Baku, February 2 – Various Russian government agencies – from the FSB to the police to the taxation authorities – have opened public hotlines in recent years, but these channels are having a very different and far more negative impact on Russian life than outwardly similar telephone access numbers in Western countries.
Instead of serving as yet another link between the population and its government as is the case in Europe and the United States, in Russia, these phone lines are leading ever more people to denounce more often than not falsely their neighbors, atomizing Russian society and thus slowing the rise of civil society.
Indeed, Russian experts told Novyye izvestiya last week, these hotlines are thus reinforcing rather than overcoming a notorious aspect of the Soviet system, one often associated with the name of Communist Party hero Pavlik Morozov, who turned in his parents and then was killed by their relatives (http://www.newizv.ru/print/83631).
Exact statistics on the number of calls on these hotlines or on the percentage of them containing patently false charges are difficult to come by – Moscow does not keep or at least release such data -- but one indication of both was provided by Nikolai Kartashov, a spokesman for the federal taxation inspectorate.
He told the Moscow paper that last year, 22,000 people used his agency’s hotline. As required by law, officials there looked into every charge callers had made, but the agency opened only a few more than 1,000 criminal cases and “approximately” 2,000 administrative ones.
Those statistics suggest that fewer than one in six of the calls led to charges, a share that almost certainly means the thousands of calls now made to Russian hotlines – and the paper said their number had doubled or tripled in recent years – include many false accusations, with impact that inevitably has on social cohesion.
Yevgeny Gontmakher, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Economics, explained why. As far as denunciations go, he said, Russian society is in a “transitional” period. On the one hand, many Russians have not yet overcome the Soviet indoctrination they received on the virtues of informing on others.
And on the other, the changes in the economy mean that they may have even more opportunities to do so. Now, Russians “complain about a neighbor who has rented his apartment without informing the tax inspectorate not because 20 Gastarbeiter or noisy students live there.”
They do so instead because “they envy [their neighbors’] extra source of income,” Gontmakher said. And they will continue to feel “a stimulus to inform” on those around them, he argued, until the Russian middle class grows to “50 percent of the population and not 20 percent as now.”
In this way, Anna Kartashova, a Moscow psychologist said, the hotlines in and of themselves will continue to produce “contemporary Pavlik Morozovs.” She said that there are always people who are certain that they alone are good and that everyone around them is evil and deserves to be denounced.
“Typically,” this group consists of “middle aged men who understand that they have not achieved much.” Younger people, she added, are less inclined to phone in denunciations, but more of them will follow in their footsteps if their elders who do so are rewarded – and especially if those who make false accusations are not punished.
Like their Western counterparts, Russian officials insist that they need to involve the population in order to prevent terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice. But Kartashova suggested that there is a big difference between the situation in most foreign countries and the one in Russia.
“Foreigners,” she said, “view their government as a friend, while we see it as an enemy that does not defend us and with which we must constantly struggle.” As a result, Russians are more inclined to turn in false reports than are those elsewhere, even if such Russian reports will waste the government’s time or damage other Russians.
Soviet-era laws against false denunciations are still on the books in the Russian Federation, Novyye izvestiya reported. But they are seldom enforced because it is difficult if not impossible to prove intent if the person who has made the charge insists that he sincerely believed what he reported.
However that may be, there is one obvious lesson both Russians and outsiders should draw from this impact of hotlines in that country: any incautious importing of even the most seemingly neutral procedures may have exactly the opposite impact on Russia compared to what those urging Russians to use it say they want.