Vladimir Putin's Secret Weapon

When Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a spell as prime minister there were protests both for and against him, and his popularity dipped as low as 62 percent. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Corrected | Every day, the red line ticks up and down. Some weeks it trends higher, others lower. It measures the most important vital sign of Russia's body politic: the popularity of Vladimir Putin. In the Kremlin they call it the reiting—the Russian pronunciation of rating—and the reiting rules supreme over all of the nation's political and economic decisions.

When it stands—as it did in late May—at a comfortable 82 percent, Russia's elite breathes easy. When it dips as low at 62 percent—as it did in 2011 when Putin announced his return for a third presidential term—every resource is scrambled to reverse the trend at any cost. In recent times, that has meant anything from staging a lavish Olympic Games to taking the country to war in Ukraine and Syria.

The reiting is compiled from many sources, including a vast new monitoring body created by the Kremlin with the aim of spotting and crushing discontent. But the one that's most trusted is run not by Putin loyalists but by a tiny, beleaguered team of glasnost-era liberals. It's called the Levada Center, after its late founder, Yuri Levada, and is the last independent pollster in Russia. It was launched in 1988 at the suggestion of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and the center's job was to report the truth, however uncomfortable—amazingly, a role it still fulfills a generation later in a very different Russia.

"The Soviet government had no adequate way to understand what was happening in society—they needed to answer the question 'What are the people thinking?' if they were to survive," says Natalia Zorkina, a member of Levada's original team when the center was founded. "The study of public opinion was meant to become an institution on which a democratic society could be built."

It didn't work out that way. The administration of former President Boris Yeltsin that inherited the collapsing Soviet economy quickly discovered, thanks to Levada's meticulous polling, that by the mid-1990s, what most Russians were thinking was that Yeltsin and his reformist bums should be thrown out. There was panic in the Kremlin and talk of canceling elections, but a small group of media moguls, editors and self-described "political technologists" convinced the Kremlin to take a different course: Instead of bowing to the pressure of public opinion, they offered to shape it.

"All politics is information politics," says Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the original political technologists, who was a key architect of the alliance of pollsters and media owners that eventually brought Putin to power in 2000. "There is no difference for us between facts and perceptions."

And so the magical thinking that blossomed into today's Putin regime was born: Public opinion was something to be controlled and shaped, not something to be listened to. "By the mid-1990s, the Kremlin began to give up on winning any kind of political debate in a public forum," says Zorkina. "The character of power changed. The basis of the Kremlin's legitimacy changed…from people making a democratic choice between different political visions to getting as many people as possible to back the national leader. Public opinion began as a foundation of democracy but is now a tool of authoritarianism."

The story of the Levada Center, then, is also the story of Russia's transition from flawed democracy to a kind of consensual autocracy. And at the heart of the system was the methodology Yuri Levada thought would bring Russia freedom—the careful monitoring of what ordinary Russians think about everything, from the price of cheese to American imperialism, from pensions and trash collection to nuclear missiles and God.

Putin's Magic Circle

The Levada Center occupies two suites of cluttered offices at the back of a former pre-revolutionary hotel not far from Red Square. Wilting spider plants and leaning bookcases fill the corridors, and the older employees have the earnest, scruffy look of late-Soviet-era intellectuals. On chunky computers, a 50-strong team at headquarters coordinates a nationwide network of 3,000 pollsters, who spend their days questioning ordinary Russians by phone, internet and in person. The center is registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and pays its way with a mix of commercial market research and political and economic surveys for universities and media organizations. About 2 percent of its revenue comes from foreign clients.

"The Levada team are 'former people,'" says one veteran Russian TV anchor, using the term that Bolsheviks once used for aristocrats and bourgeois who had no place in Soviet society. "They believe passionately in getting the real data, not just telling the people who pay them what they want to hear. They are important for anyone who cares about seeing a real picture of Russia, not the one that appears on the television screen." (The anchor requested anonymity because he still works for state television, which increasingly disapproves of Levada.)

Putin's Kremlin also believes passionately in getting data on public opinion—though the methods it uses are questionable. Last December, the Kremlin appointed Irina Makiyeva, a former state bank executive, to head a massive new polling service to monitor Russia's political temperature in minute detail. Under the direct aegis of the Federal Guard Service—Russia's equivalent of the U.S. Secret Service that is charged with the president's personal security—it deploys thousands of state employees to scan local press and social networks for signs of discontent.

"We conduct constant monitoring, especially in the problem cities," Makiyeva promised the Russian Cabinet, unveiling a classification system—green, yellow and red—to warn of potential political or social unrest. The state also controls the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, or VTsIOM (the original name of the Levada Center before a Kremlin takeover in 2003 forced the core team to leave and start over), as well as the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which attempts to do a similar job.

The problem is that such state-backed polls "have become a form of propaganda in themselves," says Pavlovsky. "The questions are presented as: Do you agree with the norm, the majority?"

A recent example was a poll in Crimea—which Russia annexed in 2014—ordered by Putin and conducted by VTsIOM in January. Crimean Tatar activists had blown up electricity pylons, and the government of Ukraine, on which Crimea entirely relies for its energy, refused to restore service unless Russia acknowledged that the territory remained part of Ukraine. The Kremlin's pollsters called home telephone numbers and asked people whether they preferred to sit in the dark or agreed to accede to Ukraine's demands.

According to VTsIOM, 96 percent said they preferred to suffer in the dark—a result widely trumpeted by Russian state TV as a sign of the locals' willingness to undergo hardship in order to stay part of Russia. But in reality, Pavlovsky says, "this is not an opinion poll, it is an invitation to prove your loyalty…. We are seeing lately that for the first time [since the fall of Communism], people are afraid to answer questions, especially in small provincial towns. They believe they will suffer consequences from giving a disloyal answer."

Nonetheless, such government-run polling is a mainstay of the Kremlin's decision-making process. According to Mikhail Zygar, former editor-in-chief of the opposition channel Dozhd TV and author of the best-selling All the Kremlin's Men, a study of the Putin regime, "Every [Kremlin] action is based absolutely on this polling…. These polls confirm that everything they're doing is right, that Putin is popular and the people love him."

Pavlovsky knows the system well: He was one of its designers. "Today, they keep to the same arrangement that was set up in the late 1990s," says Pavlovsky, a former dissident who spent three years in exile in Siberia for anti-Soviet activity. Every Thursday, Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin chairs a meeting that includes leaders of the official United Russia party, senior members of the administration and pollsters Valery Fyodorov and Aleksandr Olson, the directors of VTsIOM and FOM, respectively. "They report on the state of public opinion on a range of threats, everything that could potentially affect Putin's level of popularity," says Pavlovsky. "They decide on how to work with this challenge."

Under Yeltsin and in the early Putin years, this weekly meeting was also attended by the heads of Russia's TV channels. Today, the TV bosses—including Channel One General Director Konstantin Ernst and Oleg Dobrodeyev of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Co.—have a separate meeting with Volodin on Fridays, after he has presented his summary of the pollsters' report personally to Putin and his inner Cabinet.

"The television plan for the coming week would be decided," recalls Pavlovsky, who attended such meetings from autumn 1995 until he resigned as a senior adviser to the presidential administration in 2011. "The Kremlin gives the general direction but not the details, then Dobrodeyev and Ernst are the executors. They approach news like a TV serial—but it is very professionally produced. The stories may be exaggerated, but they are convincing." Television news, he says, "is the new form of agitprop"—the Stalin-era system of agitation and propaganda that aimed to shape the consciousness of the proletariat.

The system is a kind of magic circle: Opinion polls shape official television coverage, which in turn shapes public opinion.

Amid fears of food shortages in 2009, Putin’s team released pictures of him touring a supermarket. Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/RIA Novosti/Reuters

The Reiting Tsar

It was uber-oligarch Boris Berezovsky who first understood the political might of television when he took over Russia's main TV channel, now known as Channel One, and turned its influence into money and power. But it was Putin, in the first year of his rule, who gathered that power to the Kremlin, kicking out all potential rivals (including Berezovsky) and quickly shutting down all non-state media. The result, says Levada's Zorkina, is that the Kremlin has unprecedented control over what Russians see, hear—and think.

"Public opinion does not exist as an independent entity in Russia as it does in the West," she says. "In Russia, people have completely decoupled themselves from the political process. They don't believe that they can change anything. Even in the 1990s, only a tiny proportion of people, perhaps 2 or 3 percent, were politically active. Now it is even less."

The lack of an alternative leader, or of any real political debate, helps to explain one of Levada's strangest recent findings—that Putin's popularity remains sky-high, even as Russians' standard of living has plummeted. Since 2014, the ruble has lost half of its value, inflation has hit double digits, spending on health and education has been cut, and Russia has unilaterally banned the import of U.S. and European food. Yet the Kremlin has apparently succeeded in defying the laws of political gravity: Putin's personal reiting has become decoupled from the unfolding economic disaster over which he presides.

The secret, of course, is as old as politics itself. If not quite bread and circuses—the Kremlin's been desperately short of bread over the past two years—then certainly war and circuses. When Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a term as prime minister, his rating dipped as low as 62 percent, and 100,000 people came onto the streets of Moscow in protest. The Kremlin's response was to throw $48 billion—back then, with oil at $140 a barrel, it could still afford it—at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (according to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an NGO), making it the most expensive Olympics ever staged.

In 2014, as oil prices crumbled, Putin annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, filling TV programming with news flashes from the front and fostering a surge of national pride. According to analysts Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev, "'Occupy Crimea' was at least in part an impulsive response to both 'Occupy Maidan' and 'Occupy Abai'"—the popular protests staged in Ukraine's Kiev and Moscow, respectively, that deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and badly rattled the Kremlin.

"All the peaks of Putin's popularity have been as a result of wars," says Zorkina. "Chechnya in 2000, Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Syria in 2015."

Another part of the formula is also age-old: create enemies. In the early 1990s, a series of Levada surveys found that significant majorities of Russians admired America's culture and values—and 43 percent were willing to admit that all of the USSR's problems were homegrown. In January 2015, Levada found that 81 percent of Russians had a negative attitude toward the U.S. What's more, 63 percent of respondents this year blamed their country's economic woes on "outside enemies."

Small wonder: Since 2014, Russia's media have blamed the U.S. government for everything from backing a fascist junta in Ukraine to mounting an "information attack" on Russia by planting stories about top Putin cronies' Panamanian offshore accounts and systemic doping of their Olympic athletes. Last November, Dmitry Kiselev, Russia's most influential TV anchor, suggested that the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) was an American creation.

"They have re-created the Soviet siege mentality, the complex of being surrounded by enemies," says Zorkina. "Putin has also rekindled the old Russian imperial idea, with its superiority complex and the idea that we are on some special historical path."

The idea is that Russia is at war and that therefore its citizens must be ready to face hardship and sacrifice for the Motherland. Never was that logic clearer than when a Russian charter plane was blown out of the sky by an ISIS bomb soon after taking off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on October 31, 2015. All 224 people on board, mostly Russians on vacation, were killed. It was a direct response to Russia launching an air campaign in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad's regime. For any Western leader, such an attack would be a devastating blow. Yet Levada showed that Putin's all-important reiting actually climbed in the aftermath of the bombing—while support for the Syria campaign remained at a buoyant 60 percent (though down from 72 percent at the war's outset).

"Frightened people want a strong leader," says Dmitry K., one of Levada's Moscow-based pollsters, who works the phones and conducts focus groups. (The center keeps the identity of its polling staff confidential to avoid possible corruption.) "When you are in a war situation, anyone who criticizes the leadership is a mutineer. In other words, a traitor."

The allegation of treachery has become the Levada Center's most pressing problem—its mission often involves reporting things the Kremlin doesn't want to hear. For instance, one recent Levada poll found that one in four Russians with a college degree is contemplating emigration. "These are the most secure social groups, people [who have] achieved success, recognition and wealth in Russia," the center's current director, Lev Gudkov, wrote in an analysis of the results. "[They] understand that they will not be able to live under growing authoritarianism."

Another unwelcome finding came last December, when Levada reported that faith in Russian television news—the central plank of Kremlin control—had fallen to just 41 percent, down from 79 percent in 2009.

No one was surprised when Russia's prosecutor's office began cracking down on the Levada Center. The attacks began in May 2013, when Levada's posting of poll results and analyses was deemed to be "political activity" because they "influence public opinion." Prosecutors demanded that the center register as a "foreign agent"—a term synonymous with spying in Russian—because of Levada's small number of international grants and clients. Agents from the prosecutor's office rifled through the center's files and impounded computer hard drives—but eventually suspended the case.

"Their aim is to keep us in a state of uncertainty," says Zorkina. "Just so we know that we are under their eye."

Levada has been spared—for the moment—because it seems that a dwindling number of the Kremlin's current generation of political technologists still respect reliable polling, however unwelcome the results. But the fact that Levada is under pressure is a dangerous sign that Putin is retreating into his own echo chamber. Putin "orders up all this propaganda—but he is also the main target of it," says Pavlovsky.

"The older undemocratic regimes become, the more mistakes their leaders tend to make…. Cutting themselves off from accurate information is one of the most common—and most self-destructive," argues UCLA professor Daniel Treisman, author of The Return: Russia's Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev. "Surprisingly often, authoritarian governments collapse less because of well-organized opposition than because of their own errors. Overconfident and misinformed, leaders stumble into danger and lack the skill and vision to get out."

The Levada Center can't predict the future. But its body of polling is the clearest insight anyone can have into how the Putin regime might end—or, as Zorkina puts it, "where the cracks run" through the foundations of Kremlin power.

"Society is full of such cracks—from poor health care to unemployment to rising prices—but there is no sense of solidarity, no interest in participation in politics. The only thing that unites Russian society is its support for Putin," says Zorkina. "There are no forms of social unity, no political parties or social organizations or trade unions. They have all been suppressed, so there is no way people can legitimately express their protest…. The most likely scenario for Russia's future will be a slow descent into chaotic discontent, the continued collapse of society and the strengthening of security organs."

Already, part of her prediction is coming true. Earlier this year, Putin created a new National Guard, a super-agency directly run by the Kremlin and employing 400,000 paramilitary police and troops, as well as helicopter gunships and tanks. The new unit—a modern-day equivalent to the Roman emperors' Praetorian Guard—is led by Putin's former personal bodyguard Viktor Zolotov and has been specifically authorized by the Duma (the principal legislative assembly) to fire on civilians in cases of civil unrest. In February, Putin said the new unit was designed to "fight terrorism"—and in the next breath warned that Russia's "foes abroad" were preparing to "interfere" with the parliamentary elections on September 18 by organizing mass protests, thereby labeling any opponents foreign-backed fifth columnists.

As Putin and his allies dig in to defend their hold on power, Levada is preparing to chronicle the discontent in its usual meticulous detail. "What we are doing is phenomenal, a unique experiment," says Zorkina. "We are conducting opinion polls in a totalitarian society. Imagine if someone had been able to do that in Nazi Germany."

Correction | This story originally wrongly attributed a comment from analysts Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev on Occcupy Crimea to Daniel Treisman.