Boris Grushin

Early Soviet opinion pollster
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Boris Andreyev Grushin, sociologist and public opinion pollster: born Moscow 2 August 1929; head, Institute of Public Opinion 1960-67; staff, Academy of Sciences 1967-72; founder, Vox Populi 1993; married Natalya Kartseva (two daughters, one stepson); died Moscow 18 September 2007.

Boris Grushin was a pioneering Russian sociologist whose influence pre-dated the fall of the Soviet Union by more than 30 years. In 1960, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power, he founded the very first Soviet "Institute of Public Opinion" – a polling organisation based on the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which distributed questionnaires and tried to measure opinion on the basis of representative samples. In the context of the time, this was a startling innovation. Never before had Soviet citizens been invited by the authorities to give their views.

Opinion research in the Soviet Union had a chequered history, to put it mildly. It had been banned under Stalin, and was at all times seriously handicapped – because of the many sensitive questions which were off-limits to researchers. Nevertheless, Grushin's questionnaires – about leisure, attitudes to peace and war, and matters of personal concern – provided valuable insights into Soviet society at that time.

Grushin was a committed democrat, but he preferred, in general, to work unobtrusively. After graduating in philosophy from Moscow State University in 1952, aged 23, he devoted much of his life to the scholarly study of public opinion – emphasising the need for professionalism as well as honesty in polling. For example, he warned in an article in 1965, that a survey could be invalidated by a high proportion of "don't knows" since, as he said, "the essence of the problem is that people do not want to express their opinion".

According to Stalinist ideology, Soviet public opinion was supposed to be "unanimous" – as proved by the more than 99 per cent of voters who supported the Communist Party in elections. But Grushin, in a book which appeared in 1967, "Opinions of the World and the World of Opinions", politely challenged this myth. Whilst agreeing (in accordance with official doctrine) that the Soviet people were united on certain basic issues, he noted that opinion polls in Russia to date "had produced not a single survey where opinions were in fact unanimous" and that this fact could be ignored "only through a great disregard for the empirical evidence". The appearance of this book (despite cuts by the censor) was itself something of an intellectual landmark.

The Brezhnev era, which began in 1964, ushered in a gradual intellectual freeze, and an eventual ban on any debate about Stalin. In 1967 Grushin's Institute of Public Opinion was closed down. But his sociological research (which had a direct bearing on public opinion) continued. In 1967 he got a post in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

It was here, in the 1970s, that he embarked on another marathon piece of research. He supervised a study of public attitudes to the news media and local authorities in the city of Taganrog, in southern Russia (chosen because it was thought typical of small Russian towns). The project, which eventually produced 21 academic dissertations and a vast amount of unpublished material, was one of the most solid research undertakings of its time. Grushin's appointment owed much to the strong backing of Alexander Yakovlev, then a member of the party apparatus, who later became an architect of Gorbachev's perestroika. But the project was fiercely opposed by more senior party officials. Grushin himself was viciously attacked in a Soviet journal – and faced demands that he should publicly recant his methodology. He held his ground; but the book which he edited was drastically cut by the censors and was delayed in the press for four years before finally appearing in 1980.

After completing this project, Grushin lived for a time in Prague, working for an international journal. Then, in the Gorbachev era, he came into his own. In 1988, he played a prominent part in a newly created Centre of Public Opinion Research, together with another leading sociologist, the late Yurii Levada. Shortly afterwards he formed his own organisation, known as Vox Populi, and became a frequent commentator on the Russian media and one-time adviser to Boris Yeltsin.

Those who knew Grushin remember him, above all, for his prolific mind, personal integrity and capacity for warm friendship. Apart from his professional work, he had a keen interest in classical music. But his interest in public opinion preoccupied him to the end of his life. He wanted, as he put it, to provide a "stereoscopic" view of the subject, combining field research with broad theory. At the time of his death, he was writing a multi-volume study of political, cultural and social life in the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras. He was optimistic about the prospects for Russian democratisation, but believed that this would be a long-term process.

David Wedgwood Benn