Translation: It’s All Personal

Russians don’t trust their friends much. But they trust strangers and the state even less, so personal relations predominate in the economy at the expense of clubs, communities, and institutions. Sociologist Pavel Stepantsov paints a bleak picture of Russian society for Vedomosti.

Everything Revolves around Personal Relations

Many of the games we play, and that are studied by sociologists, are built on this phenomenon called trust. Which currency do you keep your savings in? How many people are willing to lend you a small amount of money in an emergency? What is the latest hour at which you feel safe in walking home? How prepared are you to vouch for your friends when they are trying to get a job? All of these mundane and at first glance insignificant questions, not directly related to each other, can nonetheless exert substantial influence on economic and social life.

According to the World Values Survey (WVS) and the study “Eurobarometer in Russia”, conducted by the Center for Sociological Research of the Russian Academy of National Economy in 2012 (directors – Victor Vakhshtayn, Pavel Stepantsov), the level of interpersonal trust in Russia is 1.5-2 times lower than in Western Europe and the US.

In general, Russians are less willing to trust each other than in most developed countries (with the exception of France and Spain). However, levels of trust aren’t evenly distributed within Russia. The lowest rates are to be found in the big cities. And in Moscow, less than 1% of the population believes that people in general – regardless of whether they are acquaintances or not – can be trusted. This is the lowest figure in all Russia.

In general, the Russian people are willing to trust each other less than in most industrialized countries (except France and Spain). However, in Russia the level of trust is unevenly distributed. It reaches the lowest rate in the cities. In Moscow, less than 1% of the population believes that people in general (regardless of whether they are aware or not) can be trusted. This is the lowest figure for the whole of Russia.

There are three basic levels of trust:

First, there is personal trust. This is trust towards a specific person or group of people (usually, friends).

Second, there is generic trust. This doesn’t involve trusting specific people, but to a generalized “Other,” a stranger, whom one could potentially meet in some place or some social situation.

Third, there is institutional trust. This is trust not in people, but in institutions. For instance, trust in educational institutions (schools, universities), in public authorities, the Church, the media, etc.

Paradoxically, despite these low levels of personal trust in Russia, it is these interpersonal relations that constitute the main basis of social life. Today, the weakest category is the second one, that of “generic trust.” Three quarters of the population are distrustful of and suspicious towards strangers. Low levels of generic trust are to be found in big cities and in small, economically depressed settlements. The lowest levels of generic trust are seen in urban-type settlements, created in the USSR around town-forming enterprises, which closed down in the 1990s. Levels of mistrust towards strangers there approaches 100%.

In a vacuum of generic and institutional trust, most social relations are built solely on personal relationships. The country’s inhabitants predominantly trust in their friends and acquaintances. It is specifically personal relations (and not social institutions), which are based on high levels of personal trust, that constitute people’s main helpline in emergency situations. When money is urgently needed, 44% of the Russian population would prefer to borrow from their friends and relatives, whereas only 16% would apply to the bank for a loan. In the course of three days, the average Russian can gather 75,000 rubles {Translator≈ $2,500} from his friends and relatives. The country’s denizens are also actively prepared to help their acquaintances should they fall into a difficult situation: 42% of Russians regularly give money in debt to their friends and acquaintances. The main pillar of these relations is personal trust – people are confident that their money will be given back. Institutional resources – receipts, etc. – are almost never involved. Furthermore, the presence of a large number of friends and acquaintances whom one can trust greatly increases people’s levels of happiness. Those who have more friends and acquaintances whom they can rely on are, on average, 15%-20% happier.

It is thus possible to identify the main determinants of the choice between personal and institutional trust. Those social groups that have wider social networks and who can rely more on their friends and acquaintances will base their strategies on personal trust. To the contrary, institutional trust would sooner become significant when there is a deficit of personal trust.

Russians tend to have exceptionally broad social networks. On average, they include 25-30 active contacts, which rises to 40-60 contacts for the 25% most socially active Russians. It is precisely the latter part of the population that least trust institutions, including state institutions. The life strategies of these people are based on building a dense network of contacts related both to business relations, and to personal relations. Only a very small group of Russians, less than 15% of the population, has less than 10 active social contacts. As a result, the institutional environment and institutional trust becomes a significant resource for them.

In this way, the choice of behavioral strategies – institutional or extra-institutional – is to a large extent determined by the nature of trust-based relations. Wide social networks almost automatically leads to the primacy of personal trust in the formation of individual economic strategies. Institutional trust works as a compensatory mechanism (people who apply for micro-credits are those who lack a sufficiently wide networks of friends and acquaintances).

As a result, there arises a paradoxical situation. Despite the fact that levels of interpersonal trust in Russia are among the lowest in Europe, Russians are nonetheless more likely to rely on personal relationships when forming their strategies of economic behavior. This is due to the crisis of institutional and generic trust. Even though people in Russia on the whole mistrust each other, personal relations remain the key node on which relations in the economic sphere – and not only the economic sphere – are built.

This state of affairs, however, isn’t unique to Russia. There’s the phenomenon of the “Chinese economy”: In countries where traditional ties, big families, and high levels of familial solidarity remain prevalent, the population prefers not to go to official institutions for loans; there’s no point, since social capital is easily convertible into financial. In Russia, however, none of the above conditions applies – here, personal relations aren’t founded on the institutions of traditional society.

Curiously, the reliance on existing personal ties is but one of several possible “defense mechanisms” that can compensate for a crisis of institutional trust in society. New “instances of solidarity” can serve as alternatives: Clubs, associations, local and professional communities. If anything, however, the situation with clubs and communities in Russia is even worse. It is for this reason that personal relationships play the compensatory function here, despite the relatively high levels of mistrust between people.

The author is a senior researcher at the Center for Sociological Research of the Russian Academy of National Economy and the leading analyst of “Eurobarometer in Russia.”


  1. Russians don’t move much from their place of birth; hence the large social networks. It can be tougher in Russia moving to a new city after your education has finished than in a country which has functioning social networks like churches.