A historical perspective on the roots of contemporary Russian legal culture

19 April 2012

On 19th April the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society continued its series exploring the Russian legal system with a roundtable discussion at the Queen's College to throw light on the roots of contemporary legal culture through the evolution of socio-legal practices in Imperial and Soviet Russia.

The workshop, entitled 'The Russian Socio-Legal Tradition', featured presentations from Professor Kathryn Hendley, Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, and Alexander Blankenagel from Humbold University, Berlin, before a roundtable discussion on the evolution and contemporary influence of Imperial and Soviet legal culture.

Professor Hendley's presentation was drawn from a forthcoming article in the journal Post-Societ Affairs, 'Who are the Legal Nihilists in Russia?', in which she uses quantitative data to identify prevalent trends in the popular perception of the law and legal system in Russia.

She opened her remarks by citing Dmitrii Medvedev's comments in January 2008 that, "Without exaggeration, Russia is a country of legal nihilism. ... No other European country can boast such a level of disregard for the law". Her research data that emerged from surveys conducted across the populace showed that people were becoming increasingly less nihilistic and more ambivalent towards the law, with women and university graduates continuing to represent the most law-abiding section of the populace.

Her analysis went on to assess generational trends, and revealed that, contrary to conventional wisdom that the older generations who had lived through the Soviet era would be more cynical and distrustful of the law, the opposite proved to be the case.

Professor Blankenagel followed with his analysis of Pokazucha or the surface reality of constitutional principles in Russia, which are frequently disregarded by the machinery of state, with reference to basic rights, federalism, rule of law, and separation of powers. He illustrated his argument by outlining certain 'failed' provisions of the Consitution, such as Article 29 which guarantees freedom of the mass media yet makes no provision against state-dominated media, and Article 31 on freedom of assembly, which lacks a provision that would remove it from the bureaucratic realm of the state, the consequences of which were apparent in the pre-election demonstrations last year. 

Professor Blankenagel concluded with further empirical data to suggest that there remains a Socialist imprint in the popular perception of basic constitutional rights, which prioritises rights to property and healthcare, for instance, over voting rights and freedom of expression.

In the afternoon, participants engaged in a roundtable discussion on the evolution of the Russian socio-legal tradition from Imperial to Soviet Russia, and the influence of this tradition on contemporary Russia.