Yuri Levada

Russian public opinion pollster


Yuri Alexandrovich Levada, sociologist: born Vinnitsa, Soviet Union 24 April 1930; died Moscow 16 November 2006.

Yuri Levada was a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for most of his career and had a reputation for being the man who told the authorities what they didn't want to hear. His closely argued observations about public opinion based on scientific surveys and polls were never welcomed in the corridors of power.

In the Soviet era he made an enemy of the government by claiming that few Soviet citizens ever bothered reading Pravda's lengthy propaganda-laden editorials and gave a memorable university lecture in which he opined that tanks could not win hearts and minds - a controversial reference to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Such "alternative" behaviour blighted his career in the Communist Soviet Union, yet he emerged as an equally uncompromising chronicler of public opinion in post-Soviet Russia.

Though his surveys regularly showed that support for President Vladimir Putin was close to 80 per cent, he did not shy away from delving into the public's views on awkward subjects such as Chechnya, freedom of the media, or corruption.

For someone who embraced the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was surprised by Russians' apparently greater interest in the quality of their everyday lives rather than by their newfound freedoms. "We assumed that people would be happy with the possibility to live more freely, work, talk, travel the world, express their opinions and get to know what is foreign to them," he was quoted as saying in February this year. "[But] it turned out that now they are much more interested in a life of more material well-being."

Levada was born in 1930 in Vinnitsa, in Ukraine, at a time when the Soviet Union was in the firm grip of Josef Stalin. He graduated from the philosophy faculty of Moscow State University in 1952, one year before Stalin's death. In the 1960s he went on to teach at the university, introducing sociology as a subject for the first time. During the more relaxed "stagnation" period of Leonid Brezhnev he quietly went about carrying out the first public opinion surveys.

But his lectures, based on their results, angered the authorities, and in 1969 he was expelled from the faculty for "ideological mistakes". For most of the next 20 years he was forbidden from leaving the Soviet Union and retreated into obscurity rarely appearing in public.

He re-entered the mainstream in 1987 as the perestroika reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev swept the country. In that year he founded VTsIOM, a polling organisation that started off life as the All-Soviet Centre for Public Opinion Studies. Under his leadership, it swiftly gained a reputation for objective research that helped inform political debate at a time of tumultuous changes.

Levada stayed at its helm until 2003 when the Kremlin effectively deposed him and brought in sociologists perceived to be more government-friendly. Levada and most of his staff of 105 researchers then set up their own alternative polling organisation which came to be known as the Levada Centre.

Andrew Osborn

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