Pollsters learn to ask Russians what they think instead of telling them

May 06, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- After decades in which collecting information in this country was the exclusive domain of the KGB, the advent of democracy has developed a gentler way to get at what's going on in the minds of the people.

Western-style polling is flourishing, as the weeks leading up to last month's national referendum on President Boris N. Yeltsin's popularity and economic reforms demonstrated.

And it has come a long way since 1988, when the first real opinion research firm set up shop.

In that year, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev authorized the first Western-style polling in the former Soviet Union, but even he was unaccustomed to the truth.

When the pollster Mr. Gorbachev had commissioned told him that only 30 percent of the public agreed with a report he had given, he replied: "This poll can't be right. Everyone I've talked with agrees with me."

Thus, said pollster Yelena Koneva, did polling come to the former Soviet Union.

By now, most Russian politicians have learned that there is more to public opinion than what they hear from the yes men around them. But polling here continues to come up with more firsts.

On April 25, the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research, where Ms. Koneva is director, and officials from two other firms conducted Russia's first exit poll on the national referendum.

The polls were mixed: Each correctly said that Mr. Yeltsin would win, but all three were off on the size of the victory.

Ms. Koneva's firm, which questioned 5,000 people across Russia in a poll for the Associated Press, came close in predicting that 63.8 percent of the voters would support Mr. Yeltsin and that 56 percent would support his market reforms.

RB In unofficial results, 59 percent supported him and 53 percent backed his economic reforms.

CNN hired an American firm, the American Voter Research Association, to conduct its poll. It predicted that Mr. Yeltsin would get 65 percent and his reforms 58 percent.

The third exit poll was done by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation. It polled 3,000 people in 16 cities, finding 74 percent backing Mr. Yeltsin and 66 percent backing his reforms.

The firms blamed the distortions on hasty preparation and lack of experience in a country where people are still uncomfortable about speaking their minds.

Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Russian Center for Public Opinion, said the results were thrown off because more polling was done in urban areas -- which supported Mr. Yeltsin more heavily. It was too difficult and expensive to get extensive information from remote areas.

But Ms. Koneva, for one, was untroubled by some of the surprises in the referendum. "We are lucky to get that kind of surprise sometimes," she said. "If we know all the answers beforehand, there's no use in polling."

For now, polling remains on the frontier, and people like Ms. Koneva and Mr. Grazhdankin are genuine pioneers.

Some days, Mr. Grazhdankin said, sending questionnaires out to the hinterlands summons up reminders of the Pony Express. "If you mailed anything, it would take months to get there," he said, "and there's no guarantee it would ever arrive at all."

So polling firms have to go to a train station and beg, and pay, a conductor to take them along. Or they find themselves thrusting large packages into the arms of distant acquaintances setting off on a journey.

"Our people spend a lot of time waiting in stations," Mr. Grazhdankin said. "It's our life, and it can be very despairing."

In addition to simple logistics, said Vladimir A. Yadov, director of the Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the emerging field of polling is bedeviled by lack of a good statistical base that helps pollsters extrapolate from their samples.

"You need an absolutely reliable census," he said, "and we don't have that."

On the other hand, pollsters in a former police state usually have little trouble coming up with names and addresses. There's no telephone book, but every citizen is required to have a passport, and addresses are registered with the Interior Ministry.

"You can select from these lists to produce a random sample," Professor Yadov said.

"And now when you do a poll you don't have to get the permission of the [Communist Party] Central Committee in every region."

Another problem, said Polina Kozireva, a sociologist at the institute, is that in general customers who contract for public opinion research don't press for accurate, scientific work. "Most want it done the cheapest way," she said, "and there's very little understanding of how important it is to do it right."

The Russian firms have been getting Western advice -- especially from the University of Michigan. And, Ms. Koneva said, the European Community has offered some training.

So far, Russian researchers have had little problem finding people willing to talk to them. It's as if after years of being told what to think, people are gratified to reveal their true feelings. But that, too, probably will change with the times.

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