Russians in the Wilderness, Part V: Laying a New Legal Foundation

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelite’s escape from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” explores that theme, searching for a deeper understanding of the enormous challenges that face the Russian people.

The Legacy of Law in Russia’s Past

One of the most profound changes in Russia in recent years has been the disintegration of the Communist Party and its monopoly on power. The one-party state, which emerged in 1917 under Vladimir Lenin and was further consolidated by Joseph Stalin, may now be over, but the political tradition in which it is rooted is not. The tradition of authoritarian rule predates the Soviet Union and extends deep into Russian history.

Rebuilding Russia after the collapse of Communism means facing the monumental task of overcoming centuries of authoritarian practices that have been an essential part of Russian life. Top-down political rule and strong-armed leadership tactics and mentalities will not change quickly, and are still evident in public opinion polls and in the media. Authoritarianism — sustained by both violence and paternalism, a widespread disregard for legal norms and procedures, and an intolerance toward dissent — is among the most salient features of Russian civic culture, according to Yuri A. Levada, the head of Moscow’s National Center for Public Opinion Research.

With this history comes a low regard for law. In authoritarian political regimes, law is a tool of the ruling elites and is used as a device to ensure the rights and privileges of those in power, while creating a pretense of legitimacy. Under Communist Party rule, laws were often deliberately self-contradictory, making full conformity to the law impossible and thereby leaving the average citizen always vulnerable to some charge of illegal behavior. Finding a way to replace this authoritarian legacy with a positive view of civil authority and the rightful role of law is one of Russia’s greatest challenges.

An Ancient Case Study

Following their exodus from Egypt after four hundred years of slavery, the Israelites faced the challenge of laying the foundation for their new nation. Their only political experience had been that of oppression, an oppression that forced them to work under brutal conditions to extend the empire of Egyptian Pharaohs. They were exploited as slave laborers and were forced to witness the widespread murder of their male children at the hands of fearful Egyptian political leaders.

Once they were liberated from Egypt and traveled through the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, they were also faced with the challenges of how to organize their extensive family networks, which were based on tribal allegiances, into a nation and how to build a new legal foundation upon which their political, economic and social institutions could be grounded.

The Book of Deuteronomy records how, under Moses’ leadership, a new system of laws was prepared in advance of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. For the Israelites, law had three essential purposes. The first was to restrain evil. Their forty years in the wilderness had made it clear: evil was never very far away. Evil was, in fact, a constant threat, even in how they treated each other. Victims of oppression can quickly become oppressors themselves; those who are freed from slavery can quickly forget that liberty is a gift to be treasured.

But law had two other purposes for the Israelites: to lay out principles of good behavior and constructive ways of helping out others, and to point out that, without God’s help, no one will live a life free from evil. Law, in other words, was designed to restrain evil, encourage positive behavior and call attention to the need for dependence on God. For the Israelites, law had a transcendent source — it was not grounded in reason or in cultural patterns drawn from past history. Law, based on a belief in God, stood above all political authorities. It served as the basis for caring for the poor, the weak, and the powerless and for ensuring their legal protection.

Russia’s Choice

Nation building was the challenge the Israelites faced, and a similar challenge now faces Russia. New legal structures must be built. There are no short-cuts when building a law-based society, especially when it means changing centuries of ingrained patterns. But it can be done.

Understanding law as an instrument of justice, rather than as a means of protecting or enhancing one’s narrow self-interests, is a good starting point. Recognizing the transcendent source of law is also key. God is a God of justice and, when justice is grounded in an understanding of God’s character, then the basis for a positive, fair and equitable civic culture can be laid. Determining the basis upon which the country’s legal system will be grounded is an issue Russians must face. For Russia, it is hard to think of many other decisions more important than this.