Can the Russian State Cancel Disloyal Artists? (And Should We Trust Public Opinion Polls Suggesting It Can?), by Mikhail Sokolov

Recently, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) disseminated the results of a survey that may offer critical evidence for comprehending the depth of support for the current Russian regime. This research also offers precious insights into the reliability of opinion polls within the Russian context. VCIOM has been widely criticized for participating in Russian government ventures like the “Crimean survey,” which became the official justification for the annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Unlike other polling companies, for whom such participation was purely business, VCIOM appears to have acted largely at the behest of the heart of its director, Valery Fedorov (among other things, Fedorov was noted for colorfully defining liberal critics of the regime as “15% of shit among Russians”). Nevertheless, VCIOM in many respects behaves with remarkable openness for a Russian polling company, publishing not only response distributions but also raw data sets.

Thanks to this, those interested can analyze the results of the study titled “Foreign Agents Among Us,” dedicated to the captivating topic of Russian respondents’ perception of “foreign agents” (a legal category used to designate disloyal public figures). Although the first NGOs fell into the foreign agents’ registry back in 2013, and the first individuals at the end of 2020, the speed with which the list is growing accelerated with the start of the war in Ukraine (for instance, of the 287 individuals listed as media foreign agents on the corresponding Wikipedia page, 76 were listed before February 24, and 211 after). A well-known feature of the list is that it is predominantly composed of liberals, whose acting on behalf of foreign powers looks more plausible. Moreover, most of those added over the last year and a half have directly condemned the war in Ukraine. People like Igor Strelkov (former Defense Minister of unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic and a commander of pro-Russian paramilitary troops in Donbas in 2014) who criticized Putin for not conducting the present war decisively enough, although they have already experienced their share of repression, have not yet been enlisted as foreign agents. Otherwise, the foreign agents represent a motley crew, where regional politicians and bloggers known in narrow circles rub shoulders with Russian celebrity singers Zemfira and Morgenshtern.

VCIOM asked several questions about the attitude towards these people, and the answers are exceptionally curious. First, it asked, “How do you generally feel about media, individuals, and NGOs that have been assigned the status of a foreign agent?” offering the options “Rather positively,” “Rather negatively,” “Indifferently,” and “It varies, depending on the situation.” The figure below shows the distribution of responses.

Secondly, VCIOM inquired, “Imagine that the media which you read, listen to, or watch with interest is declared a foreign agent. Would this affect your attitude towards this media, and if so, how?” and “And if your favorite singer or actor is declared a foreign agent, would this affect your attitude towards them, and if so, how?” The distribution of answers is shown below.

The answers to the last two questions allow us to measure the extent to which the state can “cancel” any given public figure – and, ultimately, the degree to which respondents are willing to delegate to it the decisions of whom to trust and whom to admire. Thus, they characterize the level of political credulity. One could argue that in the Russian context, stopping reading or listening to someone could also be a matter of personal safety. Fortunately, we have the first question, to which, we can assume, liberals should have directly expressed their opinion – or responded evasively (the option “we have a good attitude towards good foreign agents and a bad attitude towards bad ones” can serve perfectly for an evasive answer). On the other hand, people like Strelkov, who hates liberals without any need for guidance from the Ministry of Justice, should have said they don’t like foreign agents – but the Ministry of Justice doesn’t dictate their opinions. (Who knows, maybe tomorrow the Ministry of Justice will decide to play a joke and list Strelkov himself as a foreign agent? It is unlikely that his supporters would be much surprised). Finally, apolitical absentees should have said that they couldn’t care less about foreign agents or the Ministry of Justice.

Overall, the combination of the answers to these three questions allows us to compare the plausibility of three different interpretations of Russian support for their government’s military adventures. The first interpretation suggests that the majority of Russians yearn for an empire; ultimately, according to this view, the state simply realized their hidden dreams. The second suggests that it was the state itself that played the leading role, to which an atomized and politically disoriented majority of Russians delegated all political decisions. The third asserts that even this was not properly achieved by the state, and that the majority of people in Russia don’t particularly support anything, having retreated into their private lives and agreeing to remain silent (or to express ritual approval) in exchange for being left alone.

As far as I am aware, the best study to date that allows us to contrast these groups was conducted by the Russian Field polling company, which compared responses to two questions: “If Vladimir Putin announces the start of a new offensive on Kyiv tomorrow, will you support such a decision?” and “If Vladimir Putin signs a peace agreement and stops the military operation tomorrow, will you support such a decision?” According to Russian Field’s data, among the respondents, there were comparable shares of those who would support the peace agreement regardless of what Putin signs (34%), those who would in any case support the offensive on Kyiv (27%), and those who would support Putin whatever he signs (33%).

The VCIOM study paints a somewhat different picture. The following table shows grouped distributions of responses to questions about changing attitudes towards media and artists labelled foreign agents. I divided the survey subjects into five categories – (1) “Loyal” (responded to both questions that they would stop reading/listening entirely or would read/listen less); (2) “Independent” (responded to both that the Ministry of Justice’s decisions will not affect them at all); (3) “Oppositionists” (these were the fearless 49 people who, in response to one or both questions, reported that they would pay more attention to newly coined foreign agents); (4) “Informationally independent” (will stop listening to music but will not stop reading media labelled foreign agents) and (5) “Culturally independent” (on the contrary, will stop reading media but will not stop listening to music). The table below provides a cross-tabulation for 1317 people who fell into one of these categories (those mainly excluded had difficulty answering one or more of the questions).


Views “foreign agents”…

Rather positively Rather negatively Indifferently Depending on situation
Loyal 10 309 68 97
2.1% 63.8% 14.0% 20.0%
Independent 55 53 166 243
10.6% 10.3% 32.1% 47.0%
Oppositionist 32 0 2 14
66.7% 0.0% 4.2% 29.2%
Informationally independent 6 72 33 51
3.7% 44.4% 20.4% 31.5%
Culturally independent 0 24 22 40
0.0% 27.9% 25.6% 46.5%


103 458 291 445
7.9% 35.3% 22.4% 34.3%

Among the “Loyal” group, predictably, the proportion negatively perceiving “foreign agents” was the highest, and among the “Oppositionists” were the highest proportion viewing them positively. Among the “Independents” there were the greatest share professing themselves indifferent, although a relatively high number of those who feel positively or have mixed feelings should also be noted. Notable is a small number of those who will not follow the Ministry of Justice’s lead and at the same time do not like foreign agents. In the VCIOM sample, there were roughly as many such respondents as those who said they would start reading and listening to foreign agents more than before. “Informationally Independent” individuals resemble the “Loyal” ones in their attitude toward foreign agents, while the “Culturally Independent” give us the largest proportion of respondents answering the corresponding question with “It depends” (Interestingly, more people are willing to heed the advice of Big Brother when forming their cultural ration than when choosing sources of information). Overall, in terms of the three interpretations listed above, in Russia, there turns out to be roughly equal numbers of completely conformist individuals who have entrusted the state with the right to think for them and apolitical abstainers seeking to live in their own world; ideological liberals and anti-liberals constitute comparably sized minorities.

Sociodemographic questions allow us to add features to the portraits of these groups. The differences are summarized in the following table. The “Loyal” group is the oldest, less educated, there are more rural residents and fewer Internet users among its members; moreover, there are more public employees among them.

  Mean age Per cent women Per cent living in a big city Public employees Above 4 hours of Internet a day Above 4 hours of TV a day
Loyal 49.64 251 105 65 151 97
  51.3% 21.5% 24.8% 30.9% 19.8%
Independent 42.45 210 154 55 246 66
  39.9% 29.3% 18.1% 46.8% 12.5%
Oppositionist 42.92 16 25 6 31 2
  32.7% 51.0% 24.0% 63.3% 4.1%
Informationally independent 51.56 73 30 14 52 42
  44.2% 18.2% 17.9% 31.5% 25.5%
Culturally independent 43.78 39 23 10 46 9
  44.3% 26.1% 20.4% 52.3% 10.2%
46.37 589 337 150 526 216
  44.7% 25.6% 20.9% 39.9% 16.4%

As in previous studies, the most important predictor of political position is age; when we insert group membership into a multinomial regression, age remains the only significant variable, apart from gender (men are less likely to be “Loyal” and more often “Independent” than women) and Internet usage (about which it is difficult to say whether it is the cause or the consequence of a more critical attitude toward the Russian state). The main difference between generations is the change of proportions of indifferent “Independents” and “Loyals”, actively disapproving of foreign agents. The sum of those directly sympathizing with foreign agents and those who define their attitude towards them as ambivalent turns out to be a surprisingly constant value across generations.

AGE Attitudes towards “foreign agents”
Rather positively Rather negatively Indifferently Depending on situation
18-29 13 31 78 90
6.1% 14.6% 36.8% 42.5%
30-39 33 92 105 122
9.4% 26.1% 29.8% 34.7%
40-49 26 110 76 119
7.9% 33.2% 23.0% 36.0%
50-59 14 123 45 79
5.4% 47.1% 17.2% 30.3%
60+ 23 193 43 128
5.9% 49.9% 11.1% 33.1%
109 549 347 538
7.1% 35.6% 22.5% 34.9%

Two entirely different interpretations can be proposed for this evidence. According to one of them, a more independent but at the same time more apolitical younger generation, which doesn’t care either about the Ministry of Justice or war in Ukraine, and which will enjoy Zemfira regardless of anything, is replacing the older generation indoctrinated by television. In another version – less intuitively plausible, but consistent with other data – there is an age cycle, in which the younger generations may lose some of their critical mood and transform from “Independents” to “Loyals”. The number of “Oppositionists” in the VCION sample remains more or less constant – but a very modest quantity.

The merits of VCIOM’s research do not end with the ability to paint such a picture. Here we must turn to the main argument of critics of polls in Russia, and the data published by VCIOM in particular: we do not know whether holding oppositional views reduces the willingness to answer pollsters’ questions, and to answer them sincerely (avoiding which seems like a very reasonable precaution in Russia, given the circumstances). Accordingly, we do not know how the percentage of declared positions correlates with the real number of their adherents in the population. Indeed, as VCIOM itself candidly reports, the proportion of those who completed the survey out of those contacted by interviewers was approximately 1.6%. Little is also known about how candid the disloyal respondents are who nevertheless agree to answer; research has shown that greater anonymity increases the proportion of oppositional responses, but it is difficult to assess the exact scale of this effect.

Fortunately, the VCIOM survey has one wonderful property: the views declared in it correlate with independently observed behavior. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can understand how the dynamics of views of well-known artists have changed after they were effectively declared foreign agents – thankfully, the Ministry of Justice made that possible, labelling several very different but popular performers as such.

As a first experiment, I looked at what happened to the audiences of Zemfira, Boris Grebenshchikov, and Morgenstern over the last two years, before and after they were included in the Ministry of Justice’s register. For this purpose, I took three clips from their official channels – “Хочешь” by Zemfira, “Вот так” by Morgenstern, and “Поутру” by Grebenschikov. The chosen clips were, first, among the most popular, second, recorded at least five years ago, so the initial buzz around them had certainly died down, and, third, they did not contain an explicit political message. The figure below shows how their audience has changed (the figures for Grebenschikov had to be multiplied by 10). I inserted trends based on moving averages for two periods. The Wayback Machine saves pages irregularly, so the points are also spaced at uneven intervals. However, the overall picture is clear. Grebenschikov’s song is gradually losing its audience – which, alas, usually happens with older songs. Morgenstern’s is also losing its viewers, but in recent months there seems to have been some renaissance of interest in it. Zemfira’s song audience did not show any trend towards reduction; in fact, in the summer of 2022, it seemed to grow. In none of the cases do we see evidence that after being declared a foreign agent, the artists immediately lose listeners – which should look like a “elbow” in the chart. Meanwhile, the loss should have been quite noticeable: if we assume that those who declare an intention to listen to a disgraced artist less often will do so one-third less frequently, and if the main audience of the performers consists mostly of people born within the interval “year of the artist’s birth minus ten years,” then Grebenschikov would have lost 45% of the Russian audience, Zemfira about 36%, and Morgenstern roughly 20%. Of course, they also have  listeners outside of Russia, but if we assume that their YouTube audience is geographically distributed in the same way as Russian-speaking Internet users in general, then Russia should account for, by a conservative estimate, at least two-thirds of listeners.[1] In total, Grebenschikov should have lost no less than 30% of views, and Zemfira more than 20% (and this is without considering losses among pro-war listeners outside the country).

In the case of Grebenschikov, one could assume that his performances in recent years had already alienated the more pro-Putin segment of his listeners. However, both Zemfira and Morgenshtern refrained from overt political declarations until 2022 (actually, as far as I can tell, Morgenshtern has not been particularly vocal even after that; I suspect that his inclusion in the list of foreign agents might be explained by the cultural shock experienced by some Ministry of Justice officials who overheard what plays in their children’s headphones). In this sense, their political coming out should have been an unpleasant surprise for the part of their audience loyal to the Russian authorities. Initially, they should have lost the ideological supporters of the war, and then, in addition, those who heed the opinion of the Ministry of Justice—if they lived in accordance with their declarations. Obviously, however, this did not happen.

How can this apparent discrepancy between observed behavior and what surveys suggest be explained? I see five possible explanations listed below in order of increasing plausibility. Only one of them—the first—is compatible with the idea that surveys accurately reflect the opinions and reactions of the general Russian population.

(1) Having lost supporters of the Putin, the performers gained a new audience, the size of which miraculously coincided with the size of the lost one. However, as we remember, less than 3% of the surveyed expressed a willingness to start listening more to foreign agents; unless we assume that these 3% started listening dozens of times more often than before, the numbers don’t add up. Of course, new audiences could be located outside of Russia, but the assumption that there they follow closely the decisions of the Russian Ministry of Justice seems implausible.

(2) Political and aesthetic preferences in Russia are strongly correlated with each other, so the listeners of Zemfira spontaneously and without any additional effort on her part turned out to be overwhelmingly opposition-minded. Those who support war today, were listening to “Ruki Vverh” in 2000. This assumption is not implausible in itself, but the available data rather suggests the absence of such a correlation. I tried to assess the coincidence of artistic tastes and political views in St. Petersburg in 2019 – and found no connection at all. On the opposite, counterexamples are easy to find: the listeners of Grebenshchikov and Bugaev in the 1980s definitely belonged to the same environment and had similar worldviews. Then their paths diverged.

(3) News about the new status of Zemfira and others might not have reached a certain portion of the audience, which continues to listen to old clips on the Internet, unaware that they are listening to a “foreign agent”. However, this audience (1) should not be listening to new clips that begin with the notification required by the Ministry; (2) should not be listening to them on the radio, where the same notification is also made; (3) should not be visiting the websites or personal social media pages of the artists; (4) should not be watching pro-government media that widely discuss the theme of celebrity traitors. Such a portion of the audience, of course, exists but is unlikely to be very large – and responsible for a large part of the views.

(4) Representatives of certain types, primarily “Oppositionists” and “Independents,” do not talk to VCIOM, so the actual number of “Loyals” in the general population is several times less than polls show. This consideration is pointed out by the majority of survey critics in Russia. Getting some independent evaluation is difficult for obvious reasons, however, VCIOM comes to the rescue here as well. On October 2, VCIOM published the results of another study in which respondents were asked to vote for the “best male and female popular singer of the Russian stage this year.” The ranking of singers was topped by Shaman (Yaroslav Dronov), vocal supporter of Putin enjoying extensive media coverage, who was named by 16.8% of respondents. Morgenstern, judging by the file posted, was not named at all. Ominously, his music video “Черный русский” (“Black Russian”), released on September 8, two weeks before the survey, meanwhile garnered 16 million views (Dronov’s best-known video “Я русский” (“I am Russian”) gathered less than 10 million views in its first weeks). It’s possible that the respondents, who appreciate rapper Morgenstern, simply couldn’t associate him with the concept of “popular singer of a Russian stage.” But the chasm between observed behavior and declarations is nevertheless notable.

(5) Finally, what seems to me most likely: respondents consciously (and even more so unconsciously) provide an inaccurate account of their behavior. In reality, in Russia, there are significantly more “Independents” than “Loyals,” but many of them do not know to which type they belong (LaPiere’s paradox). For some, politics is just something distant and uninteresting, and even those who sincerely believe that foreign agents should be discouraged, cannot resist re-listening the music of their youth. The number of people sufficiently politicized to cancel their favorite singers if they make a statement they politically disagree with is small in Russia. And only in the eyes of very few does the state possess sufficient symbolic power to somewhat push them to this.

Whichever of the last four explanations is the most accurate, attempting to predict the behavior of most people in Russia based on surveys turns out to be problematic. This does not mean that it makes no sense to study what people say. After all, what they tell the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), they are likely to tell others (and even themselves). And what most people hear from those around them affects their behavior – especially the behavior those observers witness. But before moving from self-reports to predicting behavior, many more steps need to be taken than is usually done.

[1] The distribution of the audience of the Russian-speaking Internet as a whole by country is hard to estimate, but there is data on the audiences of individual websites. For instance, on Yandex, which provides the best search across the Runet, users from Russia account for over 90% of search queries. Russia accounts for 78.2% of the monthly audience of VKontakte – the world’s largest Russian-speaking social network.