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PUTIN’S SECRET WEAPON

INSIDE the small cadre that dares to tell the Russian president the truth

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 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.”

UPS AND DOWNS: 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; PREVIOUS SPREAD: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS
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PUTIN'S SECRET WEAPON 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 the nation’s political and economic decisions. When it stands as it did in late May at a comfortable eighty two percent, Russia’s elite breathes easy. When it dips as low at sixty two 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.
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