The Silent Majority in Communist and Post-Communist States

Opinion Polling in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe

by Klaus Bachmann (Volume editor) Jens Gieseke (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 238 Pages


This book takes stock of opinion polls in communist and post-communist states, presents specific case studies and answers the question how opinion polls under conditions of censorship and lack of media pluralism differ from those in liberal democratic societies. These polls were mostly used by the ruling establishment to observe shifts in popular opinion and to anticipate protests. They were hardly presented publicly to inform citizens about the prevailing views in their society. Today, these polls often display stories about everyday life, opinion shifts and the legitimacy of state institutions which cannot be derived from other sources.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The State of the Art
  • Mapping the Beginnings of Public Opinion Research in the Czech Lands after World War II
  • Public Opinion Research in Serbia in the Non-pluralist Period
  • East German Popular Opinion. Problems of Reconstruction
  • Public Opinion Polling in Authoritarian States: The Case of Belarus
  • Part II: Case Studies
  • Constructing a national myth—the case of the Warsaw Uprising in post-war Poland
  • The Appropriation of Social Opinion Survey Research by the State Apparatus in Late State-socialist Poland
  • Martial Law in Poland from 1981 to 1983 in View of Public Opinion Polls Conducted by Official Institutions and Underground Organizations
  • Estimating Trade Union Membership between 1980 and 2012 Using Polling Data
  • Surveys on Media Usage in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) Institutions, Validity, and Outcomes
  • The Dilemma of the Party’s Own Opinion Research in the GDR. Insights from a Former SED Pollster
  • The Authors
  • Index of Persons
  • Index of Places
  • Index of Institutions

← 6 | 7 →

Klaus Bachmann and Jens Gieseke


Nowadays media consumers in democratic, pluralist societies know opinion polls mainly for two reasons: they forecast elections results and provide post-election analyses, they keep them updated about the most important issues which are currently being discussed in the public sphere. It is hard to imagine why someone would conduct opinion polls in a society in which censorship controls the media, in which elections do not decide about the composition of the government and in which enterprises do not need to advertise their products because they are not exposed to any competition. The People’s Republics which were established in the Soviet zone of influence during the Cold War met these conditions almost perfectly: transition of power was usually negotiated behind the curtains of the Central Committee and the Politbureau, the media were subject to preventive censorship and enterprises did not face much market competition due to central planning and government interference.

Nevertheless, even under such circumstances, opinion polls were carried out, they analyzed, reported, and—in many cases—even shaped political decision-making. Many were kept confidential, some became state secrets and some were, as Hans Erxleben reports in his first-hand account about the Institut für Meinungsforschung (Institute for Opinion Polling, IfM) destroyed together with the institution that had produced them. This, however, was rather the exception than the rule. In almost all countries which belonged to the Warsaw Pact and the COMECON, opinion polls were carried out from time to time for various reasons and often under the conditions of political liberalization, which followed protests, waves of strikes or uprisings.

In Czechoslovakia, pollsters swarmed out during the Prague Spring (Piekalkiewicz 1972). In Poland, a whole grassroots movement of sociologists who worked for state media gathered in the aftermath of the 1956 workers’ uprising in Poznań and established the first informal polling centre, which became the core of the later Centre for the Research of Public Opinion (Ośrodek Badań Opinii Publicznej, OBOP), one of the most productive and long-lasting polling institutions east of Berlin (Bachmann 2010, pp. 17–22.). Many of those centres came into being in order to conduct media research, or, more precisely, in order to investigate the reception of state media by their audiences. Obviously, it became more important for communist leaders how successful they were in shaping popular opinion but also ← 7 | 8 → to meet at least some of the expectations in terms of information and entertainment as voiced by media users. This was the case with OBOP, which started with the analysis of letters sent by radio listeners to the state broadcasting company, continued with opinion polls about radio programmes and later TV series and then, depending on the overall political atmosphere in the country, ventured to undertake polls about social conflicts and political issues. The IfM also started with media research, and investigations about the attractiveness of radio and TV programmes formed the basis of other opinion research projects in the German Democratic Repubic, too.

Many of the polls, analyses and reports produced by pollsters before 1989 fell into oblivion after Central and Eastern Europe underwent democratization during the early 1990s and was subsequently invaded by big international social research corporations who completed the professionalization that had started before. OBOP’s reports were partly accessible online—but hardly ever used for social or historical research after 1989. The records of its competitor, the Centre for Research on Social Opinion (Centrum Badań Opinii Społecznej, CBOS) which had been created in the early 1980s, are stored in the Archive of New Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych) in Warsaw, some old reports were published in a book (Badora 1994). In the case of East Germany, one of the most productive and professional institutes, the Central Institute for Youth Research Leipzig (Zentralinstitut für Jugendforschung), deposited its archive in the social science archival center GESIS, while the SED-Institute for Opinion Polling (IfM) was forced to have most of its surveys, questionnaires etc. destroyed by personal order of the General Secretary, Erich Honecker, in 1979. Only a handful of reports survived in archives and private attics. The West German institute Infratest stored its finished surveys and made it available for researchers after 1989.

Back in 2009 we were both working on monographs, which involved the analysis of old opinion polls from the time before 1990: Klaus Bachmann in a book about value changes and the construction of history in Poland between 1956 and 1989, and Jens Gieseke in a (not yet finished) study on East German popular opinion 1961 to 1989.

Independently of each other, we both realized that the old records constituted very interesting and rich sources for writing the everyday history of the GDR and communist Poland, since it allowed to draw conclusions about societal tendencies, the legitimacy of the political system, attitudes toward the government and the ruling party, value changes and reasons for protest (or the lack thereof), economic and social developments as well as social tensions, which never appeared in the regulated and censored media and have often been neglected by historians relying ← 8 | 9 → on the archival records of those who governed the country. Opposite to the latter accounts, the opinion polls give insights into the perspective of those who were governed, into their everyday problems, their attitudes toward propaganda, the media, political opposition and apolitical protest, order, law and social behaviour.1

Of course, our turn to this material as a source to open the “black box” of popular opinion in socialist dictatorships had to face an intense debate on the relationship between (Western) contemporary social sciences and their results on the one hand, and hindsight analysis by historians and political scientists on the other. Some historians argued that older sociological surveys tell almost nothing in terms of their empirical findings, but could be re-used only as a source for the analysis of contemporary political and academic concepts and representations of the respective society (cf. the debate in the Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte: Graf / Primel 2011; Dietz / Neumaier 2012; Pleinen / Rafael 2014). Indeed, it is necessary and useful to historicize major concepts like Inglehart’s “value change” (Inglehart 1971) by examining their ideological implications, preconceptions and functions in the contemporary public debate. This holds true for socialist social sciences and opinion polling even more, as it is practically impossible to understand and use their findings without a thorough reconstruction of the conditions and the mindsets of the actors who conducted them and those who received them as a source of information for shaping its policy. Moreover, in the case of the “closed” societies of the East, we cannot rely on an abundance of sources which give insight into opinion formation processes and value orientations, particularly on the macro level of public life. For these reasons, we acknowledge the state of debate on the historiography of knowledge regimes and transfer it to the study of communism, but at the same time, we try to draw a surplus of information from the actual results of pollsters and sociologists in their time. We believe that we have to understand the inner logics of such polls as a project to use them as a source. This double approach seems to be even more promising for us as quite a few of the pollsters are still working in the field and thus able to reflect on their former work. We are glad that some of them contributed articles to this volume. In the beginning, we only knew about the vast records available from the GDR and the Polish People’s Republic and had read a lot about the path-breaking work of Tatyana Zaslavskaya and others during the 1980s in the Soviet Union. We could only assume that similar material also existed in other countries. In 2011, we decided to gather a few colleagues from Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic ← 9 | 10 → and Russia and applied for a small grant at the Polish-German Science Foundation (Deutsch-Polnische Wissenschaftsstiftung) in Frankfurt/Oder, which we were finally granted in 2012. We also invited researchers from two other countries, which, if one looks at their geopolitical situation and legal status before 1990, were far from obvious partners for such a project: Serbia and Belarus, which both had formed part of a larger state before becoming independent. In the case of Serbia, we did so because most Yugoslavian opinion polls have being archived in Serbia, due to the fact that Belgrade had been the capital of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But there was another reason to include Serbia and Belarus in the project: in both countries, polls have been carried out under conditions similar to those that prevailed in Poland, the GDR and Czechoslovakia before 1989/90: There was censorship, direct or indirect state ownership of the media, lack of political pluralism, police repression and an authoritarian regime that posed the same constraints on polling as communist countries, even if the rule of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia is probably better described as a nationalist autocracy than as a communist or post-communist party dictatorship. In Belarus, censorship vanished and political pluralism dominated for a short time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, but then opponents to the increasingly autocratic and Soviet-nostalgic rule of Aleksandr Lukashenka were sidelined, marginalized and finally (especially after the 2010 protests) imprisoned. For this reason this book includes classic communist systems as well as “non-pluralist” post-communist countries. We believe that drawing lessons from these opinion polls can also help to understand and interpret the results of opinion polls in countries which lack pluralism and democracy, but cannot be regarded as totalitarian. And we believe that these conclusions from past polls, their limitations and their impact on decision-making (which, in some cases, is undisputable; cf. Dimitrov 2013) can be helpful in designing opinion research in such countries. This is now more relevant than ever, as Russia’s internal politics and the Kremlin’s grip on the media are pushing the country closer and closer to conditions similar to those in Belarus and Serbia during the late 1990s.

During our project, we were often confronted with incomprehension from our audiences in public presentations, but also from historians and political scientists, who doubted that archival records about opinion polls in non-democratic countries might be reliable and valid for purposes of historical research. More than once we heard: “These polls are fictions, the results were forged to please the government, they don’t tell anything about people’s actual opinions.” Others rejected the value of these sources by pointing to a paradox which also puzzled us initially: Why would anyone carry out polls in a situation where the results ← 10 | 11 → would not be of any use for anybody, if not in order to manipulate, rather than investigate, public opinion?

In the next few paragraphs, we will deal with both issues: Why were polls carried out when nobody seemed to need their results? And to which extent do the polling results depict the opinions of respondents in a similar way as they allegedly do under pluralist, democratic conditions?

Concerning the first issue, a number of factors can be determined, which all together led to a situation in which popular opinion research became a rational endeavour, against all the odds of communist societies. First, there were interested sociologists, often driven by professional curiosity, who wanted to apply new methods from the international scientific community, of which scholars in Eastern Europe were only partly isolated. Second, also the ruling political elite were interested, because they sought insights into societal moods, often in order to adopt social and economic policies to the expectations of the populace and sometimes also in order to pre-empt protests and riots.

Both of these functions became constitutive elements of post-Stalinist party regimes in Eastern Europe in their search for a new mode of rule, beyond the sheer use of force to establish their position (Dimitrov 2013). This interest generated a fragile equilibrium between the necessity of maintaining their “leading role” as a non-questionable expression of “historical laws” and adjusting their policies under the circumstances of system competition with the West. Thus, it matched with an interest of reform-oriented members of the establishment (especially during thaw periods) in popularizing and (in some cases) democratizing decision-making (or bring the decisions of the government closer to those who were governed) without formally establishing democratic elections. The latter factors played a role in Poland, in post-war and Prague-Spring Czechoslovakia and in Socialist Yugoslavia and Serbia, while the most conservative—and therefore least stable—conditions for opinion polling can be found in the USSR before Andropov, in the GDR and in post-communist Belarus.

Whereas polls in Poland were more or less being conducted with the government’s and party’s implicit or explicit consent during the 1960s and 70s, they were even directly ordered by the ruling military junta after 1981. Before the imposition of martial law in 1981, Poland’s rulers had tolerated polling, but neglected its practical use as an early warning system for political decision making. This changed dramatically after the introduction of martial law, when the new leadership not only ordered and analyzed polls from OBOP, but even created its own institute, CBOS, which was managed by an unorthodox confidant of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Stanislaw Kwiatkowski, whom many in the party leadership mistrusted ← 11 | 12 → because of his habit to confront them with unpleasant poll results, which often disproved mainstream assumptions in the upper echelons of the party and the military.2 In other words: After 1982, the ruling political establishment not only tolerated polls as a necessary evil or harmless academic entertainment, it strove to find out about the opinions of the country’s population in order to avoid the fate of Stanisław Gomułka and Edward Gierek, who had wasted the social confidence they had enjoyed at the beginning. Gomułka had lost his position after his decision to send the army against striking workers in 1970, Gierek had ignored opinion polls and macroeconomic data, indicating a decline in the economy and a rise in protest attitudes among the population, which had led to the rise of Solidarność during the early 1980s.

This was very different in the GDR, as the chapters by Michael Meyen, Hans Erxleben and Jens Gieseke demonstrate: Polls were conducted despite the leadership’s lack of confidence in social research methods. At the beginning, under Ulbricht, they were used as indicators of social trends, but during the late Honecker years, the party (and party leader Erich Honecker personally) did not want to know what worried the population and instead assumed to know the citizens’ problems better than any research could reveal. His almost complete denial to receive critical facts about the decrease of popular support for the party regime and to distribute them amongst politburo members led East German communism into a dead end situation.

The situation in Belarus differs not only when compared to Poland, but also with respect to the GDR. After the country became independent, polls could be carried out for a short time span until Aleksandr Lukashenka was able to strengthen his grip on the state institutions, strangle civil society and impose severe constraints on academic freedom. Since then, opinion polls are carried out by institutions close to the government, which also publish results, but do not reveal much about their methods and refrain from going public with information that could embarrass the government and the president. Their results also differ often from those established by independent pollsters, who mostly operate from Lithuania or Poland and work under very difficult conditions. Oleg Manaev, who heads one of these centres, presents some of those results in his chapter and shows that independent research tends to alienate and embarrass the political elite as well as the opposition, but enjoys considerable confidence within the population. ← 12 | 13 → There is not much doubt that the government of Belarus also uses polls as an early warning mechanism and a means to acquire knowledge for the sake of better control, which it does not share with the public. But most of the non-commercial polling in the country seems to be done against and despite, but not on behalf of the government.

Conducting opinion research under non-pluralist conditions may be rational for governments as well as for independent pollsters even if no elections are being held and if there is no market economy whose enterprises could use commercial opinion polls. But are the results of this research reliable and can they be compared to poll results from democratic societies with functional markets? Here, the answer is much more complex than the one concerning the rationality of polls.

As the comparison of polling conditions demonstrates, the issue of reliability from a scientific perspective depends on the objectives of those who commission the polls. In pluralist and democratic societies, the client of a research institute wants to get information about the relative strength of certain opinions among the population. This may also apply to autocratic, non-pluralist countries and even to dictatorships, where members of the ruling political establishment may intend to find out whether they still enjoy legitimacy or whether, for example, riots or uprisings against their rule are likely. In such a case, manipulations of polls or their results are unlikely from a rational perspective: the client will do everything to incline the contractor to carry out a poll with professional methods and will do everything to get unbiased and unmanipulated results, which enable him to adopt his policies. This is different in situations in which polls are likely to be used as instruments of an internal power struggle, for example by one faction in the ruling political establishment against another. In such a case, there may be a demand for biased polls or for manipulating the results, e. g. in order to show that members of the competing faction enjoy less popular legitimacy than members of the faction which commissioned the opinion poll. As the chapters about the GDR in this book show, the mere fear that polls might delegitimize powerful figures in the government may not only be a reason for manipulating poll results, but also for banning polls, interfering with the questionnaires or—in the case of the IfM—shutting down an institute. One must keep in mind that such manipulations are more likely in—though not entirely limited to—countries with non-democratic governments. One can easily imagine polls, commissioned by a political party, being manipulated by its leadership in order to delegitimize internal opponents. Under pluralist conditions, such attempts are only more likely to be revealed (by the press or researchers) than in a dictatorship, which may be a deterrent factor in itself. But in these cases, the difference between polling in democracies and ← 13 | 14 → polling in autocracies is a relative one rather than an absolute one: Polls can—but need not—be manipulated in both systems, and under both conditions they can be reliable. Whether respondents tell interviewers their real attitudes or falsify them depends, in both systems, on their relation to the interviewer, on the client of the poll and, if the latter can be identified by the respondent as close to the government, on the character of the questions: Those associated with uncomfortable consequences for the respondents’ lives usually trigger more evasive answers than those regarded as harmless and uncontroversial. However, this behaviour has been observed regardless of the fact whether the country is a democracy or not.

An actual difference between opinion polls in democracies and non-democratic countries consists in the use of polls and its consequences for preference formation. Those who commission polls in dictatorships and autocracies usually regard the results as exclusive knowledge for the sake of (governmental) control (Herrschaftswissen) which the wider public has no access to, even—or rather: especially—when the results are politically controversial. In democracies, political parties also tend to withhold, at their discretion, poll results about potential election outcomes and the attractiveness of their programme and their leaders in order to deprive competitors of such knowledge. However, there is no general ban on political opinion polls carried out by public or private institutions (or the pollsters themselves). In autocracies, poll results are either confidential or used in a selective, strategic way as some of the chapters about Poland show.

Paradoxically, the publicness of polling—or the lack thereof—has important consequences for its outcomes. Confidential opinion research deprives respondents of the opportunity to gather information about the majority opinion in their environment and in the country and thus makes it more difficult or even impossible to adopt one’s position to the mainstream. It renders effects of pluralistic ignorance more likely. Pluralistic ignorance is a concept from public opinion research, which describes a situation, in which members of a group erroneously identify an opinion as the majority opinion. In such a situation, a position, which is actually minoritarian, may be regarded as generally accepted and respondents adopt their individual position to it, thus creating a majority, which actually did not exist before (O’Gorman 1986; Biccieri / Yoashitaka 1999) and is the result of pluralistic ignorance. As Noelle-Neumann, Kuran and others have shown, this mechanism even influences legal change, for example when a law is adopted by parliament, which is generally—but erroneously—regarded as enjoying the support of a majority (Noelle-Neumann 1984; Kuran 1995).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Popular opinion Communism Eastern Europe Contemporary history
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 238 pp., 6 b/w ill., 31 tables

Biographical notes

Klaus Bachmann (Volume editor) Jens Gieseke (Volume editor)

Klaus Bachmann is Professor of Political Science at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, Poland. Jens Gieseke is Head of the department «Communism and Society» at the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam.


Title: The Silent Majority in Communist and Post-Communist States
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