20 years under Putin: a timeline

In the West, it is taken for granted that a nation needs a constitution in order to function. But Russia, in many ways, lives more by social codes than by the country’s Constitution. Does the country even need a constitution? If so, what can be done to make it work more effectively? Political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov, who holds a doctorate in political science and is a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College of Oxford University, takes an in-depth look at Russian constitutionalism in part one of a periodic series*.


The “Russian matrix” is the set of Russian “historical” social and political practices that have roots in the Orthodox (and, ultimately, Byzantine) religious tradition. Depicted above are the old symbols of the power of the Russian tzars—Monomakh’s Cap, the scepter and the orb.


A Constitution Is the Enemy of Living by ‘Social Codes’

There is no topic in Russia more profaned by endless babbling than that of constitutional reform. Nevertheless, the only path forward on this issue is to relaunch a broad social discussion about whether Russia needs a new constitution, and if so, what kind.

It would help if this discussion was held not only among those who agree that Russia needs constitutional reform, but also among those who believe Russia needs no constitution at all. In the end, what makes the Open Russia movement “open” is that it can serve as a platform for setting forth the most diverse and even mutually exclusive positions. Anything that seeks the truth and does not serve as propaganda (for any side) is useful.

We are accustomed to the idea that Russia is a “young democracy” and therefore are inclined to attribute many problems in its constitutional development to its “adolescent age.” However, Russian constitutionalism as an ideology goes back almost two centuries. This is a long enough period for us to have made progress in understanding the basic conceptions of Russian constitutionalism. But that hasn’t happened. In general, constitutional issues are unpopular in Russia. I can cite my own personal experience: over years of rather active article writing, several of my texts have failed to attract a broad readership—they were all texts that addressed constitutional issues. I do not doubt that this text will suffer a similar fate.

It seems there is something in Russia’s soil that inhibits the growth of the constitutional seeds once planted there. For this reason, before discussing the details of a constitutional plan, one must examine the cultural foundation on which Russian constitutionalism must be built.

Many people think of a constitution as a text. At most, they look at it as a political Lego kit from which a government must be assembled per the instructions. Therefore, if something goes wrong, they simply suggest replacing an “Old Testament” text with a different, “New Testament” text, supposing that then everything “will become Coca-Cola” (Andrei Konchalovsky, I hope, will forgive me for the stolen metaphor). But Russia’s soil doesn’t bring forth Coca-Cola, and instead yields more of a sour kvass—because a constitution is, above all, a way of life. In other words, it’s an incorporeal social environment that cannot be formalized and imposed on a society from above, if the society itself is not ready for it.

Creating a constitutional government in Russia is not a matter of writing an “ideal text.” It is a matter of preparing and carrying out a most profound moral and social (and thus, political) revolution in the minds and actions of millions of people. A constitution is in essence a revolution. A revolution not in the sense of a political upheaval—that is a minor historical aspect which may be present or may be absent—but in the sense of an overthrow of the whole habitual mode of life, of everything that comprises the foundation for people’s traditional thoughts and behavior, which in Russia is called “living by social codes.” To “live by social codes” means to live in accord with a deeply rooted patriarchal and medieval tradition. It is therefore quite natural that the Caucasus is today the stronghold of Russian living by social codes.

A constitution is an enemy of social codes because it crowds them out with law (although nowhere in the world does it do so totally). In order to build a constitutional government, it is necessary to renounce the old codes. Chekhov called on the Russian man to squeeze out the slave from within himself drop by drop. Likewise, a real constitutionalist must now call on the Russian people to squeeze out of themselves drop by drop the habit of living by social codes. It so happened that Russia stepped into the Modern Age in stride with Peter the Great, but its second leg remained stuck in the old code-based Muscovy. To regain its balance, Russia must either jump back from the Modern Age and return to medievalism, or it must finally wrench free its second leg, by proceeding to create a constitutional state. Here we are speaking about a spiritual and intellectual transformation compatible with Peter’s reforms and the Bolshevik revolution, and perhaps even exceeding them in scope.


Constitutionalism as the Alternative to the ‘Russian Matrix’

Constitutionalism is the habit of living in conditions of law-based self-restraint and, as a consequence, it demands self-restraint from the state, in the form of restraint from arbitrariness.

But where does this habit come from? It is like the habit of turning off the light after oneself or not littering in the street. In other words, it is first of all a question of one’s personal culture. The pattern of our actions usually corresponds to our mindset. As Mikhail Bulgakov’s character Professor Preobrazhenskiy in the novel A Dog’s Heart said, “Ruination begins in the head.” That means that constitutionalism must win first in the minds and souls of the Russian people, and only after that can we count on its political victory.

Society lives according to the law of connecting cultural vessels. Where there is everyday moral, and even merely routine, discipline, shoots of constitutionalism will appear sooner or later, notwithstanding all the possible deviations from the “general line” of historical development. But where total laxity and moral overindulgence reign, there will be no constitutionalism, even if we paper all the buildings’ walls with the texts of the constitution. Cosmetic democracy in such a society will always degenerate into anarchy, which, according to laws discovered by the ancient Greeks, will inevitably evolve into despotism. This is the key to the secret of Russia’s turbulent 1990s and the quiet 2000s that succeeded them.

The delay in Russia’s constitutional development has rather objective cultural underpinnings. In Russia, constitutionalism landed on ground that was not totally barren. Russia is not Africa, where political missionaries can attempt to cultivate on a barren field the shoots of civilization (although no one has been very successful in doing so there either). The territory here was occupied by a culture deeply antagonistic to constitutionalism. Therefore in Russia, constitutional ideas, introduced from the West, could not freely spread, since everywhere they ran into resistance from the “native culture.” If in Europe the virus of constitutionalism conquered the social space with little effort, in Russia it elicited a powerful response from a cultural immune system to which it was alien.

In one way, the numerous Prokhanovs and Dugins of Russia are correct: the constitutional idea is deeply opposed to “traditional Russianness.” The question is whether we want to nurture and cherish this traditional, code-based “Russianness,” or whether we want to create another “Russianness” to meet the needs and challenges of our times. An honest and uncompromising framing of the issue of constitutionalism reveals a problem on an epic scale. Constitutionalism is incompatible with what we habitually call the "Russian matrix“—in other words, with the set of Russian “historical” social and political practices that have roots in the Orthodox (and, ultimately, Byzantine) religious tradition.

Russia needs not only a new constitution, but also a “new man,” able to live in a society that is cut according to constitutional patterns. No progress will occur until homo sovieticus is replaced by homo constitutius.

It seems that the time of reticence is coming to an end and we must call things as they are. Beginning in 1989, Russian constitutionalists tried to solve minor aspects of the issue, without addressing the main question: to what extent can the constitutional idea even fit into the traditional Russian code-based mentality?

The answer is not inspiring: most likely, it cannot. Thus, any real constitutional transformation of Russia presupposes the elimination of traditional “Russianness” in the historical form to which we are accustomed. It’s another matter that this very “Russianness” must re-emerge in a new constitutional form thus far unknown to us. We must choose between a constitution and "the Russia that we lost“—they cannot co-exist. Russia needs not only a new constitution, but also a “new man,” able to live in a society that is cut according to constitutional patterns. No progress will occur until homo sovieticus is replaced by homo constitutius.

The first necessary step in solving any problem is to recognize its scale. Russian constitutionalists have so far underestimated the scale of the problem they must solve. Constitutional ideas are impossible to fit into the Russian code-based tradition, and are impossible to camouflage as something old, or to reconcile with either the Soviet or the Imperial past (which are almost one and the same). To establish a constitutional order in Russia, it is necessary to send to the ash-heap of history the entire habitual pattern of Russian life with all its codes and symbols.

This sounds threatening, but there is nothing fundamentally impossible in it. In just this way in Europe, the man of the Modern Age uncompromisingly consigned to historical oblivion the man of the Middle Ages, together with all of his habits and views, which scarcely differed from the habits and views of a contemporary Russian. Russian society is fully up to this task; it just has to clearly grasp the scope of the work to be done. So far, the depth of Russia’s resistance to this change is better gauged by the opponents of constitutionalism—by those who are jealous defenders of the old Russian ways, who have perceived the constitutional threat as fatal and have launched a crusade against constitutionalism.


The Birth of Constitutional Demand

What forms the constitutional frame of mind that appears to be the prerequisite for the emergence of a constitutional order? Constitutional principles receive the most attention and research—in other words, those basic paradigms of the sociopolitical system that ensure the support of the constitutional order and serve as a counterweight to the traditional order, or, to use terminology more typical of Russia, to the “coded” order: the ability to change rulers; political pluralism; separation of powers; judicial independence, and the like. I’ll come back to these later.

There is something more important than constitutional principles, though: constitutive principles, which exist one level deeper and form in the public consciousness the demand for constitutional order. Constitutive principles inform the constitutional frame of mind that makes inevitable the appearance, sooner or later, of a constitutional social system. In Russia the main problem is a gap in constitutional thinking, and that gap’s elimination is a strategic task for Russian constitutionalism. A constitution works only where there is a corresponding public demand and where a constitutional need has taken shape.

However paradoxical it may be, the basic constitutive principles that shape societal consciousness and ensure constitutional demand are simple and well-known in Russia. In order to enumerate them, it suffices to remember that a constitution is a revolution turned inside out, its other side. But we must keep in mind that an actual revolution is not the same thing as anarchy and chaos, although both of those can accompany one.

A revolution is the rational rethinking of public life as a consequence of the renunciation of its traditional (or again, “code-based”) perceptions. Precisely because of this, real revolutions are exclusively an attribute of the Modern Age. All the innumerable riots, upheavals, and uprisings that occurred previously cannot be considered revolutions in the precise meaning of the term. A real revolution occurs only when not destructive, but organizational forces come to the fore—not any organizational forces, but those which organize social life along rational, sensible principles (which does not exclude mistakes, since thoughts, of course, do not always develop in the right direction, especially during the first stages).

Thus, the revolutionary principles that inaugurated the Modern Age in Europe are in fact the basic constitutive principles. This is the triad that everyone knows: liberté, egalité, et fraternité. In post-communist Russia, this liberal mantra was worn out like an old piece of paper money, but it wasn’t really introduced into public consciousness. Even in Europe, this was achieved with difficulty, to say nothing of the fact that it took a long time. In Russia the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity have never been recognized to their full extent. As for their content, for almost the entirety of Russian constitutionalism’s nearly two-hundred-year history, it has never been clarified. And if we turn to the present, their “legitimacy” in Russia has been placed altogether in doubt. This is largely why practical constitutionalism cannot exist yet in Russia.


Read Part 2 of this essay here.

*This article was originally published in Russian on the website of Open Russia.