Brezhnev Portrait

Purposeless Polls: How Soviet Citizens Rebelled Against a Regime that Rejected Open Communication

Leonid Brezhnev was no Joseph Stalin when it came to his ascendancy to power. Far less authoritative and more furtive in his gradual promotion of subordinates that had previously served under his rule, Brezhnev was regarded as a distant figure by the citizens of the Soviet Union. And while he certainly was present on the widespread television networks that consumed the spare time of workers and families, the citizenry constantly feared being reprimanded for not following the regime’s guidelines. The celebratory parades and performances that filled the streets on a regular basis were not enough to convince the Soviet population, which frequently witnessed the removal of their rights and the detention of dissidents, that there was one unified party.

Consequently, when sociological research centers collected public opinion about domestic and foreign policy in the late 1970s, the responses failed to communicate the public’s true feelings. Citizens were aware that the government was using their responses to reshape or adapt certain policies within the regime, instead of addressing economic and social shortcomings based on popular feedback. Despite attempts from research centers to separate themselves from governmental oversight in their administration of polls and surveys, the feeling of mistrust between the general population and the leaders of Brezhnev’s regime from 1975-79 led to uninformative results that hindered economic change.

The Development of Public Opinion Polls

An inspiration for the dissident movements in the 1970s, the 1905 Revolution initiated a period of flourishing public opinion in Russia when Czar Nicholas II assented to a constitutional monarchy and increased personal freedoms. In addition to creating a Duma government that operated separately from the Czar’s oversight, the 1905 Compromise allowed for the liberalization of newspapers in a less autocratic regime. For a 12 year period until 1917, when the monarchy was abolished by the Bolshevik movement, the press connected the people— including peasants and artisans— to the activities of the government. Fearful of this new communication, Czar Nicholas II wrote: “All would be well if everything said in the Duma remained within its walls. Every word spoken, however, comes out in the next day’s papers, which are avidly read by everybody.” It was only after Stalin restricted the country’s civil liberties that the informal exchange of ideas between citizens and government became completely controlled by the Communist Party.

Established in 1954, the year following Stalin’s death, the KGB originally focused on counterintelligence activities and the protection of the Soviet Union’s borders, interacting infrequently with the general population. In the mid 1960s, however, when Brezhnev assumed control of the service, they began to issue polls and surveys. Their goal was to detect “political dissent among Soviet students, professors, writers, sports players, and religious minorities;” in other words, those who were either capable of reflection or representing the country. While the repression of dissident groups who sparked conversations about the regime was nothing new within the Soviet Union, since Brezhnev simply continued the status quo set by his precedents, their method of procuring information had changed.

Sociologists, under the watchful eye of the KGB, began conducting home interviews and mailing questionnaires through widely read newspapers like Pravda. The questions touched on economic concerns, morality, and political issues. Unsurprisingly, the return rate was very low, since citizens could easily identify the reasoning behind these polls. But the data was unmistakably clear and distressing for the regime’s leaders: Citizens from all rungs of society, including authors, artists, teachers, and even government employees, expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of discussion and political freedom in prominent media publications. But the KGB was not to be swayed in its mission to create a unified party. Its response was not to implement the change that was asked for; instead, it issued “a lengthy statement on the need for better ideological education of the Soviet” and “four reforms in economic planning.”

Resistance and a Declining Regime

In 1973, a major text shook the foundations of Soviet identity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago attempted to explain how the Russian government has always been deeply tied to political homogeneity and human cruelty. Such revelatory works allowed Soviet citizens to understand the trap they found themselves in. As could be expected, word-of-mouth communication became their preferred source of information, especially for those in the lower class. Jokes that were created under previous Soviet leaders recirculated in the Brezhnev era as humorous, lively critiques of an unyielding regime that was incapable of promoting social change. When the KGB chose to tighten nationalistic education after receiving incompatible opinions in their surveys, the lines of communication were shut down once more. They were unwilling to accept citizen feedback on the way that the government was handling domestic and foreign affairs, eventually nullifying the importance of their research.

Perhaps the clearest indication that Brezhnev’s regime was faltering in 1978-79 was its inability to cope with the economic recession happening at the time. Harsh winters blocked transportation systems and slowed factory production, while oil output came to a standstill. Street protests arose against the severe food shortages, and per capita consumption remained below 2% in both years. Such direct attempts to communicate disapproval of economic management were much more infrequent than techniques like anonymous letter writing, though, since the regime discouraged group remonstrations from taking place.

The Central Committee received more than three million letters between 1976 and 1981, many of which addressed the failure of subnational leadership to provide goods and services to the people. The committee’s response, if any, typically took the form of a survey. In Borzhomi, Georgia, for example, an increase in letters in 1978 criticizing the new first secretary led to such a survey of the local population “and the Central Committee used the results to criticize the official and illustrate the need to change his work habits.”

This would have been an ideal exchange for Soviet citizens: open communication to their leaders about a particular issue which would be solved once their voices were heard. Unfortunately, since the 1970s was a period when “[b]ureaucratic harassment was further perfected, official hooliganism became more apparent, [and] psychiatric terror was more routinely resorted to,” citizens were afraid of speaking up. This fear of government was made apparent in a survey conducted by the Izvestia newspaper directed to sociologists, economists, journalists, and professors.

Experts predicted that 54.3% of the respondents would not remember a time when they disagreed with the newspaper and another 25.5% would never have held a different opinion (see Appendix A). Despite their small margin of error, the research centers correctly anticipated an impossible alignment with government publications. Party leaders, however, interpreted such findings as complete public support, leading them to become implicated in a variety of foreign conflicts.

Manipulating Opinion, At Home and Abroad

In December of 1978, two days of peace talks between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan concluded with the signing of a treaty of cooperation. Included in this agreement was the creation of an economic commission to help both countries, a strategy that the Soviet Union had used in previous treaties with Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Angola. A year later, when Brezhnev sent troops to invade Afghanistan, claiming that he was upholding the treaty and performing the necessary duty of spreading socialism abroad, the government had once again failed to communicate openly with its people.

A report released by the CIA in 1999 confirmed the Soviet strategy, which was “to dilute popular skepticism about the war by playing up US involvement and emphasizing the dangers to Soviet security of an insurgent victory.” By sending troops into foreign territories during a time of economic recession, the Soviet Union was downplaying its high rate of poverty and unemployment to the rest of the world while claiming that the public supported its actions abroad. With total control of the media, this was a simple task.

Organized by a system of federalism that divided its regions into autonomous provinces, the Soviet Union ensured that all subnational regions received information and approval from federal republics that acted as channels for government oversight. In each of these provinces, there were “state committees administering radio and television broadcasting, censorship, news gathering… book publishing, education, and culture.” It is no surprise, then, that the Soviet government attempted to convert public opinion in favor of foreign intervention and silence those who did not adhere to mainstream ideas. The previously mentioned CIA report notes that “spontaneous, short-lived popular demonstrations against the war occurred,” but that dissidents, especially those who interviewed with Western media, were promptly exiled.

Under Brezhnev, activists sought to communicate much more openly with the government about their concerns, with more structured anti-nationalist groups taking the place of the secret underground organizations that thrived in the 1950s and 60s. The number of civil unrest incidents in 1979 jumped to more than four times the annual amount between 1970-78, a reflection of widespread dissatisfaction with the economy and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Since the late 1970s saw a time of increased globalization in the media, the Soviet Union had to increase efforts to cover up its flagrant lack of communication. Soldiers returning from the conflict in Afghanistan introduced “radio broadcasts and foreign literature” to their fellow citizens. When paired with fatigue from the predictability of the regime, the population began to steer away from passive acceptance of governmental activities.

The Role of Media in Limiting Dissent

While citizens gradually realized that the Soviet state was not adequately managing domestic and foreign conflicts, their ability to dissent was limited by the immense influence of the media. One need look no further than the TV networks: “In the 1970s, the massive Ostankino television tower in Moscow was known in nonconformist circles as the ‘needle,’ for its supposed role in injecting propaganda into the supple veins of the Soviet masses.” However, over time, this needle began to infuse differing ideas into Soviet society with the development of new technologies.

The introduction of video-tape recorders and the circulation of banned films enabled the citizenry to gain exposure to outward views, as opposed to what mandated television channels repeated on a daily basis. As a result, oral communication prevailed in the 1970s even as Soviet news channels pursued a relentless agenda of shielding citizens from opposition. When the general population realized that the regime was incapable of handling food and oil shortages despite the perfect system that it claimed to follow, the effects of the early 1970s dissident movement came to the forefront once more. Citizens from all social classes could not trust a system that spoke of progress on the television but suffered internally, so they turned to word-of-mouth communication to receive their news.

Another notable source of corrupt media in the Soviet Union were the newspapers, which underwent considerable change to favor the regime’s agenda and alter public opinion. Every year under Brezhnev, during the anniversary of the October Revolution, two pages were dedicated to reports about the country’s progress since the historical event. Naturally, the least read sections were the ones discussing the advantages that socialism had brought since the revolution— people were more interested in economic progress.

When the party studied public opinion, it usually came hand in hand with examining readership of the country’s leading newspapers. But their support for such research fluctuated unpredictably. After the party endorsed the Institute for Concrete Social Research in 1968 to investigate the public’s political and cultural preferences, it took only three years before they purged members of the institute. This volatility shielded leaders of the regime from the unsettling truth: Consumers of Soviet media were more concerned with the economic recession than the emphasis on the regime’s success.

Sacrificing Economic Growth for Repression

Even when academics introduced the possibility of economic development, the Soviet Union’s ideological crackdown held a greater importance to Brezhnev’s eyes. The exile of Andrei Sakharov epitomized his inability to look beyond the traditional, repressive structure of the country. A physicist who contributed to the construction of new thermonuclear weapons, while also advising that they not be tested, Sakharov spoke out against the injustices of the regime.

He demanded that the troops be withdrawn in Afghanistan and that the 1980 Soviet Union Olympic Games be boycotted the following year. In his letters from exile, he wrote that while the need for reforms was obvious, “attempts to carry them out encounter the resistance of the ruling bureaucracy and everything goes on as before.” With that, Sakharov touches on the main idea of The Gulag Archipelago, that the Russian government has remained unchanged throughout history since it has refused to listen to its citizens when they communicate their needs.

Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky (SOS), a group of professors that had previously written to raise awareness about other imprisoned scientists, created a pledge to protest the silencing and cruel treatment of these dissidents (see Appendix B). Unfortunately, as the scientists’ health declined rapidly, the movement could accomplish very little because it “was widely denounced in the Soviet media.” An article published in Pravda on April 23, 1979 twisted the issue by saying that American scientists were being pressured to sign petitions that would break ties between scientists across the globe. The Soviet media was once again used in a way that solely benefited the Kremlin’s stance.

Despite these efforts, scientists across the world boycotted the Soviet Union and 55 countries ended up not participating in the 1980 Olympic Games. But for Brezhnev, what mattered was that Sakharov was not being interviewed by “Western news media.” Such hostility towards outside reporting, particularly with regards to the United States, would impel the Soviets to author a biography of Brezhnev with a forward titled “To the American Reader,” where they laid out the facts that one was supposed to believe.

The Legacy of the Miscommunication Under Brezhnev

Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Brezhnev left the Soviet Union in economic decline. The following year, as the country drifted towards more progressive policies, the necessity for a new center to study “the needs, views and sentiments of the working masses, based on a specific methodology for identifying and analyzing public opinion” came to the forefront once more. In 1987, the VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) was created for this specific purpose.

As the head of its theoretical research department, Yuri Levada made it his mission to define the Soviet people’s values and priorities. His team surveyed approximately 2,700 Soviet citizens of varying ages and backgrounds, and they did not find “people who believed in a radiant communist figure, true Marxists, ideologues.” By the 1980s, the Soviet population had learned their lesson from the lack of economic and social transparency in the previous decade.

Miscommunication between citizens and government prospers in Russia today, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn predicted during the Dissident Movement. The modern Russian citizen remains distrustful of figures and publications released by the Kremlin, with only 34% of participants in a recent Moscow Times survey saying that they trust their government.  Brezhnev’s mistake of assuming the unity and unquestioning nature of the Soviet people in the late 1970s led to popular dissatisfaction and rebellion. Nowadays, Russia will have to make an effort to listen to its citizens to avoid repeating Brezhnev’s assumption of unflinching loyalty to the Kremlin.

Appendix A

In 1966, marking the beginning of Brezhnev’s rule, Izvestia pioneered a large-scale survey of the Soviet population. While 177,000 questionnaires were distributed to readers, only 15% were returned, most likely due to the distrust that readers felt towards major publications. Experts from the Novosibirsk sociological research center predicted the results above, and despite being incorrect to some degree, they captured the popular opinion that journalists were expected to conform to the media outlets.

Ellen Mickiewicz, “Policy Applications of Public Opinion Research in the Soviet Union.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 36, no. 4 (1972): 566-78.

Appendix B

The Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Shcharansky urged fellow American scientists to sign a pledge “to protest the human rights violations by the Soviet Union.” The pledge would prevent Americans from visiting the Soviet Union and bar Soviet researchers from American laboratories and research centers between May and November of 1980. It was publicized and sent to Leonid Brezhnev so that action could be taken, but unfortunately, little was done.

Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov and Shcharansky. “Scientists and Engineers Pledge Moratorium on Behalf of Colleagues,” 1980.


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Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Axel de Vernou is a research assistant at Yorktown Institute and a sophomore at Yale University where he studies Global Affairs and History.

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