I’m sure that he … … . I’m sure that it can be shown very easily. But probably he was under such a big pressure from these forces that he had to show them that he was rather with them than with the reformers. This is one thing. The other thing I think would be that he was afraid of Sakharov’s growing popularity. That’s true Sakharov was not understood by common people. It was only the intelligentsia that understood and supported him. Because his image was very weak (that of a weak person -?). He was expressing himself poorly, stumbling. He looked very weak. And he was too sophisticated for common people to understand him. Now begin to understand that Sakharov was right, but not at that period. Just as in the case with Yeltsin there was a big rivalry [between Gorbachev and Sakharov -?]. We see now this rivalry between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Even physically they are very different. Yeltsin is big, tall, a real Russian, real man. And there’s nothing like that in Gorbachev.

S: And Alexander Likhotal said to me in exclamation, “Two bears cannot live in one lair.”

B: That’s absolutely right. And I think it was the same thing between Sakharov and Gorbachev. Gorbachev is clever and of course he understood that Sakharov was a lot more educated, a lot more advanced(?) than himself. And compared to him he was really …

S: What about the effect of the economy on attitudes now? You are the first person who’s told me that things are looking up, that people are supporting the government more now. The people, mostly academics, I’ve spoken with are very apprehensive about the fact that the economy cannot improve quickly enough, and that there may be famine in the winter because there won’t be a harvest or what not. And that when this economy gets worse and worse, there will be a probable…, well they speak of the “Red-Brown” Coalition. Do you see any evidence of that in any of your surveys. Well, let me say, evidence, first, of the relationship between popularity and the economy.

B: Popularity of Gor…, of Yeltsin?

S: Well, let’s say the government.

B: Well, I should tell you that I’m talking only about public opinion. I’m not talking about objective things, like for example, how the economy develops, etc. I’m talking about how the economy and everything are reflected in public opinion. Yes, in our survey we’ve noticed that now there’s a small rise in real support for the market economy, for what is being done. But I can’t tell you that everybody supports the government, Gaidar’s policy. Because there’s a lot of people who don’t even understand what the … policy is. They are just thinking in very simple categories. Like, whether it’s good for me and for my family or it’s bad. Of course people in our country are very critical of everything now. They are dissatisfied practically with everything. But there’s some sign that they are becoming a little bit, not very much, … … with something. Food begins to appear on the shelves. The prices are high and not everybody can afford it. But people understand that something is moving. They understand that Yeltsin stopped talking, he started doing something. They understand that there’s a serious opposition in the Parliament and in the government. Not everybody understands that the strategy of the government is right, that it should be rigid, because otherwise there won’t be money. And there are a lot of people who don’t care about that. They just want more bread at a lower price.

I was surveying the attitude toward cooperative, toward private property. And I see that now more people support private property. The mentality is different now. We all used to work at those stable state-run enterprises with our colleagues and friends. Now it’s going. People didn’t like it. Now they understand that this is the only way out. I’ve just finished special polls and surveys. Those polled were businessmen or people who want to start their own businesses. There were so many obstacles hampering the development of private businesses in this country. I mean bad laws, or absence of the proper laws at all, good laws with numerous limitations, etc.

S: What about privatization of land?

B: It’s also a controversial issue. A few years ago I conducted a poll. And we expected that people in the countryside would be the first to vote for privatization of land. But they didn’t. Because they didn’t believe in the political power (that the central authorities had real power -?). They knew that their local authorities anyway would have it their own way no matter what decisions were taken in Moscow.

S: I’ve understood that kolkhozniks don’t want the privatization in general. Do you know whether that’s true? You don’t do this kind of surveys, do you?

B: Yes, I do. But I wouldn’t make these distinctions (between the opinions of kolkhozniks and other groups of the population -?). I think now we should speak of some other categories of the population. Some of them want it, others don’t. And the reasons are very different, even geographically. There are places where kolkhozniks can leave the kolkhozs and organize their start farming on their own. But it’s extremely difficult now. Because there’s no proper law on land ownership, no place to go and buy a tractor easily, no banks to get loans from. Technically it all can be done, and there places in Russia where it’s a little easier to do that. And besides there are people with different mentality. Take for instance research institutes. It’s not a secret that some employees at such big institutes don’t show up for work for months and get their money for doing nothing. Not too much money, that’s true. These people got used to that. We in my team work very hard, stay at work till late, sometimes overnight. In return for that we get this [better] money. Because we want it.

S: You are doing surveys for commercial contracts, do you? This institute though is part of a state-run institute, is that correct?

B: Yes, we are part of a state-run institute. There are very few departments here which work like that. We work at the institute, for the institute, and earn money for the institute, for ourselves. And I’m also the General Director of my own firm called “ROMIR”, this is a Russian acronym standing for “Russian public opinion and market research”. This is purely for Russia. But we are all working not just for money, we are interested in the work itself. And of course we want to live better. But even here if you go to some other room, you can find people sitting there reading a newspaper and drinking tea. They got used to this work style, they lost the skills necessary to do their job. Some of them come to me and ask whether I could take them to work for us. And I say, “No”. Because they don’t know anything about computers, they forgot everything they once knew. So I say to them something like, “You are a nice person, and I don’t mind having tea with you. But that’s all I can do.”

And the same thing happened at all levels and in all groups of our society. I mean this slide to inefficiency due to idleness. But at the same theme there are people who have this new mentality and who are ready to work.

S: You are the most optimistic of all the people I’ve interviewed.

B: Because I know the opinion of the people. And what happens is that people very often make mistakes in judging about the society as a whole because their judgement is based mostly on their knowledge of the situation within their own social group… But people are very different. Like a lot of kolkhozniks just don’t care who’s leading the country. It doesn’t matter for them whether it’s Gorbachev, or Yeltsin, or somebody else. They don’t understand all the intricacies of big politics. If for example you ask them about their opinion about this “Red-Brown” coalition, they would probably not understand what you are talking about. They have their own problems, like not having some certain section at their village store, or not having the store itself.

S: Have you been asking people about their opinions on nationalism and communism?

B: Just yesterday we had a group discussion. We talked about all sorts of things including national security. This is the project we are working on together with Andrei Melville (he was there too) and the Brown University in the US. And one of my questions was about what they think about nationalism and patriotism. You know, I guess, that we use the word “nationalism” with a negative connotation. And in that group there were a lot of patriots – people who really care about Russia. But they were against of chauvinism, against discrimination of minorities.

Basically what I want to say is that you shouldn’t judge about the situation here relying just on the vision of this situation by people who are no doubt very clever, very good and respected but who may not understand very well how the common people, people in the countryside feel about what’s going on. Because they (who -?) know that chauvinism and nationalism are bad things. But not everybody thinks so.

You shouldn’t also overestimate some things. Like for example this one. I’ve met a lot of Americans, especially American Jews, who would come here and tell us that there was a lot of anti-semitism in this country. And they were going around trying to find evidence of that. Of course if you are looking hard for something, you’ll finally find it. But they were very disappointed when in Ukraine where they’d expected to find a lot of it they heard from people that there was no anti-semitism there at all. And they heard that from Jews too. People in Ukraine were telling them that they did have some ethnic problems, like for instance between Ukrainians and Hungarians, but not anti-semitism. And it was hard for those Americans to believe it because they had this kind of fixed idea. Of course I don’t deny that we have anti-semitism here. But in some East European countries, like in Poland for instance, it is a much bigger problem. There are also other ethnic problems in this country, but not to the extent as it is sometimes presented in Western mass media.

S: Would any of those questions appear in any of the papers that you will give me? Any questions about the level of chauvinistic feelings.

B: I’m not sure now. I should look up … different papers.

We asked the question about whether people are proud of being Russian. Ant not too many people said, “Yes”. It was two or three years ago. But I think we should have probably used a different wording for the question. About three or four years ago we used the same questionnaire both in America and here. And in America the level of patriotism (pride in being American) was very high, while here only about one third of those asked said that they were proud of being Russian. The idea of their answer was not actually not having pride in being Russian but the feeling of shame they had because of living in a country with such a regime.

S: Good.

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books