Some of the data generated by Levada's VTsIOM may have incurred the wrath of authorities. While other polling agencies were indicating the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party on track to win parliamentary elections slated for December, Levada's surveys over the past summer showed the opposition Communist Party with a strong lead. On the hypersensitive issue of the four-year-old war in Chechnya, Levada's latest study found that only 27 percent of Russians want to continue military action, and 58 percent want to stop the conflict.
The government says that the seizure of VTsIOM, Russia's oldest and best-known public opinion agency, was a routine "reorganization" of a company that was created in 1988 - under Soviet law - as a state-owned body. Though nominally government property, VTsIOM had survived since the collapse of the USSR without public funding.
"We have always had our own contracts with clients, in Russia and abroad, and that was how we fed ourselves," says Levada.
The government appointed Valery Fyodorov, a young sociologist who once campaigned for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, to manage the new state-controlled VTsIOM in Levada's place. Mr. Fyodorov agrees that "Levada is an outstanding scientist; we have no claims against him on that score."
But he alleges that the "commercialization" of VTsIOM under Levada detracted from serious research. "Social issues stopped being the research priority, and that was wrong," Fyodorov says. Under his leadership, he adds, the agency will focus on social issues like poverty, railroad reorganization, and municipal reforms. "The state has decided to keep VTsIOM as its property, and that means we have to solve important tasks and not the private task of providing employment to the staff," Fyorodov says.
Levada says he can't understand why the Kremlin should fear scientific public opinion research. But, he agrees, the ups and downs of his own career suggest that it always has. When he graduated from university, in 1952, sociology was banned in the USSR as a "bourgeois science." Levada was allowed to carry out limited surveys during the political thaw initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s, but his institute was closed down as the freeze returned under Mr. Brezhnev in 1972.