(F)lying Numbers: The Art And Science Of Interpreting Russia Polls

The opening paragraph of Andreas Umland's latest article in The National Interest is impressive:

"A plain extrapolation of recent political developments in Russia into the future should lead one to regard outright war with NATO as an improbable, yet possible, scenario. It is not unlikely that Russian public discourse will, during the coming years, continue to become more hostile to and paranoid about the United States, moving in that direction at the same speed at which it has been moving since 2000. What is in this case in store for the world is not only a new cold war, but also the prospect of a hot and perhaps even nuclear war."

(Umland seems to like the word "paranoia" ("paranoid"): he uses it later again when describing Russia's attitude toward the United States.  Well, a person who predicts a nuclear war between Russia and United States would know a thing or two about paranoia…)  

Central to Umland's narrative is his assertion that in the 1990's, Russia enthusiastically embraced "the Western value system and partnership."  However, "with the beginning of Vladimir Putin's rise in 1999", Russia's views of the United States began to continuously deteriorate. 

To prove his point, Umland invokes poll data collected by the Levada Center.  Here is how he flies his numbers:

"Whereas in a poll conducted by Russia’s leading sociological survey agency, the Levada Center, in July 2000, 69 percent of the respondents said that they had a “very good” or “mainly good” opinion of the United States, by July 2008 this number shrank to 43 percent. In the same period, the number of those with a negative or very negative view of the United States rose from 23 percent to 46 percent."   

(Frankly, it's a mystery to me what is so magic about these numbers.  Why should the "shrinking" of a favorable opinion of the United States in Russia to 43 percent necessarily indicate that the two countries are moving to the brink of a war?  A year ago, I discussed a Pew Research Center report showing that over the period between 2000 and 2006, the favorable opinion of the United States has dropped from 62 percent to 39 percent in France, from 78 percent to 37 percent in Germany, and from 50 percent to 23 percent in Spain.  Following Umland's logic, in 2006, the United States was twice as close to a war with Spain than with Russia in 2008.)   

As I argued a few months back, there are no reliable data whatsoever proving that, in Umland's words, "Russia's' views of the United States were deteriorating continuously" in recent years.  A Levada Center's poll published in December 2007 (from which Umland apparently took his July 2000 numbers) presented the following numbers for the favorable opinion of the United States in Russia between 2000 and 2007: 69%, 65%, 61%, 57%, 58%, 57%, 51%, 64%.

And then, there is a VCIOM poll published in July 2008 that, too, addresses the issue of "rising" anti-Americanism in Russia.  The poll asked essentially the same question, "What is your general attitude toward the United States?", and compared responses given in July 2003 vs. June 2008 (pretty much the same time period that Umland is talking about).  In 2003, 48 percent of the respondents defined their feelings toward the United States as "very positive/generally positive" and 40 percent as "generally negative/very negative."  In 2008, the numbers were 49 and 29 percent, respectively.   

"Deteriorating continuously"?

One would still want to account for the more than 20 percent (from 64 to 43) drop in favorability that, according to Umland, had occurred between 2007 and July 2008.  The problem here is that it's not clear which of the Levada polls this number, 43 percent, came from.  (Like many other Russia "experts", Umland doesn't have a habit of referencing the polling data he's referring to.  I guess that gives him an opportunity to creatively interpret cherry-picked numbers.)  

I thus had to do my own research.  Of 18 reports published by the Levada Center in July 2008, none was tackling the issue of the U.S.-Russian relations.  Nothing of the sort could be found among nine Levada reports published in June, either. 

It was only in August that the issue of Russians' attitude toward the United States came back to the attention of Levada's pollsters.  We all know what happened between July and August of 2008: the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia.  We also know that the Russians overwhelmingly blamed the United States for supporting the aggressor, Georgia, in this conflict.  It is also a well-known fact that the Russians were justifiably outraged by the biased coverage of the conflict in the American media.  

Did it result in rampant anti-Americanism in Russia?  Hardly.  An August 11 Levada poll revealed that 48 percent of Russians believed that the United States threatened Russia's national interest (37 percent of respondents believed it didn't); 62 percent of Russians said that the United States interfered in Russia's domestic affairs (only 25 percent said it didn't).  Yet, 22 percent of Russians felt positively "toward Americans" whereas only 18 percent felt negatively (58 percent took a "neutral" position).

Another August poll characterized U.S.-Russia relations as "friendly/good" (6%, <2% for Georgia), "normal" (16%, 1% for Georgia), "lukewarm" (39%, 9% for Georgia), "tense" (28%, 41% for Georgia), and "hostile" (8%, 44% for Georgia).  Any indication, anyone, that the Russians are emotionally preparing for the nuclear war with the United States?

True, at the end of September, a poll showed that the favorable attitude of Russians toward the United States had taken a severe hit: only 23 percents of the respondents expressed positive views of the United States, whereas 67 percent expressed negative views.  Such a high index of "unfavorability", -43 percent, was recorded by the Levada pollsters only once before, in April 2003, shortly after the American invasion of Iraq, when 39 percent more Russians view America negatively, rather than positively.  

The very same poll indicated that that the rise of negative feelings toward "foreigners" wasn't United States-specific: the indexes of "unfavorability" for parties the Russians considered "hostile" in the Georgian war — Georgia, Ukraine, and, to a lesser extent, the European Union — all have reached their historic low.  

The temporary character of these trends became evident by the end of November, when yet another Levada poll recorded a rebound in favorable opinions of the United States: already 33 percent of the respondents viewed it favorably (23 in September), whereas 51 percent (67 in September) still held a grudge.  There is every reason to believe that, having expressed the anger at the role the Americans played in supporting Georgia's aggression in South Ossetia, Russians are gradually regaining their usual, generally positive, attitude toward the United States.

(I haven't been following Levada polls recently, but took a note of the fact that in a January poll, "The Person of the Year 2008", president-elect Barack Obama took the sixth place, having become the only foreigner among the top ten.) 

One doesn't have to be a political scientist, like Umland, to understand that the reckless foreign policy adventures of the Bush administration have resulted in a spike of anti-American sentiments all across the world.  As the Bush presidency comes to an end in just a couple of days, hopes around the globe are that President Obama will reverse the disastrous course of his predecessor.

Russia is no exception.  Far from gearing for the nuclear war with the United States, Russian political leaders, on many occasions, have expressed their willing to work, in a positive way, with the incoming administration.  So far, signals coming from Washington, have been encouraging, too, as both Obama and the Secretary of State-to-be, Hillary Clinton, promised to pursue a cooperative approach towards Russia.

No matter how he picks and interprets his polling numbers, Andreas Umland isn't paranoid.  He's got an agenda:  he doesn't want the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to take place.     

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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10 Responses to (F)lying Numbers: The Art And Science Of Interpreting Russia Polls

  1. What do you expect from someone who has spent a good deal of time in Ukraine, where he specialized in “Russian nationalism,” while saying nothing of the Ukrainian variant?
    Umland’s slant was noted in this piece of mine which made InoSMI.Ru:
    I find it quite noteworthy how it wasn’t picked up by either JRL or the AUR. Of recent note, the AUR appears to have become a bit more partisan in what it chooses to select. JRL has had a history of wonkmanship, coupled by the petty personal biases and (at times) questionable selection of material by its editor. This has included the banning of several valid sources for extended periods. Mark Ames wrote an article about this when he was in the JRL dog house.
    All this can be improved by getting the best possible go to sources at the more high profile of venues. Two factors have prevented this from happening. They’re the existing status quo cronyism and geopolitical biases.
    Back to Umland: there’s a market for highlighting the negatives (both real and imagined) of “Russian nationalism.” In comparison, the non-Russian/not so Russia friendly nationalism gets comparatively sugar coated. Fortunately, that kind of nationalism has limits in Ukraine. Many in the West don’t know this on account of the kind of Ukrainian views which receive top billing.
    A recent Umland commentary claimed that Rusia’s recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence will noticeably hinder it in the international community. IMO, this view is quite questionable. For years, Turkey has remained the lone country recognizing northern Cyprus as an independent state. This recognition hasn’t been successfully used to isolate Turkey. At present, Russia’s recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian indepedence hasn’t appeared to have been much of an obstacle for Russian dealings with the international community at large.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment and the link. I’ve missed your article before and it was my pleasure to read it now.
    I totally agree with you that nationalism everywhere gets an easy pass if the country is considered “pro-Western” in the West. Russia is an exception, as usual.
    I’m not as naive as to expect that anything can “change” Umland — the guy has an agenda — but I’d admit that I have a low tolerance for manipulations with polls.
    Best Regards,

  3. It’s a pleasure interacting with you Eugene (I can’t say the same for some of the blowhards out there).
    So that there’s no misunderstanding, I’m all for a responsible patriotism as opposed to a jingoistic version.
    Umland isn’t so extreme like some others out there. He has acknowledged that Russia’s counterattack prevented another Operation Storm like ethnic cleansing campaign (a reference to the 1995 ethnic cleansing of 150,000 Krajina Serbs as NATO and Yugoslav forces observed).
    Your point on statistics is well founded. Note how a recent Russian poll on Russia’s most popular historical figure was viewed in some circles.
    Here’re two different views on that matter:
    Putting aside the hyperbole, IMO, the Pravda one is the more reasonable. I find the Ron Radosh piece to be comprised of inaccurate left wing neocon mis-information.
    Stalin finishing third in the mentioned contest is typically highlighted without noting how he received under 12% in a contest that has its question marks in terms of accuracy. In the beginning of the voting, it was thought that a coterie of pro-Stalin zealots were “stuffing the ballot box” (sports terminology used when describing how the fans of some teams will repeatedly vote for their favorite players for all star game status over more qualified others). A good number of diaspora Russians and those in Russia have expressed to me some surprise with Pyotr Stolypin finishing second.
    Those highlighting statistics can and have overlooked the nuances involving the “support” Stalin receives in Russia. That “support” is often with an acknowledgement of his flaws. This runs contrary to others like myself, who are (among other things) of the view that the USSR won on the eastern front despite Stalin and not because of him. Pro-Stalin sentiment can be found among non-Russians as well.
    Taras Kuzio recently made cheap propaganda when he essentially said (without quoting him verbatim) how Ukraine has a historically more ethical outlook than Russia.
    There’s no Stalin holiday or an attempt to initiate one. This contrasts from a newly created holiday in Ukraine:
    In English language mass media, there’s little if any criticism of this holiday. For that matter, it’s hardly discussed (include the Action Ukraine Report). I wonder what kind of deals might’ve occurred to get this Ukrainian holiday passed in the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament)? Stepan Bandera appears to be a regional figure along the lines of Robert E. Lee. There’s reason to question Symon Petliura’s overall popularity in Ukraine as well.
    Pardon the lengthy note. I feel that much has been lacking at a number of high profile venues which allot time to covering these topics. Things can and should be much better.

  4. Please scratch the “cheap propaganda” remark regarding Taras Kuzio, while noting his recently stated view. I didn’t mean to get so rhetorical.
    He’s of course entitled to his opinion. At the same time, his views should be (for clarity sake) second guessed in as high profile a manner as how his views get propped at venues like the Action Ukraine Report and The Kyiv Post.
    This point relates to the kind of censorship not being discussed as much as some others. Therein lies the greater censorship.

  5. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Dear Michael,
    Thanks much for your new comments.
    I, too, was surprised with Stolypin finishing second and, even more, with Alexander Nevsky climbing to the very top. I even suspect that some “administrative resourse” might have been used to help both. This has saved the organizers from of an embarassment of Stalin becoming the first.
    However, a larger point is who took part in this poll and what do the results of it really mean? Does winning Eurovision 2008 really make Dima Bilan a great singer (or any singer, for that matter)?
    I want to use this opportunity to thank you for keeping me on your mailing list. Goes without saying, you’re alway welcome here with your comments.
    Best Regards,

  6. Dear Mr Ivanov,
    thanks for your comment. I am currently travelling and will double-check on the numbers. As you may know, many publication organs, including TNI Online, edit texts heavily and do not send these edited versions for proof. A more adequate presentation of my views is this version: http://www.californiachronicle.com/articles/view/88068

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Dear Dr. Umland,
    Thank you for your note and the link to the extended version of your paper, which, unfortunately, I’ve missed.
    Obviously, we all are entitled to our opinions and interpretations of poll data, but, perhaps, not to poll numbers per se. Although I disagree with your interpretations of the Levada polls, it’s one particular number that troubles me most. Namely, it’s your estimate of postive/negative views of the U.S. in July 2008: 43 to 46, which would mean an improbable 21 percent drop in favorable views in just a few months from 64 in December 2007.
    The problem here is, as I wrote above, that I couldn’t find any Levada polls on the subject in July 2008. Incidentally, however, a September 5 report (http://www.levada.ru/press/2008090501.html)
    (8th table from the top, 1st column) gives almost exactly the same numbers as you did: 42 to 46.
    The introduction to the report says that the data were collected in July AND August. This is important, because if the polling was spread over the two months, the data are “contaminated” with “angry” responses that became so dominating in September (and then subsided in November).
    However, and I want to repeat that, I know of no Levada data showing less than 50 percent of favorable views of the U.S. BEFORE the August war.
    This is something that, I guess, you may want to double-check.
    Excluding the questionable July 2008 timepoint, the Levada polls show the favorability numbers of 69 percent in 2000 vs. 64 percent in December 2007 (with the standard error margin of 3 percent) — hardly a proof to your claim that Russians’ views of the U.S. were “deteriorating continuously.”
    Have a safe travel home!
    Eugene Ivanov

  8. Alex (Igor) says:

    I read the recommended by Umland original (from his link above) & I can see (only) two his serious errors: first, is a repetition of Condi’s (and perhaps, Sestanovich’s) claims that Moscow had misinterpreted “peaceful” the US/ NATO initiatives – such as NATO expansion, Yugoslavia etc etc second, his blaming Eltsin for anti-Western feelings among the Russians – because Eltsin had not remove *all* the former party bureaucrats from Kremlin (* this one is an eye-opener, indeed *) The possible third is the statement that R-G war could have “a disciplining effect on [Medvedev]” Otherwise, Umland can be commended for his last two paragraphs where he criticizes Bush’s & Blair’s military adventurism, the EU (US) inattention to the obvious defects of new NATO & the EU members (democratic rights of Russian minorities in Latvia & Estonia) , failure (or unwillingness) to take into account legitimate Russian interests , promises to admit Ukraine & Georgia to NATO. The WWIII ….well, who can really know? But if people (the US government) *always* remember about the Russian nuclear missiles, then (perhaps) they will be less agressive in their future dealings with Russia – or in the American world-wide quest for control of natural resources (under excuse of promoting the democracy)? There is a (small) indication that Umland writes not exactly what he really thinks – in “That the current behavior of the West and its puppets in Eastern Europe has much in common with Nazi Germany’s policies is an opinion with which today many Russians would readily agree”. You see, while the Russians indeed should agree with the statement, a “true believer” would have not used the word “puppets” even in this sentence.

  9. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Igor privet!
    Nice to have you here again.
    After what I’ve written about Umland, I can only encourage you saying good things about him 🙂 (A classic “bad cop/good cop” duo, so to speak).
    I have no problem with all or any of his specific positions — I’m unfamiliar with most of them. My argument with him is very specific: where does he see rising anti-Amricanism in Russia and, even IF real, why should it lead to nuclear war between Russia and the U.S.? It’s this simple.

  10. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Igor privet!
    Nice to have you here again.
    After what I’ve written about Umland, I can only encourage you saying good things about him 🙂 (A classic “bad cop/good cop” duo, so to speak).
    I have no problem with all or any of his specific positions — I’m unfamiliar with most of them. My argument with him is very specific: where does he see rising anti-Amricanism in Russia and, even IF real, why should it lead to nuclear war between Russia and the U.S.? It’s this simple.

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