Russia’s DNA: “Lack of Trust”

Note: This is the second in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’  The first essay ‘Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion’ explains the background for this series.

Just Ask the Russians

Recently a poll was taken that included this question: “Would you trust a stranger on a train to look after your bag while you use the toilet?” Probably not, if you are Russian. Seventy per cent of the people who were interviewed in Russia said “No, you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” Only twenty-five per cent agreed with the statement that “generally most people can be trusted.”

One Russian analyst noted that “when institutions are good, you do not need mutual trust that much” because people know that their agreements are secure and pledges will be enforced. “Our institutions,” she said, “such as the judicial system, are horrible, so we need trust, but trust is nowhere to be found.” In a recent study of Eastern European countries, Russia was one of only two nations where more people said they did not trust “most people in this country” than said they did.

The leaders of SEN, an organization that works with young people in post-Communist Eastern Europe, have observed that the greatest victims of Communism were trust, hope, and the belief in truth. I can confirm this insight based on my years of working in Russia.

The Public/Private Dichotomy

Many foreigners who travel in Russia, especially those from the West, immediately notice the lack of warmth or friendliness on Russian streets. In the Metro, no one talks with strangers. There is little “small talk.” When taking a Russian language class, I asked the tutor which Russian greetings I would use when speaking with a stranger. The tutor looked at me in disbelief and said “Why would you greet someone you don’t know?”

Yet, once you make a friend in Russia, the warmth and cordiality of this friendship is often remarkable. Russian hospitality among friends is extraordinary. Even poor Russians will go to great lengths to host friends, spending money that they can’t afford to spend so that their guests are treated well. In the immediate circles of families and close friends, there is great warmth and trust, but once you move beyond this close-knit circle, there is little trust or willingness to confide in “outsiders.”

This public/private dichotomy has been present in Russia for centuries, and Russian literature is full of illustrations of this dimension of life under the Romanovs as well as in the Soviet period. The ever present secret police accentuated this behavior, because every neighbor was assumed to be an informer. The result is a “closed communication society” in which people developed these characteristics to protect themselves from the “authorities.” This social order persists today and this has impeded public activism and civic engagement. A profound “horizontal” and “vertical” distrust exists at all levels throughout Russia.

The Soviet Legacy

As Francis Fuyukama pointed out in his book, Trust: The Social Virtues & The Creation of Prosperity, culture involves ethical habits and habits change very slowly – much more slowly than ideas. Communism created many habits, such as excessive dependence on the state, which lead to an absence of entrepreneurial energy, an inability to compromise, and a disinclination to cooperate voluntarily in local groups.

One of the most devastating consequences of Marxism-Leninism was the thorough destruction of civil society. The ruling Communist Party elites deliberately set out to destroy all possible competitors to its power, from the “commanding heights” of the economy down to local farms, small businesses, unions, churches, newspapers and voluntary associations. This obliteration, after centuries of absolutism rule by the Romanovs, was of great significance because it created a “missing middle” in Russian society – the complete absence of strong, cohesive intermediate associations. There was the Soviet state, which was very powerful, and many atomized individuals and families with little in between. All of this contributed to the loss of trust.

The Rebuilding Process

Trust creates social capital. A healthy market economy is one in which there is sufficient social capital in society to permit businesses, corporations, and networks to be self-organizing. Without this capability, the state steps in to promote key firms owned by its ruling elites. The same self-organizing capability is needed to rebuild the political life of post-Communist societies, but private companies and political parties are weak in Russia and Eastern Europe because of this legacy. Elections are often based on the personalities of the candidates rather than coherent political programs. Rebuilding trust both vertically and horizontally is a necessary pre-condition to the construction of a dynamic, vibrant society and an expanding economy that benefits the entire nation, not just the elites.