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Regular version of the site

Trust in Mask

How COVID-19 has changed the attitude of Russians to each other


As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the whole country ended up in self-isolation, some people have to ask for support, others prepare themselves in readiness to provide it. Have Russians felt more cautious in recent months, or do people who have been forced to stay at home still remember how to trust and help? In order to find the answers to these questions, we can analyse the data from a new all-Russian survey conducted by HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector. Irina Mersiyanova, the Centre Director, presented the results of the survey during an online discussion.

We Keep Distance

From April 1st to May 3rd 2020, as part of the Monitoring the Status of Civil Society project, HSE sociologists conducted 2012 telephone interviews with a representative sample of Russian citizens. They examined the residents’ level of trust, and their readiness to come together and help victims of ‘pandemic’ restrictions.

The results might seem paradoxical. The share of people who believe that most people can be trusted has increased since 2019 (from 23% to 26%), while, at the same time, about 30% of the respondents believe that over the past month the level of trust between Russians has decreased.
In this case, we are talking about the so-called trust at a long social distance, or generalized trust. It was measured by answering a question on whether a person is ready to trust the majority of people in general or believes that we need to be cautious with most people.

Trust at a long social distance

% of those who chose the answer ‘most people can be trusted’

Dynamics of people's trust in each other

‘Do you feel that people's trust in each other has increased, decreased, or remained the same over the past month?’

The second distance refers to people close to us. The question is the same, but is asking about our attitude to those whom we know personally. In this situation, 75% of respondents trust each other. But the paradox remains: 75% is an increase compared to 2019 (67%), but over the past month, almost one in four of the respondents has become more cautious towards strangers around them.

Trust in people at a close social distance

% of those, who chose the option ‘most people can be trusted’

Attitude to strangers

‘Over the past month, has your attitude towards strangers around you become more cautious, less cautious, or remained the same?’

Reasonable Anxiety

So, has the trust leveled up, or has the coronavirus put a mask of caution on us? Sociologists don’t see a paradox in these results. According to Irina Mersiyanova, generalized trust belongs to the category of basic values, and these do not change quickly. We can't expect something to happen today and trust to collapse overnight. Therefore, the fundamental indicator of 26% trusting the majority has not decreased, while the temporary assessment of the situation over the past month turned pessimistic.

Subjectively, we have become less trusting and more cautious. This is an alarming signal, but it’s also reasonable in the current situation.

‘It seems to me,’ says Elena Topoleva - Soldunova,   Director of the  Agency  for  Social Information, that this is caused by the fear we currently have that infected people are walking around, and that not everyone is behaving responsibly, we can see a lot of COVID dissidents who are unwilling to comply with seemingly obvious requirements. I would be surprised if this has not affected the data over the last month of the pandemic.’

Setting up to Help

A fairly low generalized trust (23-26% - this is a sign of recent years, in 2007-2013 it was mostly 17-18%) does not negate the willingness of people to help each other. Moreover, this level is quite high and passes the crisis test.

According to the results of the survey, more than 60% are prepared to help strangers who find themselves in self-isolation, to solve everyday problems and provide them with money, goods, and personal interaction. One in four (26%) has already had this experience.

‘Every fourth person is not a lot and not a little, it's just a fact,’ states Irina Mersiyanova. ‘It's good that it’s only one in four. This means that there are no failings among the institutions that are supposed to provide this assistance, so people are not completely relying on informal relationships.’

Willingness to support self-isolated neighbors is also high: 88% are ready to buy them food, and 83% to take out the rubbish.

Moreover, trust at a long social distance does not particularly affect these attitudes: the number of those who agree is almost the same among both those who trust the majority and those who are more cautious. The situation is different in the case of short social distance: those who trust others among people close to them are more ready to take out garbage and deliver food.

From Numbers to Life

Does a person trust someone and therefore offer help? Or does he/she help and then later begin to trust? It’s a question without an answer. ‘There is no correlation between the level of trust and involvement in civil society practices. It is not just us who have failed to establish it, it has not been proven by anyone,’ Irina Mersiyanova notes.

‘It is not clear what connects the level of trust and readiness to act,’ says Maria Chertok, Director of the Foundation for the Support and Development of Philanthropy "KAF" in Russia. ‘It may not exist at all, because at our level of trust, everyone should stay in their apartments and stay put. But there is a gap between real life and statistics for the better.’

KAF is the Russian coordinator of the international charity project #GivingTuesday. Usually the campaign is held at the end of the year, but demand for assistance during the pandemic forced them to shift their calendar. As a result, on May 5, more than 200 charity campaigns and a ‘Thank you’ flash mob, during which you could thank anyone you want: an NGO, a doctor, a neighbor, etc. were held in Moscow and the regions.

The online format of events limited activity somewhat, but these restrictions did not obscure the main thing — ‘almost spontaneous displays of participation, solidarity, kindness and generosity’, which, according to KAF Director, do not just happen, but instead, show that Russians are used to it.

Money Problem

‘People are ready to help and this is really noticeable,’ comments Elena Topoleva-Soldunova. ‘But how? Taking out the rubbish is one thing, but giving money is another. The number of those who help with money is continuing to decrease. This is what we hear from, for example, the representatives of the ‘All together’ Association of Funds—in their organizations donations have decreased by an average of 30 percent.’

On the other hand, representatives of the Fund ‘Help Needed’, which resumed the campaign ‘A Rouble a Day’, note that the number of people donating small amounts of money hasn’t decreased and has even grown. According to Elena Topoleva-Soldunova, this fact correlates with what HSE sociologists have found.

75% of Russians trust the majority among their close circle, and they are much more likely to help. ‘Both attitudes, the desire to trust and willingness to help,are gradually being established in society, and people continue to support others to the extent that they now believe is safe for the stability of their family,’ the expert states.

At the same time, the question of the dynamics of cash inflow remains open. Irina Mersiyanova is sure that there is more potential. Monitoring studies show that half of Russians prefer to donate things and products, but almost 25% are ready to give money gratis, and 14% to lend it.

Voluntarily and Collectively

‘The pandemic has some positives: the idea of volunteering has gone mainstream, there are a lot of volunteers, and people have noticed them,’ says Maria Chertok. The research data confirms this.
The majority (76%) of the population believe that public services should help in a situation of self-isolation, but only 23% notice this practical help, while volunteering is becoming more and more important in the minds of the public.

In mid-April, 36% of people surveyed by HSE Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector said that they got practical help from volunteers. As of May 3rd, 41% of respondents confirmed it.

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Maria Chertok notes that the problem is that in Russia, volunteering and activism are not ordinary actions, but rather seen as heroic ones: ‘Abroad, for example, in France or Sweden, the population of even small towns and villages has experience of continual participation in everyday communities — maintaining a parish, a school, a local park, and so on. We do not unite around such activities, and we do not have the infrastructure for mass civic participation in something simple, understandable and everyday.’

But still we have the potential. According to the results of the survey, every other Russian adult (58%) is willing to work with others on joint activities.

Willingness to unite

‘Are you personally ready or not ready to work with other people on joint activities if your ideas and interests coincide?’

This indicator is high and associated with the desire to help strangers, says Irina Mersiyanova. Among those who are ready to act together, 72% are determined to support those who find themselves in self-isolation, and 28% have already done so. The charitable resources of those who are not ready to unite are much less: 46% and 20%, respectively.

Happy Against All Odds

The willingness to come together does not mean that you are involved in volunteer practices, you can unite around anything and not necessarily in a positive way — the main thing is to work in the right way with this potential, say experts. Furthermore, the survey showed that even during the crisis, Russians have considerable reserves of optimism.

When asked whether they are happy or not in general, 79% of the respondents said ‘Yes’: 30% - ‘absolutely’ and 49% — ‘rather happy’.

These answers about happiness are subjective, and each person puts something of their own into this concept. Therefore, researchers are not surprised by the high percentage of happy people in difficult times. Moreover, the level of happiness in our country is traditionally high, and in April 2019, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center recorded it’s highest ever numbers connected to wellbeing: 86% of citizens felt partially or completely happy.

Of course, happiness is related to attitudes towards other people — cautious people are less happy, and less optimistic in their economic expectations. HSE’s data confirmed this: among those who trust the majority, 85% believe that they are happy; among those who do not trust the general public this figure is 78%, and the number of those who are unhappy is almost twice as high.


Author: Svetlana Saltanova, June 17, 2020