Martin Dewhirst on trust, distrust and human rights

4 March 2012

A note a propos of a conference held in London on 17-18 February, 2012 

By Martin Dewhirst

The connection – albeit indirect – between the state of human rights in a country and the degree of trust and distrust among the population of that country may not be immediately obvious, but it seems to be very strong. The UK and the USA have traditionally been regarded as ‘high-trust’ societies, although few would deny that the level of trust in both these countries has fallen dramatically – perhaps even melodramatically – during the last half-century. Russia was and is said to be a traditionally ‘low-trust’ society, where many people initially tended and still tend to distrust people until there is good reason to consider some of them to be trustworthy. This generalisation may appear to be incorrect if one thinks of the adulation unreservedly and undeservedly accorded by so many people (but of course, not only by Russians) to people like Lenin, Stalin and Putin, whose personality cults were more widely perceived to be fraudulent (to put it mildly) only when it was too late to repair the damage these people had done. One might perhaps try to explain this dangerous phenomenon as overcompensation for the widespread lack of trust in most of one’s fellow-citizens, whether in pre-Soviet, Soviet or neo-Soviet Russia.

Despite the proclaimed ‘presumption of innocence’ in today’s Russia, the legal system there still has a distinct obvinitel’ny uklon, a tendency to assume that a detained or arrested suspect – unless, of course, (s)he has strong family, clan or other connections with the current Establishment – is much more likely in due course to be found guilty than not guilty. Acquittals during the pre-trial investigation are relatively few, and for many inmates what they experience after being sentenced is not as grim as what they went through before they were eventually brought to court.

One worrying tendency is that trust in 21st-century Russia (as well as in the UK and the USA) seems to be on the decline - perhaps, in the Russian case, as a result of Putin the lawyer’s preference for the ‘dictatorship of law’ rather than the ‘rule’ or ‘supremacy’ of law. Towards the end of last year the weekly Ogonek published some interesting materials shedding light on this trend. Boris Dubin of the Levada Institute claims that ‘in no other country in the world is there such a level of fear of and distrust in other people. Over 70% of the adult population of Russia is sure that it’s impossible (nel’zya) to trust other people’. For younger people the percentage is not much lower (No. 40, 10/10/2011, pp. 10-11). Trust in Russian institutions is also not only low but on the decline, according to RomirGallup International. Trust in the government went down from 14% in 2004 to 11% in 2011. Trust in the army sank from 10% to 8% over the same period. Trust in the law enforcement agencies declined from 7% to 4% during this time, and trust in the president/presidency dropped from 59% in 2004 to 20% in 2011. The only stable institution, so far as trust is concerned, is the church, at 13% in both years. 37% of those polled don’t trust anyone at all (No. 41, 17/10/2011, p. 8). Not surprisingly, even some non-Russians have learnt the phrase doveryai, no proveryai (trust, but do plenty of due diligence) when dealing with Russia (although this maxim does not seem to have been applied by those Americans involved in the notorious ‘reset’). The root of both these Russian verbs is vera, faith, belief, which the poet and seasoned diplomat Tyutchev mistakenly or provocatively suggested should be applied when trying to deal with Russia, rather than relying on reason, knowledge and understanding. One should not forget that one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, set up by Soviet GPU intelligence experts mainly in France in the 1920s, was called Trest (Trust)!

Most if not all of the papers presented at the recent conference in London are due to be published in the Slavonic and East European Review, so watch that periodical! Among the aspects discussed are the following:

    Is it valid to talk about ‘forced trust’ in the USSR?

    How much light do letters sent to Soviet institutions, journals and well-known individuals shed on the trust in which they were held by the population?

    Regarding personnel problems, especially during the second half of the 1930s, were there any consistent criteria (and if so, what were they?) for appointments, dismissals and rejections?

    How greatly did trust change in Russia after Stalin’s death in 1953?

    To what extent did fear of losing the regime’s trust (and therefore one’s privileges) impact on the behaviour of those who enjoyed such trust?

    Was Leningrad different from Moscow, so far as the degree of trust and trustworthiness were concerned?

For me as an observer, this conference was an eye-opener that revealed whole new vistas to which I – and, probably, many others - had devoted far too little attention in the past. An excellent starting point for making up for lost time and studying the role that trust plays in all economically advanced countries is Geoffrey Hosking’s concise and clearly written Trust: Money, Markets and Society, London, etc., Seagull Books, 2010, £9.50. Essential reading! 

Martin Dewhirst lectured on Russian literature and history at the University of Glasgow from 1964 until 2000. He is an expert on Russian Samizdat and on the Tsarist, Soviet and neoSoviet systems of censorship. Of late he has been working to improve the conditions in which people deprived of liberty in Russia are held.