Two of five Russians say they favor a strong leader to solve their nation's problems, while a thin majority endorses the democratic process, according to a Times Mirror poll taken before Monday's coup by Soviet hard-liners in Moscow.
But the 51% who chose democracy over authoritarianism in the May survey are mostly younger, better-educated Russians living in Moscow, Leningrad and other major cities of the largest republic in the Soviet Union. Street demonstrations in those cities could influence the eventual outcome of the coup that deposed Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The poll shows that the Russian people broadly support the political and economic changes that have occurred in their country, even though they gave Gorbachev, the principal author of the changes, an approval rating of only 27%.
The slim support for democracy in the poll, whose results were released Monday, contrasts with the historic inclination of Russians to demonstrate subservience to authority and to yearn for a strong leader in times of trouble. Thus, the coup sets the stage for possible clashes between these polarized forces.
Few Russians saw a coup coming, the poll found. Fewer than one in five said that they feared political liberalization would stop or that political repression was coming. But most recognized that internal strife was a greater danger than a foreign threat, and they put civil war highest on their agenda of fears after economic concerns, according to the poll.
The poll, part of a survey of attitudes and values across the European continent, was conducted in both Russia and the Ukraine in May by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. The survey of 1,123 Russians has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. A similar poll of 586 Ukrainians has a higher margin of error of 6 percentage points because the sample size was smaller.
Ukrainians, in contrast to Russians, expressed more support for democracy and economic reforms; a higher proportion seek independence for their republic. But fewer of them (30%) wanted a strong leader to solve their problems than Russians (39%).
The pollsters said one of their most important findings involved an apparent change in attitude. More than one-third of Russians, and slightly more Ukrainians, said the political and economic reforms have had a good influence on "how I think about things."
But Russians and Ukrainians clearly do not like some of the effects. They seem to blame the changes for rising crime, for example, with four of five saying that the changes have been detrimental to law and order.
In other major poll findings:
* Russians appear dubious about the KGB and the Red Army, two security organizations involved in Monday's coup. In the May survey, they were divided in their assessment of the KGB's influence on the country: 29% said good, 25% bad and 30% said they "don't know" when questioned on this sensitive issue. On the Red Army, they were 45% favorable, 25% unfavorable and 12% undecided. The higher "don't know" rate for the KGB suggests that its power is still feared.
* Russians place their faith more in the government of the Russian republic than in any Soviet institutions, including the Red Army. More than 45% said they could rely most on republic authorities; 27% said they would rely most on "central authorities." Only 6% said they would rely most on the Soviet army; a minuscule 1% cited the KGB.
* The Communist Party received a huge no-confidence vote. Fully 35% said that they would rely least on the party to deal with problems facing the country.
* Most Russians who are against democracy favor a strong leader. Specifically, among those who disapproved of a multi-party system, 62% said that they favor a strong leader to solve the nation's problems.
* In Moscow and Leningrad, the two biggest cities, 67% favored the change to democratic pluralism, compared to 47% in the rural areas. The youth are particularly enthusiastic, with 75% of those 25 years and younger favoring a multi-party system.
Two of three Russians expressed strong support for independence for their republic, including greater freedom for its economy and resources from Soviet authorities.
But roughly the same proportion also want Russia to remain part of the larger Soviet Union under the kind of treaty that was to have been signed today in Moscow by at least nine of the 15 Soviet republics. The treaty signing ceremony was believed to have been a key factor in the timing of the anti-Gorbachev coup.
Backing for democracy appears greater among supporters of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin (73%) than among Gorbachev supporters (54%), the survey found. Support for a free-market economy also is higher among Yeltsin supporters than Gorbachev backers, but by a smaller margin (61% and 52%, respectively).
Political changes appear more popular than economic changes, in both Russia and the Ukraine. More than 60% of Russians and 72% of Ukrainians favor moves toward democracy; the level of support for economic changes is 54% and 53%, respectively.
But the antagonism of Communists to both political and economic changes remains strong. Only one in three Russians who back the Communist Party approve of the changes, the poll found.
What Soviet Citizens Think
These questions were asked of 1,123 Russians and 586 Ukrainians in May by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. Q. Some people feel we should rely on a democratic form of government to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your opinion? Russia No Opinion: 10% Strong Leader: 39% Democratic Government: 51%
Ukraine No Opinion: 13% Strong Leader: 30% Democratic Government: 57% Q. Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the efforts to establish a multi-party system in our country?Russia Don't Know: 14% Disapprove: 26% Approve: 60%
Ukraine Don't Know: 10% Disapprove: 18% Approve: 72% Q. Overall, do you approve or disapprove of efforts to establish a free-market economy in Russia/Ukraine? Russia Don't Know: 13% Disapprove: 33% Approve: 54%
Ukraine Don't Know: 13% Disapprove: 34% Approve: 53%