Putin's Dictatorship of Law Begins Lawlessly

BOSTON: Wide agreement exists among Russian intellectuals as well as foreign observers that one of the most important – if not the most important task – facing post-Soviet Russia is establishment of the rule of law, the foundation of democracy and a free market economy. Yet doubts persist whether President Putin and his associates realize this fact. Some of their actions and pronouncements suggest that in their pursuit of a "strong state," they may be willing to sacrifice law to political expediency.

During nearly all her history, Russia was a stranger to law as a principle binding ruler and ruled. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, tsars knew no legal constraints, such as impeded the absolutism of West European sovereigns. They did not have to respect private property in land because until 1785 they owned all the land. Nor did they have to honor the rights of the nobility, inasmuch as until the middle of the eighteenth century all nobles were their servants. The peasants, who made up nine-tenths of the population, consisted overwhelmingly of serfs of the Crown or the gentry and as such enjoyed no legal rights whatsoever. The first Russian legal codes were compiled in the 1830's and the first effective courts appeared in the 1860's.

Law, of course, did exist but it did not serve to protect people from the arbitrary authority of government: instead, it was an instrument of administration. Suffice it to say that tsarist officials could not be sued without the permission of their superiors. And as for private persons standing up to the government in court, the idea was utterly inconceivable.

The traditions of law were, therefore, very shallow in Russia when the Bolsheviks seized power. The seven decades of their dictatorship blighted the little bits of a law-based society that had taken root root. Lenin defined his "dictatorship of the proletariat" as "power that is limited by nothing, by no laws, that is restrained by absolutely no rules, that rests directly on coercion." Such, indeed, it was.