Russia’s Changing Attitudes Towards Feminists, LGBT, and Vladimir Putin: A Conversation With Denis Volkov

Denis Volkov is the assistant director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster. In an interview with ReForum, Volkov explains how feminists, terrorists, and pedophiles ended up together in a recent survey. He also discusses what Russians think about domestic violence, the current government, and what issues have the potential to unify the country.

ReForum: The Levada Center recently published survey results under the title “Social Distancing 2.” It was met with extremely negative reactions on social media. Many were shocked by the phrasing and choice of social groups found on the survey. Here’s a quote from the published results: “… We expanded the selection of representatives from communities whose behavior might be considered criminal and/or deviant.” Included were pedophiles, extremists, terrorists, and feminists. Why did you put out a survey with this specific phrasing? How did feminists end up in the same group as pedophiles and terrorists? Who created the survey?

Volkov: The survey consisted of a block of questions created for a research project called “The Soviet Person.” Our objective was to measure society’s readiness to accept repressive measures against social groups whose behavior respondents view negatively. As the director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, explained, the survey utilizes expressions that people themselves might use. These questions were first asked in 1989 when a soviet, perhaps Stalinist, attitude was still prevalent in society.

Since then, these questions are occasionally asked without changes so as to trace the change in opinion over time. Personally, I don’t find these questions very successful, from both a methodological and ethical point of view. And I tell my colleagues this every time. I should note that our research dedicated specifically to attitudes towards the LGBT community and issues of domestic violence against women utilize different, more appropriate phrasing.

Grouping feminists with other marginalized social groups was the result of an experiment that my colleague, Ekaterina Kochergina, proposed. Though, I don’t consider it to be successful. It’s difficult to argue with her assertion that feminism is a marginal trend in Russia. I also understand the desire to approach the study of this issue with our analytical tools. But in order to understand this phenomenon, I think that it’s better to use another phrasing. In any case, understanding anything requires not just one, but many questions.

ReForum: The Levada Center just recently released other survey results about gender-based violence. I was surprised by the figures. First by the number of people who are aware of gender-based violence. But what really surprised me was that 61% of those surveyed think that domestic violence is a serious problem, while 80% of Russians think that there should be a law that protects women from violence. I thought these figures would be much worse. I thought that no more than a third of Russians would say that it’s a serious problem. In the best-case scenario, I thought that half of Russians would think a law necessary. But it turns out that Russians are essentially in total agreement that there should be a law. Did you conduct a survey about gender-based violence in the past? Is there some sort of trend? In recent years, have people grown less or more aware of the issue?

Volkov: Unfortunately, we haven’t identified any trends. For whatever reason, we haven’t asked about this issue before. That’s partly because the issue has never been such a hot topic in the public discourse. The issue existed, but no one was talking about it. So we conducted a poll – admittedly somewhat late in the game – because the issue of gender-based violence has been discussed more and more the past several years.

For me, these figures were somewhat predictable. They show that representations of Russian society sometimes shown in the media don’t always match up with reality. Politicians honestly believe that there isn’t a problem. But society has changed, in many respects because the role of women has changed, and they’ve become more economically independent. Of course, there is gender discrimination in Russia, but women don’t depend on men, or at least don’t depend on them as they did in the past. That’s especially the case in large cities. In small cities and national republics, such as Chechnya, the economy, religion, and traditions prevent women from being independent of their family and their culture. That hasn’t been the case in large cities for quite some time. In education, we see that women are often very successful, and in certain fields, outrank men. This shows that we’re catching up with Europe, as with many other demographic indicators. We’re just lagging behind.

ReForum: All of that despite the efforts being made to rewrite the Russian constitution. (On January 15, 2020, Vladimir Putin proposed a number of amendments to Russia’s constitution. This includes defining marriage as a union between a man and woman, as well as establishing “a unified, socially-oriented state policy for preserving traditional family values” – ReForum.)

Volkov: It’s delusional to think that laws can stop the natural process of modernization.

ReForum: Do you think that Russian society has started to take gender-based violence seriously thanks to the recent mobilization of women around the issue?

Volkov: Definitely. If you don’t organize yourself and overcome certain barriers, then no one else is going to do that work for you. These rules apply to any problem. So long as a person or group affected by a problem doesn’t say anything, organize, look for supporters, and engage the rest of society, then change will happen very slowly. Serious changes require a change of attitude in society. In order to change society’s opinion, you need to be active and organized. There should also be a general understanding in society of what is good and bad.

ReForum: According to data from your survey, women know about instances of domestic violence twice as often as men. Women are three times more likely to think that domestic violence is a serious problem. Men don’t know about domestic violence and they don’t think that it’s a serious problem. Why does this difference exist?

Volkov: They don’t notice it. They don’t want to notice it. We read and talk a lot about the fact that in personal relationships there are also power relationships. I think that’s definitely true, but we don’t always recognize it on a conscious level. When you’re in a privileged position you think things should remain the way that they are. And when someone starts to mess with the order of things, then we see denial.

ReForum: When one version of the domestic violence law was made public, the term “economic violence” shocked some men on social media. I think that’s what you’re talking about. They think that people live together and everything is fine. The man decides whether to give his wife money, for clothes maybe. But someone might see violence in this.

Volkov: Yes, you might hear something along the lines of “It was always like that, they lived just fine, and so why is she bringing this up now?” For me, it’s important to understand who opposes the changes that we’re seeing. Surveys tell us that it’s men over the age of 50. Stories of harassment in the State Duma are very telling, such as how the Duma commission looked like the case of Slutsky and the comments they gave on this issue in the media. I remember reading in Meduza a comment made by some senator or deputy. He was genuinely surprised: “Did something really all that bad happen?” The same goes for LGBT issues and domestic violence. There’s a genuine surprise at the fact that things should somehow be done differently. And these people serve in the State Duma, in the government! And they make decisions for us! This tells us a lot about the relationship between government and society. Those in power have the mentality that “I’ve got to where I am, and whatever I say, you’ll do.”

ReForum: For me, your data about Russians’ changing attitudes towards domestic violence shows a positive trend. Have we seen any other positive changes in Russia over the past five years?

Volkov: Changes are underway and society is evolving. And all of that in Putin’s Russia. These are processes that can’t be stopped. These are changes in demographics and urbanization. Over the past ten years, the number of cities with populations of over one million people has increased. So too has the number of people living in these cities increased. Large cities are unique environments. They create greater economic and informational independence for those who live in them. Over the past five years, the number of internet users doubled. 40% of Russians indicate that they regularly get their news from the internet. The majority of those under the age of 35 get their news from the internet. Meanwhile, television has lost about a fourth of its audience over the past ten years. These processes are largely independent of the government.

The government does a lot to try to stop these processes, but it can only slow them down, not stop them completely. Society is becoming more difficult to control, and more active, in fact. This is becoming the norm. I would say that today about a fourth of Russians have an active political position and are ready to defend their rights even if that means taking to the streets in protest. They have more opportunities, information, and skills. I think a lot of good is happening, which can’t always be measured with mass surveys.

ReForum: In your opinion – or according to survey data – what are the most pressing demands among Russians which have the potential to unify them?

Volkov: Above all, Russians are concerned about socio-economic issues, such as low pensions and inadequate social support. As they say, life isn’t all that great and we’d be better off with more money. But among these concerns, ecological problems stand out. When we ask about each issue individually, it always shows up at the top of the list. In other words, when we let respondents choose, then they indicate socio-economic issues as their top concern, followed by ecological issues. But if we ask about each question individually, then ecology becomes a very important issue. This includes generally poor ecological conditions, the chopping down of trees in public spaces, garbage collection, and waste disposal.

On this front, the events at Shies in Arkhangelsk have been significant (in the summer of 2018 construction of a landfill for garbage from Moscow began near the Shies railway station in the Arkhangelsk region. Since then, local residents have protested against the possible import of waste from Moscow – ReForum). It seems that the authorities had to make a concession and the landfill probably won’t be finished. The old governor was replaced with a new one who says that he doesn’t like the idea of a landfill. Ecological issues always bring people together – they’re clear and simple. We conducted a survey in the Arkhangelsk region and found that 90% of residents were against the construction of the landfill. I can’t recall a single issue where people have been so united in their opinion. Therefore ecological issues possess huge potential for action and unity. 

A different issue is a corruption, which is always and everywhere present. Alexei Navalny may have been the first person in our country to raise the issue of corruption to such a high level, but compared to other countries, he’s definitely not number one. Navalny follows in the footsteps of other corruption fighters from other countries. India had its share of Navalnys, and so did other countries.

Corruption and misconduct within law enforcement is a more complex issue. But even those people are starting to discuss. In some sense, the issues of violence against women and violence against prisoners are similar in terms of society’s attitudes towards them. Not everyone is ready to talk about it, and not everyone is ready to acknowledge the issue. But the current state of affairs is getting to be unacceptable.

ReForum: What kind of tools can influence public opinion? How effective are they in Russia today?

Volkov: I think the tools are always the same no matter where you live. It’s just that in Russia the situation is more difficult given our closed, uncompetitive political system. Political parties can’t register and elections are unfair.

But the tools are always the same. They include unification and the competent use of all available resources. It’s important to use all of the available channels! If you want to solve a specific ecological problem, but you’re denied the chance to register a new political party around the issue, then you need to reach out to parties which already exist and seek out those who are ready to listen. These kinds of opportunities exist. You shouldn’t despair or give up. You should unite and build a civic support network.

Also, I would say it’s important to find points of mutual understanding with larger segments of society. There shouldn’t be this mindset that “We alone are intelligent and everyone else is stupid.” It’s important to understand others and try to bring them over to your side. But in order for that to happen, you need to do a lot of explanatory work and find your “heroes,” some kind of figures who are ready to discuss issues with the public. When we published our list of the most respected people in Russia, people like Nikita Mikhalkov and Vladimir Pozner came up. We had clients who were working on a campaign to fight cancer, and they decided to recruit Vladimir Pozner. There was a very positive reaction to Pozner since many people know and trust him.

ReForum: There are some interesting statistics on the Levada Center’s website which show that disapproval of Vladimir Putin, and in general, of the direction the country is headed, is higher than it has been in the past seven years. Why is that?

Volkov: None of that happened overnight. There was a sudden drop in 2018 following the announcement of pension reforms. People felt cheated. This was more or less there thinking: “It’s clear that there isn’t any money because government officials won’t pay, oligarchs won’t pay, but ordinary people will have to pay.” That was the general attitude when we saw ratings drop, including Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings. It’s important to note that people viewed him as responsible for the reforms. Ratings of parliament, members of parliament, and Prime Minister Medvedev already began to smooth out in 2015. But at that time, Putin’s rating hadn’t dropped. It was with the pension reforms that his approval ratings started to drop.

Since then we’ve observed an interesting trend. We have several kinds of ratings for Putin. One is the approval of his work as president. A lot of this isn’t just about Putin, but also about the status-quo, as well as the situation in general. But we also ask other questions, such as “Would you vote for Putin as president?” or “Which politicians do you trust?” These are questions about the future, that is, not about what has already happened, but about what’s going to happen next. “Would you vote for Putin again?” Over the past several years, we have started to see a drop with these kinds of questions. People are tired. The situation deteriorated sharply back in March of this year. The most recent drop in Putin’s rating is comparable to what we saw at the end of 2014 and in 2008. In other words, just based on how people feel, we’ve entered a new crisis.

Yes, a new government was formed and people have shuffled around. In general, Russia entered the crisis prepared and in good shape. But as far as Putin’s ratings are concerned, then we see that the authorities haven’t made much headway in the past two-and-a-half years. People are tired of and unhappy with Putin. It’s been almost impossible to make any gains since the pension reforms. That’s because Putin doesn’t change. You can replace other government officials, but you can’t replace him. In the past, when you asked people why they support Putin, they would say that he’s managed to do something. More and more today people are saying there aren’t any alternatives. In many respects, this situation was artificially created. Even ordinary people talk about that. But it’s unclear how Putin will see any growth in his popularity.

ReForum: Ratings also dipped in 2014. There were waves of protests, sanctions, and the war in Ukraine began. ThenPutinannexedUkraine and his ratings immediately rose. You said that in March of this year ratings fell dramatically. Is that connected with the quarantine and the pandemic? Will ratings continue to drop? Does Putin have the ability to pull off something similar to Crimea right now?

Volkov: I link the sharp drop in Putin’s ratings to the annulment of presidential term limits, which was met with mixed feelings. There is the sense that Putin did this for himself, and that it’s wrong for him to hold onto power. But there are many indications that the situation is generally better today than it was in 2012. If elections were held right now, he would be reelected.

The economic situation will likely have a delayed effect on ratings. If we look at how the ratings behaved back in 2008 and 2014, then we see that, at first, people notice a sharp deterioration, and then ratings begin to gradually fall. This is because people initially hope that the government will do something, but then it doesn’t, and so attitudes begin to sour. I think the pandemic itself will have much less of an effect on the mood in society than will its economic side-effects, such as unemployment, businesses closing, smaller incomes, and lower standards of living. The system of paternalism that has worked so well for Vladimir Putin, and to which people have grown accustomed, will likely work against the government. In other words, you made us promises, but who will pay for this now? You told us that you’ll look after us and save us, but what now?

ReForum: That’s already happening. Small and medium business owners are already asking those questions right now.

Volkov: For now, they’re the only ones asking those questions. Others will start to ask questions later. The situation is very serious in that it will be difficult to overcome. You need time and energy. Therefore, in the long-term, there’s little hope for an improvement in the president’s ratings.

ReForum: According to Levada Center data, this past March the majority of Russians experienced a serious economic shock. The number of people who expect a serious deterioration in their family’s financial situation and the economy overall has doubled. How would you explain this? Are these fears justified?

Volkov: That’s how people really feel. I think it can be linked to the economic effects of the coronavirus epidemic. People are clearly afraid of having less. Some are earning smaller paychecks, whereas others are just anxious.

What I find interesting is how people respond to the situation. How will they act? Will they spend money? Or will they save it? There really isn’t much to save. Only a third of Russians have savings, and these savings aren’t very large. Are people ready to spend money? If not, then the economy will suffer.

ReForum: That brings up another interesting point: state-controlled media outlets aren’t saying anything about an economic crisis. They continue to say that Vladimir Putin is giving out money to everyone and they everything will be just fine. But people don’t believe any of this and are instead turning to some other kinds of indicators. Does that mean that the level of trust in official media outlets aren’t high right now?

Volkov: I don’t think trust in state media was ever very high. Levels of trust in state media began to change slowly with the advent and diffusion of the internet. Right now, young people are able to do a lot on the internet. And while older generations also use the internet, focus group data shows us that they don’t trust online sources and that older people still consider television’s representation of current events to be more accurate.

But the pension reforms dealt a serious blow to media outlets in terms of their reporting on the economic situation in the country. If reporting about international news events is still more or less “objective,” then as far as the domestic economic situation is concerned, most people now say that it’s not objective. We’ve asked that question several times.

You can talk about the international political situation and frame it in a way that’s easy for people to understand. For Syria the frame is as follows: there is Assad’s legitimate regime, and then there are the terrorists. This frame was already in place in 2011-12, and when Russia entered Syria, the government used it in order to turn public opinion towards supporting its actions. You have a frame and you use it. But when we’re talking about the money in your wallet, this formula no longer works. When people start to see workers getting sacked, paychecks slashed, everyone sent home from work, then you can’t really fool them with the idea that “everything is fine.”

ReForum: How likely do you think it is that the deteriorating economic situation and falling approval ratings of the president will lead to more protests?

Volkov: It’s definitely possible. Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed a lot of local protests, not just in Moscow. We’ve seen them in Ingushetia, Archangelsk, Ekaterinburg, and other cities. Though, I don’t think that these protests can be linked to lower ratings. People have already stopped believing that the government will solve their problems. Distrust is sort of the default attitude right now. So people are becoming more active.

On the other hand, I don’t think conditions have yet gotten to where mass protests are possible. In order for people to take to the streets in mass numbers, you need mistrust in government and the feeling that nothing will get better, just worse. People need to feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. For now, there is still a glimmer of hope. Some people are thinking “Well, something can be done and we’ll manage.” Right now, there is still a positive balance. However, the worsening situation likely suggests that things will start moving in that direction. So, yes, a growing number of protests is definitely possible.

ReForum: You said that people “need to feel” that the country is headed in the wrong direction for protests to happen. To what extent do Russians support the conservative values which the presidential administration has been promoting the past seven years? Such as the importance of religion, rejecting LGBT people, and conservative views on women’s place in society, that is, women staying at home to take care of children while their husbands work.

Volkov: Here we have a kind of a hodgepodge of values where people will always find something that they like. If there wasn’t significant support for any of these values, then, of course, they wouldn’t be relevant. A respondent in one of our focus groups once said, “If we were all for democracy, then tomorrow Putin would be the biggest democrat.” So long as there is a positive response to these values, then they’ll be used in politics. We saw this with the new constitutional amendments. There were political amendments, and then there were social amendments. There was also an entire group of ideologically-oriented amendments about the Russian people, the Russian language, and then there was also the appearance of God in the constitution.

On some level, many people share these conservative values. but I think this is mostly symbolic. Churches, for example, enjoy a lot of trusts, but only so long as it doesn’t get in over its head. In other words, the church is good and you shouldn’t do anything to offend people of faith. But most people are opposed to religious teaching in schools. When we ask whether the church should have more influence or get involved in certain affairs, most people say “no.” But they also say that the government shouldn’t get involved in a lot of things, such as in someone’s personal family life. 

Abortion is another example. For most people– and for most women – it’s not even an issue. A woman should decide for herself. That’s what most people think. Or take a divorce. The vast majority of people don’t even think about the idea of someone else getting involved. Noone other than the two people affected should be involved. So conservatism in our country is very situational.

Again, this “conservative” president of ours is himself divorced, and it’s not clear with whom he lives. In other words, we see a hodgepodge of values that matter only to separate groups in society. And I think the government simply picks out these groups and then builds them into a general group of support for Putin.

ReForum: Is the issue of LGBT rights important to Russians? Does the Levada Center have any data on what Russians think about queer people?

Volkov: I think that the LGBT movement in Russia is only just getting started. It’s sort of a like mass coming-out, where people are openly expressing their sexuality. Only now are people beginning to talk about the fact that they know someone who is gay or lesbian. Right now, that’s not more than 8% of the population.

Issues around LGBT rights in Russia have a lot to do with that number –society doesn’t quite understand who these people are. Showbusiness in the 1990s created this impression that gay people are absolutely grotesque. For many, homosexuality is a sign of promiscuity, a poor upbringing, perversion, and so on.

The question is how much of that is the result of propaganda in mass media. Some of it really is. In 2012-13, the government launched an anti-LGBT campaign.

At that time anti-LGBT sentiments definitely increased. But then the issue was taken off the political agenda and sentiments leveled out. It seems that right now the situation is actually improving. Society is very slowly starting to accept LGBT people.

Why do I say that? I say it because most tolerant people are those who have queer friends and acquaintances. I think that society needs to go through this stage. In all countries, LGBT people first begin to talk about themselves and then engage society in dialogue. It’s just that you need to convince others that these people are the same as everyone else.

Take the 1990s, for example. There weren’t any anti-gay campaigns going on. But there also wasn’t any coming out taking place. For the most part, LGBT people preferred to not talk about it. My colleagues and I worked as consultants for foreign clients who had ordered a survey for a dating app. We found out that many LGBT people prefer to not talk about their sexual orientation. They might say something along the lines of “We live our lives just fine without talking about that.” In fact, we noticed a lot of hostility from queer people towards those who openly talk about their sexuality. That’s what gays and lesbians were saying about other gays and lesbians. “You’re giving us a bad reputation. We never wanted to talk about ourselves. We kept to ourselves and lived just fine.” In other words, blame was being shifted from the state, which is, in fact, bullying LGBT people, to those who don’t want to go on living in secret and just want to accept themselves as they are.

This means that changes should begin from within the community. There needs to be some internal agreement, and then an agreement can be reached with society on the whole. No one other than those within the community will do this kind of work.

ReForum: It’s more difficult to do something like that when you might be sent to jail.

Volkov: That’s definitely true. When there is a law against gay propaganda, or laws on undesirable organizations, foreign agents, and treason, then changing society is much more difficult. All of these laws were passed in order to hinder civil society. The new constitutional amendments also reflect the position of the conservative elite. As they might say, “We are putting forward our visions of a prosperous Russia in the Constitution. They will preserve Russia.” But I don’t think that social change can be stopped. Life will take its own course.

Translated by Mackenzie Tubridy