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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Putin Regime Murders not only People, but Trust itself

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Georgy Bovt, editor of Profil magazine, explains how the Putin regime has murdered trust in Russia:

Many foreigners visiting Russian cities for the first time, and Moscow in particular, notice immediately that Russians are more likely to wear gloomy, weary or serious expressions than affable, smiling or open ones. It immediately gives the impression that Russians are rather severe.

I noticed this myself long ago: The first reaction to any stranger is usually a wary one. I have noticed, however, that a friendly "hello!" can often melt the ice.

This doesn't, however, signal the beginning of a social revolution, and you shouldn't expect the usually gloomy bank clerks or stressed-out ticket sellers in the metro to return the greeting.

All the same, if your "hello" is accompanied by a polite-but-restrained smile, it will likely have a disarming effect upon your interlocutor. (Note the importance of restraint here. If your smile is too big, you will be suspected of being either a flirt or a full-blown idiot). Your little greeting might even engender a sincere desire to help, rather than the common curt response, or worse, no response at all.

These observations have something to say about attitudes toward public space and deportment. The norms have already ceased to be Soviet in many aspects, but the social order forming out of the ruins of the past seems rather unattractive, and at times less humane.

Last week, the Public Chamber published a curious report on the theme of civil society. This was the first report of its type issued by that organization and, as you might expect, it is free of criticism of the government. As such, I found the section dealing with nongovernmental organizations less interesting than the included polling data relating to a number of different parameters.

The report's most striking conclusion was that people have an almost complete lack of trust in one another. Between 1991 and 2006, the number of respondents who said other people could be trusted dropped from 41 percent to 22 percent. The number who said they were "wary" of others was an alarming 74 percent. Asked "Where would you look for help in the event of a serious problem?" 83 percent answered "immediate relatives." Four percent said they would turn to an NGO, while only a slightly larger number said they would turn to a government agency.

When asked to identify the "human rights that are the most important for Russians," the overwhelming majority answered along more Soviet-era, paternalistic lines, with 76 percent citing the right to be cared for in illness and old age and 64 percent citing the right to free education. Only 20 percent chose freedom of access to information, 16 percent cited the right to elect those who will occupy positions of authority and just 28 percent chose freedom of speech. This clearly illustrates the struggle for individualistic against paternalistic values. Even though the number of respondents choosing freedom of speech has risen gradually in recent years, new values are still having difficulty gaining ground.

The general emotional backdrop against which this process is taking place does not offer reason for optimism, although 63 percent of Russians did say they were satisfied with their lives. But when asked which feeling was strongest among those around them at present, only 34 percent chose "hope," 16 percent answered "self-respect," and just 15 percent chose "confidence in the future." When allowed to choose multiple answers, respondents indicated such feelings as "shame at what is happening today" (18 percent), "shame for my people" (33 percent) and "weariness and indifference" (33 percent).

So, despite the bad news, there do seem to be some reasons for more people to start smiling. Now all we need to do is find a way to increase the general level of trust in society and, consequently, the number of smiling people we encounter on the street.

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