What Putin reads Vital policymaking in Russia relies on sociological research conducted by the Secret Service. Here’s how it works.
Vladimir Putin sees Russia largely through the eyes of sociological work conducted by the country’s Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service (FSO). The Kremlin bases its most important policy decisions on FSO surveys and analysis. Meduza special correspondents Andrey Pertsev and Maxim Solopov explain how this system works.
The general public is unaware that Russia’s Federal Protective Service (FSO), in addition to guarding top state officials, is responsible for conducting sociological surveys and monitoring popular opinion and the country’s political situation. The agency’s findings are never published, but these data inform some of the Kremlin’s most important policymaking.
For example, as Meduza recently reported, FSO research drove Putin to push Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to lift COVID-19 quarantine measures early in Moscow. “According to FSO polls, [national protest sentiment] was strong and the virus-related restrictions were the main reason for the discontent. That kind of mood was seriously going to affect voting on the [constitutional] amendments,” a source told Meduza, explaining the Kremlin’s hurry to reopen businesses and public spaces.
Despite the secrecy that surrounds the FSO’s sociological work, information about the agency’s research sometimes leaks to the media. In 2014, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that the FSO would “study public opinion about Vladimir Putin” in two enormous national polls involving 45,000 respondents and questions concerning the president, the prime minister and his cabinet, the parliament, Russia’s governors and political parties, and popular protest sentiment. The FSO would also reportedly ask another 35,000 people about Putin’s “May Orders” on new social spending.
In 2016, the news outlet RBC obtained the results of an FSO survey about the situation inside Russia’s one-company towns. The work was reportedly conducted in December 2015 in 201 towns with a total of 55,600 respondents. Last year, in a memo for President Putin, Business Rights Commissioner Boris Titov also cited the FSO’s sociological research, says Vedomosti: “The FSO’s Special Communications and Information Service polled experts (defense attorneys, prosecutors, human rights activists, and legal scholars), as well as business people who had faced criminal prosecution. In total, 279 experts and 189 entrepreneurs in 36 regions were surveyed.”
When she ran for president in 2018, socialite Ksenia Sobchak cited supposedly “leaked” FSO data confirming her popularity and even published the information on Instagram.
The fact that the Federal Protective Service conducts polling and sociological analysis is no secret — these duties are listed officially in an executive order issued in 2004.
A source close to Russia’s government cabinet told Meduza that the FSO has been polling the public for more than 20 years. The agency’s findings are reported to President Putin and made available to Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (one of the most influential hardliners in the country). “They trust these studies more because they aren’t angling for more funding or trying to flatter the authorities,” says a source with ties to a former Kremlin official. “The FSO’s sociology is seen as unadjusted for the boss’s desires and free of efforts to stay within trends.”
Meduza’s source says the FSO’s sociologists aren’t as well trained as researchers at the state-owned Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), “but they’re trusted more.” “The presidential administration tasks the FSO with identifying all potential problems, threats, and negative trends. And that’s what they do,” says Meduza’s source.
“Usually what I did was I took an FSO survey and a VTsIOM survey, I added up the numbers, and then I divided them by two. And that’s how I got a result close to the truth,” a former Kremlin official told Meduza with a smile. He says the FSO’s sociological work is “gloomy, maybe even too gloomy,” while VTsIOM’s analysis has the opposite problem: it’s too rosy. According to a source in the Putin administration, the Kremlin’s current domestic policy team also believes that the FSO’s polling “lays it on too thick.” A source with ties to Russia’s government cabinet told Meduza that the Federal Protective Service offers “more pessimistic and bad numbers on average” than VTsIOM and FOM (the Public Opinion Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works primarily with the Kremlin).
“The FSO’s job is to red-flag threats and identify them clearly. They consider themselves ‘the eye of the sovereign’ and they think it’s better ‘to be safe.’ Maybe they’re right,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza when asked about the agency’s “gloomy numbers.”
The FSO studies national attitudes about top state officials and organizations, and it also conducts targeted polling in specific regions about public perceptions of key local politicians. “In the administration, they see the situation in the regions only through the FSO’s polling, and everyone gets screwed if the numbers are bad,” complains a former Kremlin official who now works in a regional government.
The Federal Security Service conducts polling for the presidential administration and the prime minister’s cabinet, both of which have access to the agency’s survey results. This information and archival data are also shared with the president’s envoys in Russia’s federal districts. Multiple sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that other state agencies and regional officials cannot directly request polling by the FSO and they need the presidential administration’s permission to see the secret service’s survey results. The prime minister’s cabinet also orders polling on the issues it manages, like the annual survey of Russia’s business community about regulatory burdens on entrepreneurs,” which the FSO carries out for the government’s Analytical Center.
The two towers
Fenced off and crawling with surveillance cameras, the building complex around the three concrete highrises on Moscow’s Vernadsky Prospekt is well-known to locals as a high-security site with ties to the intelligence community. The parking lot is full of unmarked cars with tinted windows, many sporting emergency sirens and so-called blatnoi license-plate numbers from Russia’s security agencies.
One of these buildings has already appeared in reports about the murder of a Chechen national in Berlin. A joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel discovered that Zelimkhan Khangoshvili’s alleged killer, Vadim Krasnikov, may have visited Vernadsky Prospekt, Dom 12, Korpus 4. Among intelligence workers, this address is known as the home of the “Priboi” (Surf) Research Institute. The building houses multiple departments and divisions of the Federal Security Service that manage the agency’s analytics, the SORM telecommunications intercept system, and the Anti-Terrorism Criminal Intelligence Second Branch, which investigates some of the country’s most highly publicized crimes.
Down the road from the Priboi Research Institute, there’s another highrise identified on Yandex Maps as the “Kontur” Research Institute — the name of a division of the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), which was disbanded in 2003. Today, this same institute — now known as the FSO’s Information Systems Special Communications Services — analyzes sociological studies, media publications, and statistics from across the country, and forecasts protest sentiment, a source at the Federal Protective Service told Meduza.
“They’re former FAPSI offices that are now part of the FSO’s Special Communications headquartered on Kiselny Lane. Over there on Vernadsky Prospekt, they’re directly responsible for all this [analysis], for counting the voter lines during the plebiscite on the Constitution… Sergey Novikov is in charge,” says Meduza’s source.
According to the SPARK-Interfax database, the FSO’s Special Communications division is registered in public records at 4 Staraya Ploshchad in a building complex that belongs to the presidential administration. A source with knowledge of the site told Meduza that there is a situation room at this address that receives all the analysis generated by the FSO’s sociological experts. This information is also shared with the presidential administration, Russia’s Security Council, and the prime minister’s cabinet. The head of this FSO division is a man named Sergey Novikov.
We know almost nothing about Mr. Novikov. “All I can say about Novikov is that he’s got very good ties to Moscow’s Information Technologies Department, where they handle facial-recognition cameras and the collection of various data,” a source close to the FSO told Meduza. “He also oversees a center in Ochakovo where there’s a system that analyzes any information about people that’s available in databases. There’s your ‘Big Brother’ right there.”
The only known photograph of Sergey Novikov is a portrait included in the trade magazine Connect that accompanies an article he co-wrote in 2012 with two FSO colleagues. A copy of the text is still available through the website of the FSO contractor and Rostelcom subsidiary “Globus Telecom.”
The article states that the FSO annually conducts roughly 500 sociological studies with a total sample of more than 400,000 people. The text’s authors say their FSO division’s “greatest responsibility” is “monitoring State Duma and presidential elections and forecasting voting results.” According to the article, the agency’s sociologists are also tasked with “studying expert and business-community opinions, including instruments for forming industry-specific expert groups and conducting and processing the results of expert sessions.”
“For effective monitoring of the public’s social expectations, reactions to federal government initiatives, and protest sentiment, work is conducted [...] to study content on social networks and in the blogosphere,” Novikov explains in the article.
Since October 2017, the former head of the FSO North-Western Federal District’s Security Service, Vladimir Belanovsky, has overseen the agency’s entire Information Systems Special Communications Services (including Novikov’s outfit) as deputy director. In fact, a photo of Belanovsky appears on the cover of the report based on FSO polling obtained by Meduza.
There isn’t much public information about Vladimir Belanovsky. The Chechen news agency Grozny Inform reported one of the few stories that mentions his name: in 2019, Belanovsky visited Chechnya to attend the opening ceremony for a new FSO Special Communications office building. On the same trip, he also presented Ramzan Kadyrov with an honorary Beretta pistol, delivering the firearm from FSO Director Dmitry Kochnev.
Belanovsky, in turn, reports to the agency’s first deputy director, Oleg Klementyev, whom sources close to the FSB and FSO describe as the secret service’s most influential intellectual and senior analyst.
In case of nuclear war
The FSO’s role in policymaking isn’t limited to polling. The agency has access to a system for monitoring social trends that pulls data from several sources: its own special communications surveys, polling by other groups (VTsIOM and FOM), local media reports, and FSB intelligence on attitudes among the country’s elites. These data inform the FSO’s analysis and political forecasts.
According to a former intelligence worker familiar with the FSO’s leadership, the Federal Protective Service inherited these analytical instruments in 2003, when FAPSI disbanded.
FAPSI founder Alexander Starovoitov thought of his agency as Russia’s counterpart to the National Security Agency in the United States, focused not on covert intelligence but on processing and analyzing large volumes of information collected using modern technologies. In addition to media reports, this array of big data needed to include sociological surveys of public opinion. To this end, FASPI established Regional Information and Analytical Centers throughout the country in the early 1990s.
According to an article published roughly two years ago in the FSO departmental journal Kremlin-9, the regional centers’ first task was to monitor the local news media, “annotating and categorizing newspaper articles for inclusion in the ‘Barometer’ information-analytical system, operated by the ‘Kontur’ Research Institute.” Beginning in 1994, these offices started exploring a radically new line of work: “conducting sociological research.”
Another Kremlin-9 article released in 2010 describes the history of the FSO’s analytical division, tracing it back to the “Kontur” automated management system developed in the late Soviet period. When FAPSI started rolling out its network of regional centers, it relied on precisely this technology. To this day, the FSO’s monitoring system still bears the “Kontur” name.
In 2019, blogger and planned economics researcher Alexander Safronov published an interview with Vladimir Kossov, the former director of the Soviet Council of Ministers’ Information Main Directorate, who supervised work on “Kontur” in the late 1980s. “I’ll just say that this is a system for managing the country in the event of a nuclear war. If the country suffers a nuclear strike [...] a working system could be assembled [here] from what remains,” Kossov said, explaining Kontur’s guiding logic. He said the system was used, for example, to coordinate Moscow’s responses to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 1988 Armenian earthquake. Future reformer Yegor Gaidar also relied on the Kontur system’s analytics in his research on the state of the Soviet economy. Kossov says even today’s “Elections” State Automated System uses the same principles and the same chief architect, “Voskhod” Research Institute specialist Yuri Lomov.
“[The FSO has] not only access to senior officials and the authority to conduct criminal intelligence and surveillance operations, but also regional ties and its own analytics that reach the president directly. That right there amounts to serious competition for Lubyanka [the FSB]. What are the president’s main information sources? The Federal Security Service, the Federal Protective Service, and his own administration,” a former intelligence agent familiar with the FSO’s leadership told Meduza.
Sources who know senior officials at both the FSB and FSO say the agencies are locked in a fierce struggle for influence over the president. As a result, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov typically brings Putin sociological polling by VTsIOM, while Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev cites FSO surveys, a source close to the presidential administration told Meduza.
A question of trust
Sources who currently or previously worked in presidential envoy offices and regional administrations told Meduza that they remain wary of the FSO’s research and analytics. “The numbers almost always coincided with our own measurements, but their analytics left a lot to be desired,” said one former senior regional official who also warned that FSO analysts are prone to “excessively direct and linear conclusions.” A sociologist who works with the presidential envoy in Russia’s Central Federal District also questions the FSO’s methodology. “They draw conclusions not just on the basis of polling but also certain internal elite breakdowns, where a governor’s rating is falling because he’s in conflict with deputy ‘N’ and businessman ‘D.’ I’m not confident that conclusions can be drawn on this basis,” the sociologist told Meduza with a shrug.
Within the Putin administration, the greatest skepticism is reserved for the FSO’s sidewalk polling, where agents question members of the public in crowded places like shopping centers in cities. “You’re approached by somebody who looks exactly like what he is, with where he works written on his face and a manner of speaking that leaves nothing to mystery, and he starts asking you what you think about the authorities. What can the average Russian say to this person? Either you play it safe and assure him of your complete support or just the opposite and you unload on him, since the authorities are finally asking,” argues a source with ties to the Kremlin.
Russia’s professional community of sociologists has expressed doubts about the rigorousness of the FSO’s research. Levada Center expert Olga Karayeva notes that she and her colleagues have only ever seen “certain bits of information” because the agency’s work is classified. “It’s our understanding that FSO agents themselves often conduct the polls and they do it at enterprises in one-company towns. For example, this is carried out at a factory’s front gate when employees are showing up for work,” says Karayeva.
She explains that the main problem with the FSO’s polling is the methodology the agency uses to select respondents. “If the polling is happening in a monotown or a restricted area, it’s clearly hard to get unbiased answers when state representatives are interrogating you at work. You can’t not respond to a state representative, and the respondent is vulnerable because surveys at work are neither confidential nor anonymous. Additionally, I’m always amazed at the volume of the work that’s reported in the media. For a properly structured survey, you don’t need such enormous samples!” says Karayeva, adding that it’s hard for sociologists to assess the FSO’s polling because the agency’s methodology is opaque. “The Federal Protective Service has no transparency and that often leads to the impression that it never conducted a survey at all and the data is just the agency’s opinion.”
“The [FSO’s] quality of work is lower and its methods are worse [than civilian sociologists], though it recruits generally decent specialists,” says a regional administration official who used to work in the Kremlin. “But they’re still better trusted because they don’t adjust [their numbers] for administrative resources.”