If I had to choose a single word to describe the dominant attitude in Russian society, it would be “mistrust.” The meteor, or possibly small asteroid, that exploded over the Ural Mountains city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15 illustrated this as few other events could.
The world saw the meteor thanks to the dashboard cameras that are so common in Russian cars. U.S. publications from the New Yorker to Wired delighted in writing about the dash cam phenomenon, unheard of in the United States or Europe. Russians use the devices because they cannot trust police, judges, insurance companies or witnesses in case of a fender bender. A camera providing incontrovertible evidence pays for itself even if the accident is relatively minor. According to the government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, in 2011 Russians bought 300,000 dash cams, and in 2012 the market probably more than doubled.
In the case of the meteor, however, the cameras were not enough to overcome mistrust.
Liberal columnist Yulia Latynina was quick to publish a column in Novaya Gazeta, strongly suggesting that the fiery object in the sky was no celestial body but a misfired missile from a nearby testing ground where a military exercise was taking place. When the version failed to stand up, Latynina asked Novaya Gazeta to remove the story from its site and issued an apology, admitting that the object was indeed a meteor.
“Paranoia tends to be logical, while life is not,” Latynina explained.
Some remained unconvinced that no foul play was involved. Former privatization minister Alfred Kokh wrote several status updates on Facebook voicing suspicions of a cover-up. “Less than 24 hours after the fact nobody is searching for the object any longer,” he wrote. “I don’t know about you, but I get the feeling somebody is taking me for an idiot.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, ultra- nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggested it was a U.S. missile that blew up over Chelyabinsk, leaving about 3,000 buildings in the industrial city windowless, injuring about 1,000 people with flying glass and causing about $30 million worth of damage.
“These are not meteors falling but Americans testing new weapons,” Zhirinovsky said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “Nothing in outer space just falls, it’s all done by people, warmongers, provocateurs.” As with most of Zhirinovsky’s outbursts, it was hard to tell how serious he was. Given many Russians’ instinctive mistrust of Americans, the statement was unlikely to lose him any votes.
Suspicions extended as far as the motives of victims in Chelyabinsk. The state-controlled news agency RIA Novosti reported that some were breaking their own windows, hoping to take advantage of government aid. Regional governor Mikhail Yurevich declared the report untrustworthy, a “canard.”
Even the agendas of astronomers could not be trusted. When Lydia Rykhlova of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Astronomy Institute announced that Russia could protect itself from space threats at a cost of 58 billion rubles, or almost $2 billion, many commentators on social networks ridiculed the plan as a device to steal taxpayers’ money.
“I am proud of Russia,” corruption-fighting blogger Alexei Navalny wrote sarcastically. “It will be the first nation where even a stone falling from the sky becomes the reason for a mega- project aimed at stealing ten or twenty billion. Fix the roads in Chelyabinsk instead: The pits in them cause more damage in a year than 100 meteors.”
Why the trust deficit? Sociologist Lev Gudkov offered some explanation in a scholarly article. Trust is higher in societies “with stable and open institutional systems,” and lower in societies “with a high level of violence, aggression, an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government.” In repressive societies, “mistrust becomes an important strategic resource for social survival, success and upward mobility.”
Gudkov cited research showing that in 2008, only 27 percent of Russians agreed that people were generally to be trusted, while 68 percent were in favor of caution. The situation was reversed in Denmark, with 70 percent trusting and 29 percent not so much. In the U.S., 42 percent trusted their fellow citizens and 57 percent believed them relatively untrustworthy.
That said, maybe Americans should exercise some Russian- style caution when it comes to the Chelyabinsk meteor. On eBay, an American nicknamed ledlas is asking $999 for a brownish stone, allegedly a piece of the Russian meteor. “My brother is a news reporter in Russia. He managed to get one,” claims the seller, who misspelled Chelyabinsk on the eBay page.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View.