Russian Elections: Researching at the Rayon Level

by Dmitry Sharkov

In July-August 1997, I conducted a research trip to Russia which was made possible by a REECAS Graduate Support Award. The purpose of the trip was to collect rayon-level statistical data on the December 1995 Russian State Duma Elections and to investigate possibilities of obtaining some social and economic statistics by rayons rather than oblasts. All these data are needed for my doctoral dissertation research, which focuses on the relationships among the votes for the forty-three political parties which participated in the 1995 Elections (as well as the votes "against all" and the turnout) and socio-economic conditions and the changes of those conditions by administrative rayons. Russian rayons can be seen as an analog to counties in the United States, while the 89 "Subjects" of the Russian Federation - republics, krays, oblasts, okrugs and the "capital" cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are in a way Russian "states". Up until now, almost all regional research on Russia has been done at the oblast level. It is not difficult to see how much is lost in such analysis. This is like studying the United States at the state level, where, for example, the State of Washington is looked upon as one unit without any distinctions between Seattle, and the western and eastern parts of the state. Also, because nearly a majority of the population in Washington lives in King County, any research of that kind will de facto be a study of King County, thus, very much ignoring the social, economic, cultural diversity and richness that can be found within the state.

The same, of course, is true for the Russian Federation where oblast and republic capitals usually account for more than forty percent of the population. Oblast-level studies allow us to see a very general picture and mostly for urban dwellers at the central cities. This is not to say that small-scale research is absolutely new; however, it was out of reach for the majority of not only Western but even Soviet scholars until recently, due to secrecy, censorship, and unreliable data that were characteristic of the Soviet Union.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Russian social and economic statistics became available for study and research with hundreds of different titles that can be found in the university libraries, but not at the rayon level.

Given this introduction, let me describe more about the trip itself.

On July 11, I was flying on Lufthansa Airbus A321 from Frankfurt to Moscow. The weather was sunny and clear, and I was amazed to see the change from the almost perfect rectangular fields of agricultural land over Western Europe to very amorphic fields that started over Latvia and completely lost any regular shape over the "Non-Blackearth zone" of Russia. This is the country where I was born and grew up. I arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and without any problems at the passport control or at the customs, within 20 minutes found myself in the car moving through Moscow. The last time I was there was in the summer of 1995, and my first impression was that I left Russia just yesterday - nothing really has changed. This absence of visible change can be seen in both positive and negative terms. On the one hand, there is the same bad air - grayish and even blue from the cheap gasoline and diesel exhaust. You cannot open the window because your car will be filled with smoke and you cannot close it either because Russian-made cars as a rule, do not have air conditioning and the temperature was approaching 95 degrees. On the other hand, no change means that people do not have to constantly adjust themselves to the political, economic, and social change and this visible continuity with the past is as important for the society in general as the evolution of the society itself.

At first I felt like a foreigner here, but after several days I got used to Moscow's bad air, to the eleven hours time change between Seattle and Moscow, and all my old, almost forgotten, instincts came back: you HAVE TO wait at the pedestrian crossing for the cars to pass, the drivers WILL NOT stop - it is actually quite easy, just different. I started to notice some changes: Moscow is much cleaner than it was two years ago, most of the kiosks had disappeared or had become permanent brick pavilions. There are almost no people selling things on the streets (except near the subway stations where babushki are selling everything from cigarettes and beer to milk and bread - but not the household items like it was years ago). People are not afraid to walk at night, and in fact, downtown there are crowds of tourists and Muscovites till 1 A.M. Compared to my 1995 impressions, Muscovites seem to be much less concerned with both crime and politics (which are very closely associated with each other in what Russians simply call "Mafia"), and are trying to go on with their everyday life as much as they can. Downtown Moscow is one big construction zone, with new and renovated buildings everywhere. This construction, however, stops just outside the Garden Ring and the landscapes outside the downtown area still generally look like they did ten or so years ago.

But back to the purpose of my trip. Getting the electoral data was quite easy (although even that part took me about two weeks). Before leaving Seattle I called Dr. Leonid V. Smirnyagin, who is a professor at the Geography Department, Moscow State University, and a member of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation. He promised to help me, and after meeting with me in Moscow, he arranged the data from the Central Electoral Committee on 1995 State Duma Elections at the rayon level. The first and most important part of my trip was fulfilled! Now it was time to get other important social and economic statistics. Where else but Goskomstat (State Statistical Committee), I thought. At Goskomstat I was told that they are not collecting rayon-level data (or at least not reporting it) and I should visit an oblast center if I want to get any information. At the same time, at their own store downstairs they had several copies of the statistical yearbooks issued by some oblasts. I do not like to generalize; however, this can be seen as a good example of Catch-22, which one can find in almost any state office across Russia. When one asks researchers why they do not study Russian regions at scales less than oblast (which is quite useless in most cases), the reply is - "we do not have the data". On the other hand, when you ask people in charge of the data, "why are you not making it available as there are no state secrets there", the reply is - "nobody is asking us about it". The result is obvious - no data and very limited research. The small statistical yearbooks available were printed for Lipetsk Oblast in Lipetsk, for the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in Nalchik and so on. I was told that they are not even required to send any copies to Moscow. As a result of all of these factors most of the information is often not compatible even for one year across the oblasts. For example, for Lipetsk Oblast the statistical data are based upon only the permanent population. For Chita Oblast, data are based on all residents, and the difference between the permanent population and all residents might be very substantial. These books rarely have a circulation of more than one hundred (sic!) copies and cost between $20 and $250 for each oblast with some oblasts issuing several statistical yearbooks each of them dedicated solely to demography or industry, or agriculture, etc., while other local statistical committees combine everything into one book. No wonder nobody has them - they are very expensive and generally not available! Currently, $250 is officially an average monthly income in Moscow. Can anybody imagine paying one's average monthly salary for about 200 pages worth of the current statistical data in the United States? How can Russian institutions that are not able even to pay salaries on time afford to purchase them? The idea of printing more copies and selling them for much less, but to a much broader audience, is definitely foreign to almost all Russian state agencies, unless, of course, it is a state policy. After all, "the less people know, the better they sleep" (to paraphrase the Russian proverb menshe znaesh - luchshe spish). This is pure speculation, however. When I was in one of the oblast centers at the local statistical committee, I was told that they had received a letter from Moscow not to provide any statistical references to anyone unless the person has official permission from Moscow. Well, maybe it was just an excuse? For those who are planning to do regional research at the local branches of Goskomstat, here is some advice - try to get all the letters in advance; or as an alternative, you may try to get some information from a Representative of the Presidential Administration in the oblast, as somehow these people seem to be more helpful.

After Moscow, being in a small Russian town, even if it is a tourist mecca like Suzdal, is a big experience. As much as Moscow and St. Petersburg are becoming "world cities" again, small Russian towns are still living, at least on the surface, without many visible signs of victorious capitalism. The only visible change is that most of the stores in Suzdal have changed their names from "Produkty" ("Food") to "Coca-Cola" -- and they are no longer state property but rather something that you cannot pronounce in Russian without a smile on your face: "Partnership with limited liability" (and quite limited responsibility, I might add). At these stores you can buy pretty much everything from Coca-Cola and ice cream to Panasonic TVs, the only problem being that you never know what you can or cannot find at any particular store at any particular time: tomorrow instead of Panasonic TVs the "Partnership" will be selling sofas, and the next day Good Year tires. And if you think that you can have a lunch during lunch time, think again. Outside big cities it is still a "workers'" state where all restaurants are closed for their own lunch at the middle of the day. This is not intended as a judgment, it is simply different from what we see here in the United States, and, needless to say, it adds a lot to the adventure.

My time in Russia flew by very quickly, and it was soon necessary to return to Seattle. I achieved my major goal with electoral statistics, and bought some books at Goskomstat. Overall my trip was a success, and now I am continuing to work on my dissertation. To everyone doing research in Russia, my advice: be prepared for lots of challenges - while most of your problems could be solved informally, others need weeks if not months of very intensive negotiations. Do not give up!

Dmitry Sharkov is a Ph.D. student in the University of Washington Geography Department.