Russia: A Culture of Mistrust

You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment unless you trust enough.  ~Frank Crane

Today, I passed a bank, prominently displaying the following advertisement:

For one thing, I have always loved figure skating.  The “death spiral” one of the most breathtaking moves, no doubt.  But there’s another reason this ad grabbed my attention.  It’s the fact that I am not a big fan of доверие: trust.

I don’t really trust myself all that much sometimes.  I’m clumsy and scatterbrained.  Before I leave a place, I check a thousand times to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.  And yet, somehow, I still managed to leave my camera at the theater this weekend.  I stopped by the next day hoping someone had found it, but I was unfortunately not so lucky.  Although it’s in no way productive, I’ve been beating myself up all week for being so careless and irresponsible.

By the same token, I don’t really trust other people.  I think friendship, for one thing, is to be earned.  And when dealing with strangers, I usually assume the worst.  I very rarely reciprocate when passersby engage in conversation with me, no matter how harmless they may appear.  Perhaps it’s a pessimistic outlook, but frankly, if I don’t watch out for myself, who will?

I think that this is a huge part of the reason I’ve assimilated so flawlessly into my new life here.  I learned in a politics class that Russia is known for a “culture of mistrust”— a self-perpetuating cycle that breeds defensive behavior.  For example, whereas business deals are done on a handshake in the United States, Russian transactions require some sort of contingency.  There has to be some logical motive for the opposite party to follow through on his end of the bargain.  Without this cushion, the situation essentially mimics the adage, “Do unto others before they to you.”  Since I have never been one to trust people in the United States, the inability to trust people here has not been much of a disappointment.

In a lot of ways, I think I’m surprised how much I have been able to trust here overall.  On the marshutkas (communal taxi-cabs), I hand my money to the passengers closest to the driver.  They then pass it on to the driver, who is simultaneously making change, driving, and talking on his cell phone.  I can’t believe that a people so mistrustful are so comfortable passing money around like that, and even allowing clearly distracted drivers to deliver them safely to their destination.  At school, I can tell I am lightening up a lot.  I know I can leave my backpack in the гостиная for days without anyone touching it.  I can even leave my laptop unattended—something that wouldn’t even cross my mind at Georgetown.

I think I’m still pretty rational about how I dole out my trust, and probably overly so.  But it’s nice to know that, precisely because you expect the worst in people, you just might wind up pleasantly surprised after all.

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