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The Meduza news outlet continues to be at the top of its game, and today it published an excellent piece by Andrey Pertsev and Maxim Solopov called ‘What Putin reads,’ with the subtitle ‘Vital policymaking in Russia relies on sociological research conducted by the Secret Service. Here’s how it works.’ It’s about the polling carried out by the Federal Protective Service, the FSO, which at first glance may seem an anomalous role for an agency mainly known for its Kremlin Regiment and the black-suited ‘bullet-catchers’ of Putin’s close security detail.

However, it reflects the FSO’s wider mission, a more holistic sense of quite what protecting the federal centre – and ‘the Body,’ Putin – entails, a product of previous FSO director Evgeny Murov. He was something of a legend in his circles, and not only kept the FSO more honest than, say, the FSB (please note, that hardly means wholly uncorrupt) but also became what in some ways was Putin’s unofficial national security adviser, in the sense of the relatively loyal, well-informed figure who could and would warn the boss when some of what the other security agencies were telling him deserved greater scepticism. His retirement in 2016 and replacement with General Dmitry Kochnev – a perfectly competent protection officer, but not a figure with the same weight of experience and reputation – did reduce the FSO’s clout but above all deprive the system of this informal check and balance. Now the only real national security adviser in the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, the hawk’s hawk, whom I recently described as “the most dangerous man in Russia.”

Every day, the FSO – like the FSB and SVR – provides Putin with an intelligence brief, although in their case largely on what’s going on within the elite. However, their massive network of polling, part of their wider mission to monitor potential risks to the stability and security of the state, also feeds not just into these briefings but their and the Presidential Administration’s general work.

To this end, Pertsev and Sopolov do an excellent job of exploring not just how this is done, but what biases appear in the FSO’s polls.

“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.”

I thought this was especially interesting, especially when combined with examples of their political impact (such as in convincing Putin that lockdown needed to be eased to placate the public). I had heard several anecdotes and indications about this polling, but not this clear assessment of the bias. Given that the FSO surveys do tend to be taken seriously in the Kremlin, this tendency to focus on the threats is especially important given Putin’s own risk-averse nature. In theory, they could be spun as evidence of reasons for a change in policy, but my suspicion is that they will instead only reinforce the essentially conservative nature of the regime: change is destabilising, change is scary.