Are things getting better? What do Russians think?

Opinion polling existed in the Soviet Union, but it was quite different from Western polling.

Questions like "Do you support Communist Party chief Brezhnev?" made no sense. Racing through a Soviet citizen's mind would be: "Should I answer 'yes'? Maybe something happened and he's no longer around. Answering 'no' isn't any better, for maybe he's still there." Thus, Soviet respondents perfected the art of dodging.

To the disgust of many Soviet citizens this dilemma didn't stop unimaginative foreign journalists from plying their trade of man-in-the-street interviews and asking all sorts of political questions on camera. Answering foreigners, though, was easy for Soviet citizens - just state the official Party position.

Answering their own pollsters was harder. Still, Soviet officials wanted to know what people were thinking, if only to keep a lid on things. Soviet sociologists responded by crafting careful questionnaires, knowing full well the suspicious nature of their fellow citizens. Poll results were considered state secrets.

The game of cat and mouse between Russian questioners and respondents is over. Russians freely express their opinions on many issues. Today's opinion polling is scientifically done and the results, widely published.

These Russian polls offer vivid insights into the problems Russians face and how they are coping with them. They also illustrate the challenges faced by the Putin administration in maintaining political stability.

The July 3rd issue of the weekly magazine, Itogi, presented some June 2006 poll results. Over the past year Russians were asked each month a set of questions. Several of them were as follows:

1.Which of the following situations do you most identify with?

12 percent -- We hardly make ends meet. There's not enough money to buy food.
32 percent -- We have enough money for food, but buying clothes is financially difficult.
43 percent -- We have enough money for food and clothes, but buying consumer durables (TVs, refrigerators) is a problem for us.
11 percent -- We can easily buy consumer durables, but buying really expensive things is hard.
1 percent -- We can afford rather expensive things - an apartment, summer home and many others.

These responses showed almost no change over the course of the year. Many Russians are still in survival mode and very few are well off by Western standards. Long term political stability requires improvements.

2. How do you view the material situation of your family?

0 percent -- Very good
10 percent -- Good
57 percent -- Average
28 percent -- Poor
4 percent -- Very Poor
Difficult to say -- 1 percent

While very little change occurred over the past year, two-thirds responded average or better, showing a degree of patience with their lot and pointing to political stability.

Do you think your family will be better or worse off in a year?, Russians answered:

5 percent -- Significantly better
25 percent -- Somewhat better
42 percent -- The same
11 percent -- Somewhat worse
2 percent -- Significantly worse
15 percent -- Difficult to say

The past year's trend shows respondents somewhat more positive about the future, with a six percentage point increase in those expecting their situation to be somewhat better.

For a U.S. President, such poll numbers as those above would spell an impending political disaster. Yet, this last poll sounds a bright note for the Putin administration. Russians are beginning to shed some of their ingrained pessimism about the future.

Even though life remains difficult President Putin's approval ratings are rising -- now 78 percent positive, with only 15 percent negative. Russians don't seem to give much weight to foreign criticism of the Putin administration. At the same time, public expectations of a better life are growing and delivering on that will likely get Russian votes.

7 July 2006