Fun with surveys

Before everyone gets all excited about the survey that shows 30% of Russians wouldn't mind having Stalin back as head of state, think about the survey situation. Somebody asks you a question combining an outrage with an implausibility. Maybe you are confused, maybe angry, maybe annoyed. What do you do? Lie to the questioner, of course. Anything to get rid of this person who duped you into taking what you thought was going to be a survey about topics that matter. If lots of people do this, the survey produces a baffling result that is certain to be reported everywhere. Even here.


Anonymous said...


I would like to believe in your optimistic interpretation, but suspect that the nasty truth is that there is in fact a large constituency of people in Russia today who are to one degree or another nostalgic for those "good old days" of order, certainty and common purpose.

Given that Stalin died 52 years ago - and the fact that average life-expectancy for Russian males is now at 58.5 years and falling - most people who actually remember those days are now dead or otherwise beyond caring. Keep in mind not only the miseries of the present, which make any dimly-recalled past look attractive by comparison, but also the manipulation of memory by means of textbooks and the media - both firmly under the control of the current government, which has been promoting a generally sympathetic view of the Soviet past.

This positive view is also signalled and continually reinforced by the revival of Soviet-era symbols (incl. the reinstallation of Stalin statues) and the current barrage of celebratory articles and TV docudramas prompted by the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory in the Great Patriotic War (with no effort to look too closely at why so many millions of lives were lost during that war, many of them as a direct or indirect result of Stalin's decisions and policies).

Given these circumstances, that 30-percent positive rating for Stalin doesn't sound like such a surprising result.


Eric Gordy said...

Well, this current definitely exists, but 30%? There would have to be external confirmation from other surveys and election results. The question of what is represented by nostalgia is also an open one--the report suggests that the finding shows love for Stalin, but it could show discomfort with the present, a feeling of insecurity, or a general (but not necessarily totalitarian) inclination to authoritarianism. Talk of the "good old days" is always selective: it includes things like small-town values, but probably excludes things like lynchings and polio epidemics.

The life expectancy figures can be misleading, since sometimes they report complex phenomena as a simple whole number. So an average life expectancy of 58.5% might not mean that the average person is dying at 58, but that there is a high rate of infant mortality and death of people under 58 from causes like violent crime.

Anonymous said...

The gloomy demographic forecast is all too real, not a fluke of statistics.

First the - relatively - good news: the latest figure (2002) for infant mortality rate in Russia was 18 per 1000 live births. Which is not great by European standards, but down considerably from the 1980s, when infant mortality in Russia stood at 28 per thousand.

As a comparison, the latest (2004) figures reported for the US were 14.8 per thousand live births for black mothers and 6.7 for white mothers.

The drop in life expectancy in Russia appears to be linked mainly to lifestyle issues for adults -- high rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption, poverty-associated stress and poor nutrition and the degradation of the
health-care and social service system. Deaths from cancer and circulatory diseases were 5% and 12% higher respectively in 1995 compared with 1987. The heart disease rate is double that of the US. Russia's accidental death rate, which includes alcohol poisoning, has risen steadily, from 8.7 per 100,000 in 1989 to 47.7 in 1994. According to United Nations data, life expectancy for Russian men currently ranks 133rd in the world. It stood at 63.4 years in 1990, but is now at 58.5 years. Not surprisingly, Russia's population has been dropping over the past decade -- a net decrease of ca. 800,000/year was recorded in each of the last two years.

For more, see
"Unhealthy men bode ill for Russia"
Philadelphia Inquirer (Feb. 21, 2005)


Eric Gordy said...

Very interesting article (by the way, the host site has an extremely annoying registration page, for such gratuitous hoopjumping demands I recommend bugmenot.com)!

I was also surprised to see a quotation from Murray Feshbach, the fellow was required reading in my day! He apparently now has a long-term gig at the Wilson Center, where they link to his paper predicting a population decline in Russia, a third by 2050. This and citations to other papers on environmental health and demography are at:


The comparison between black and white infant mortality numbers in the US also underlines something known but worth repeating, which is how much such things depend on factors like poverty and differential access to resources.