Can autocracies obtain accurate information on popular opinion? This article approaches this question by focusing on the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev period. Based on Soviet archival materials (primarily Fond 89, the Volkogonov papers, and the Rubinov collection), the article argues that the Soviet regime relied on three main channels to track popular preferences: the kgb, opinion polling, and the analysis of citizen complaint letters. Each of these channels provided a different type of information: the kgb tracked levels of political dissent; opinion polling assessed general levels of satisfaction with the regime; and citizen complaints produced detailed information on the redistributive preferences of the population. Individually, none of these channels provided sufficient information on public opinion. However, when taken as a whole, they supplied the leadership with surprisingly nuanced information on popular preferences.
William A. Welsh“Introduction: An Overview of the Status of Survey Research in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union” in Survey Research and Public Attitudes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Unioned. William A. Welsh (New York: Pergamon Press1981) 1–12esp. 9–11.
Danielle N. Lussier“Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,”Post-Soviet Affairs27 no. 3 (2011): 289–325. More generally see Henry E. Hale Why Not Parties in Russia? Democracy Federalism and the State (New York: Cambridge University Press 2006).
Jeffrey W. Hahn“Public Opinion Research in the Soviet Union: Problems and Possibilities,” in Public Opinion and Regime Change: The New Politics of Post-Soviet Societiesed. Arthur H. Miller William M. Reissinger and Vicki L. Hesli (Boulder CO: Westview Press 1993) 37–47 at 40–41.
Sheila Fitzpatrick“Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930s,”Slavic Review55 no. 1 (Spring 1996): 78–105; Sheila Fitzpatrick “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s” The Journal of Modern History 68 no. 4 (December 1996): 831–866; and Fitzpatrick Tear Off the Masks!
Jan S. Adams“Critical Letters to the Soviet Press: An Increasingly Important Public Forum” in Political Participation in Communist Systemsed. Donald E. Schulz and Jan S. Adams (New York: Pergamon Press1981) 108–136; Nicholas Lampert Whistleblowing in the Soviet Union: Complaints and Abuses under State Socialism (London: Macmillan 1985); Stephen White “Political Communications in the ussr: Letters to the Party State and Press” Political Studies vol. XXXI (1983): 43–60.
See also James R. Millar“The Little Deal: Brezhnev’s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism,”Slavic Review44 no. 4 (Winter 1985): 694–706. On the organized consensus see Victor Zaslavsky The New Stalinist State: Class Ethnicity and Consensus in Soviet Society (New York: M. E. Sharpe 1982) esp. 130–164.