Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Bowling Alone’ in Moscow: Civil Society in an Atomized Environment

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 22 – Seven years ago, only one Russian in six even knew what a civil society is; now one in four believes that Russia has one in place, Russian researchers say. But continuing low levels of interpersonal trust are limiting the creation of those formal and informal groups most scholars see as the defining feature of such societies.
In an article in today’s NG-Stsenarii, Elena Petrenko, research director at the Public Opinion Foundation and Galina Gardosel’skaya, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, discuss just “how firm” such groups in Russia are given the “atomization” of society there (www.ng.ru/scenario/2008-07-22/11_society.html?mpril).
Drawing from the work of Western scholars, Petrenko and Gardosel’skaya define civil society as “the combination of institutions, organizations and individuals [which] exists among families, the state and the market [and in which] its members freely unite on the basis of common interests.”
A key determination of whether individuals will combine with other individuals on the basis of their interests is interpersonal trust, they suggest. “In the 1990s, the destruction of state institutions and the reduction of truth to it led to a general lowering of trust in society,” a development that made Russia’s transition to a civil society all the more difficult.
Levels of interpersonal trust in Russia remain quite low, the sociologists say. One survey conducted earlier this year, for example, found that 78.1 percent of the sample said that one must be careful in dealing with others. Only 17.6 percent said that it is possible to trust the majority of people with whom one comes in contact.
Petrenko and Gardosel’skaya say that this explains why the formation of formal and informal institutions in Russia has been and continues to be slower than many had hoped and expected. But at the same time, they point out that “the processes of the lowering of trust in power structures has been extremely similar in Russia and the United States” over this period.
A 1997 Pew survey found that 56 percent of Americans do not trust the government, a level similar to that in Russia at the time. But now thanks to “the Putin phenomenon,” trust in the government among Russians is much higher, and that is having a spillover effect on Russian society as a whole.
The two Russian scholars point to Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community” which was published in 2000 as a possible model for how the recovery of trust in the Russian state may contribute to the rise of additional formal and informal groups and to a greater willingness of Russian citizens to participate in them.
Russia is starting at a much lower level than the one to which the United States had descended in Putnam’s work. Last fall, Petrenko and Gardosel’skaya note, only one in seven Russians declared a willingness to participate in social organizations as such, although somewhat higher percentages were willing to take part in some of them.
“Overcoming the psychological barrier of a negative attitude toward social work and increasing the level of trust in people involved in such activity can help [to promote] a concomitant [increase] in participation in public life,” the two say, and thus will promote the rise of a civil society.
And they note for Russia, as Putnam did for the United States, that small increases in such trust and hence the willingness to participate in formal and informal groups will tend to compound, with any trend up or down becoming ever more dramatic from what many would see initially marginal changes.
Petrenko and Gardosel’skaya’s article is intriguing, especially their comparison with the “Bowling alone” phenomenon in the United States. But there are two reasons for treating their conclusions with caution. On the one hand, the two scholars make the rise of the institutions of civil society almost entirely dependent on levels of trust in government alone.
And on the other, the levels of all kinds of interpersonal trust in Russia – a key element in the rise of civil society elsewhere -- were and remain much lower than they are in the US and other Western societies, even if roughly similar percentages of the citizens of these very different societies currently distrust their respective governments.

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