Soviet polls reveal changing moods

April 10, 1991

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Opinion polling has come to the USSR. The polls are not always well designed or professionally executed, and it pays to check who has commissioned them. But the better ones are authoritative and provide intriguing data on how the Soviet population are reacting to the end of "barracks socialism" and to the uncertain prospects for the future.

Perhaps the most striking message to have emerged from polls in recent months has been that the "choice for socialism" is not just a bureaucratic fiction but a popular reality that has survived all the distortions and crimes of the past.

Yet at the same time as the polls show a strong preference for socialism, they reveal a widespread collapse of confidence in the existing political institutions and parties. This extends to a large loss of faith in democratisation and glasnost and, among important groups, to a willingness to accept authoritarian "solutions".

Early in January, Pravda published the results of a survey of the attitudes toward socialism in the major Soviet republics. Some 64% or respondents considered that, as a concept, socialism was "the most acceptable and progressive" of ideologies. A total of 58.6% agreed with the proposition that the idea of socialism was correct, but that Soviet politicians had not succeeded in implementing it.

When asked to name the system they hoped to live under in future, 56.3% chose socialism, 7% capitalism and a further 7.7% "state capitalism".

Atypical Moscow

This survey underlined the sharply different political character of Moscow compared to major provincial cities and even other republican capitals such as Kiev and Minsk. The capital of the USSR stands well to the right of the mainstream of Soviet political life.

Along with the Baltic republics, Moscow is the area where the ideological pressures of international capitalism are felt most powerfully, and where the opponents of socialism are boldest and most vocal; it is the city where the main groups campaigning for capitalism have their organisational base.

Moscow is also among the least working class in social composition of large Soviet cities. It has developed as the key administrative centre, with a huge stratum of westward-looking intelligentsia.

Thus, while fewer than a quarter of respondents in the earlier-quoted survey considered the revolution of October 1917 a historical, in Moscow half expressed this view.

Nevertheless, the "choice for socialism" remains valid for Moscow, as for virtually all areas of the USSR. In another poll taken the capital expressed a preference for "modern Western capitalism". But 48% favoured a socialist society and 3% "communism"; 7% wanted "a strong regime".

Polls have also been valuable for tracing the ebb and flow of immediate political responses. In mid-January, a telephone poll of Moscow residents confirmed that, even in the capital, the popularity of the new breed of "democratic" politicians had collapsed.

Leaders lose support

In the first half of 1990, the "democrats" — a jumble of independents and small-party activists with views ranging from left Social Democratic to Thatcherite neo-liberal — shocked the establishment by winning control of the government of the Russian Republic and of the municipal soviets of Moscow, Leningrad and other major cities.

But their victory has been their undoing. Since "democrats" replaced Communist Party members in key posts, life has not improved but has grown dramatically worse. For a time, recognition that prime responsibility for the mess lay with the Communist Party apparatus slowed the decline in the new leaders' popularity. But now, people's hopes that the "democrats" can do any better are running out.

Last November, 49.7% of respondents in a Moscow poll listed the best known of the "democrats", president of the Russian Republic Boris Yeltsin, among their "most respected political figures". In mid-January, this figure was down to 17.4%.

In August, 9.6% of Muscovites listed mayor Gavriil Popov among their "most respected political figures"; by January, this figure was only 1.2%.

A February poll suggests that only two people, Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, have even modest appeal as national political leaders. Asked who would make the best president of the country, Muscovites gave 19% support to each of them. Next in line was Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak with 4%.

When opposition political parties were legalised last year, hopes were high in Moscow that a range of parties would become vital, popular political forces. These hopes have not been fulfilled, and the popularity of the parties is now declining even in the capital.

The only one which would now draw the votes of more than a few per cent of Moscow residents is the Democratic Party of Russia. From being the choice of 21% of Muscovites in August, the DPR has slid to 15% in the capital. The DPR is closely identified with its charismatic leader, Nikolai Travkin. An energetic but naive former Communist Party dissident, Travkin now champions a fundamentalist 19th-century-style capitalism.

Since November, support for the Communist Party and groups linked to it has remained low but constant in Moscow at a little over 30%.

Political apathy

While Soviet citizens retain an attachment to the concept and values of socialism, the immediate political mood is one of scepticism and disappointment. Rather than throwing themselves into political activity, people tend to retreat into apolitical attitudes and to concentrate on the tasks of keeping themselves fed and clothed.

This mood will not last forever — inflation and the inevitable further decline in living standards will guarantee that. But what force will fill the political void? Will it reflect the socialist convictions of the masses, or will it be something quite barbaric?

The mid-January poll has had the Moscow intelligentsia voicing alarm. Between November and January, the number of respondents favouring an "authoritarian solution" almost doubled, to 39%. Support for continuing democratisation and glasnost fell to 51%.

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