- “Trust and Distrust in the USSR”: Special Issue of Slavonic & East European Review by Geoffrey Hosking
The study of “trust” in the Soviet Union has grown significantly in recent years; Hosking’s cohort has itself produced two conferences and various panels at others, with this special edition of Slavonic & East European Review a resultant publication. As such, this collection flies the flag for “trust as an independent topic of research” (Tikhomirov, P.82) – a new method of interpreting the Soviet sociopolitical system. The collection comprises five articles by different authors: Hosking himself, Cynthia Hooper, Alexander Livshin, Alexey Tikhomirov, and Yoram Gorlizki. (Gorlizki’s essay is placed last, but is actually the most useful introduction to various [sociological] theories of trust.)
Hosking’s introductory overview surveys the significance of trust at various points during the Soviet Union’s history (although only Gorlizki focuses on the post-Stalin period), as well as outlining some of the key tenets of trust theory developed by sociologists. A key concept here is “forced trust.” If one moves beyond initial reactions to the terminology (“forced trust” inevitably makes one wonder how different it can be from coercion rationalized as “necessary,” or at least inescapable?) and begins to approach the concept from a slightly different angle, that citizens were forced in their day-to-day lives to work on the basis of trust, due to the lack of any more stable or regulated a foundation, then the concept begins to gain traction. Blat , for example, involved trusting people one would not ordinarily trust, but had to in order to access certain (sometimes essential) goods (P. 23).
The concept is further explored by Tikhomirov, who argues that the state effectively relied upon widespread social distrust in order to function: citizens were compelled to trust the Party-state as the only certainty in their lives and, perhaps most important, the only legitimate source of “material and symbolic resources for normalizing daily life” (P. 80). This is an intriguing suggestion, which in a sense extends the “evil councillors” principle to the whole of society, leaving only the leadership or the Party itself as trustworthy. “Forced trust” has the merit, therefore, of avoiding religious similes when interpreting popular investment in the Soviet system, which often (sometimes inadvertently) confuse practical, even prosaic investment with an implicitly irrational “faith,” robbing Soviet citizens of their critical abilities, [End Page 398] or which go further still and imply that Soviet ideology was simply a substitute “religion.”
The “Great Terror” is often center stage in this collection, and Hosking begins by emphasizing how vital the “wildfire spread of generalized social distrust” (P. 1) in the later 1930s was in unleashing and sustaining the “Terror.” In one sense this is unarguable when we consider the zenith of denunciations and counterdenunciations in 1937–1938, but it is unclear when the issue of mutual distrust has ever really been omitted from interpretations of the “Terror.” The very moniker “Terror” is an anachronistically applied judgment of historians (the term “repression” was usually used at the time), 1 which a priori suggests a severe disruption to people’s normal points of reference and stability. Trust is an undeniably important issue here, but it cannot be considered a novel one.
Indeed, Wendy Goldman’s two recent monographs already demonstrate that distrust was far from the only factor at play in the rapid spread of denunciations and counterdenunciations in these years. She highlights, for example, the utilitarian aims that could underlie the use of denunciatory slurs like “wrecker” or “enemy”: ordinary workers had finally gained a vocabulary to which the regime would respond and address countless long-standing grievances, be that broken or faulty machinery, or incompetent political instruction. 2
While Hosking and Tikhomirov write of the “Terror” as a phenomenon affecting society at large, Hooper emphasizes that it was primarily a Party matter until 1937–1938 (P. 27). The initial arrests and cries for increased “vigilance” after S. M. Kirov’s murder at the end of 1934 were...