Too Jaded to Panic

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Here's a typical story connected with the financial crisis. I recently phoned a friend of my parents whom I have known since childhood. She is over 80, but full of energy. For the last several years, she has headed a nonprofit organization that helps orphaned children. Thanks to her enthusiasm, more than 300 children have benefited from the project.

But recently she was hit with some bad news. Of the two banks that sponsored her organization, one transferred the promised funds on schedule, but the second withdrew its donation due to the crisis. Unless the financial situation improves significantly, her project could be stalled for two years.

"And just imagine how distressed I was when I turned on Ekho Moskvy radio and heard two listeners call in to say they were unable to withdraw money from their Sberbank accounts," she said. Naturally, she hurried off to her local Sberbank at once. "But there were even fewer clients at the bank than usual, and the cashier told me I could withdraw as much of my savings as I wanted."

It was surprising to me that a woman who normally has strong nerves could become so distressed by a couple of reports from people who claimed that they could not withdraw their money from the bank.

Along with the global financial crisis, there are two other uniquely Russian crises that seem to be intensifying as well. The first we can call the crisis of trust toward glossed-over news reports on the country's crisis and toward the government in general.

Russians' natural instinct is not to believe good news that comes from government sources -- even if it happens to be true. Regardless of how many times our leaders tell us everything is under control or how many times state-controlled television newscasters refrain from pronouncing the words "collapse" or "panic," it seems that the average person does not believe what they are being told. After all, few have forgotten how, on the very eve of the government default on Aug. 17, 1998, President Boris Yeltsin publicly swore a default would never happen.

The second crisis is the flipside of the first. People tend to believe all forms of bad news, whether it comes from the government or from the latest gossip. This is rooted in the fact that Russians have been burned badly twice before -- in 1992 and in 1998.

Although everybody understands the current crisis is real and will probably worsen, nobody seems to be panicking. One possible reason for this is that another crisis -- a "crisis of ignorance" -- may actually calm our psyches, which have been permanently traumatized by the previous financial disasters in the past 17 years. I use the word ignorance because few Russians understand the stock market.

As a result, a strange situation has emerged. Russians are hungry for advice on how to deal with the imminent crisis, and print and broadcast media try to answer the public's concerns with various articles and reports. But all that we hear between the lines from financial analysts, specialists and government ministers is: "Since we don't know what to do, it is best to do nothing at all."

In other words, they are saying, "You are going to get screwed over whether you like it or not and, therefore, the best thing to do is relax and try to enjoy life as much as you can."

Once again we see that Russian fatalism is the best antidote to the financial crisis.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.