20 years under Putin: a timeline

In part one of his article* on Russian constitutionalism, political scientist Vladimir Pastukhov, visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College of Oxford University, discussed the need to change Russians’ traditional mindset regarding what kinds of rules govern society. In part two, he explores the differences between Russian and Western views of the key constitutional ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. This article is part of a periodic series on Russia’s Constitution.


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.


Constitutional reform must begin with the formation of a constitutional consciousness. Even though the words “liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity” exist in the Russian political lexicon, their interpretation in Russia bears no resemblance to their interpretation in the West, where they were first uttered. Constitutional ideas continue to be deeply antithetical to the philosophical and religious views that have been established over the centuries in Russia. Therefore, despite the fact that the Russian constitutional doctrine is seemingly grounded in the same postulates as the European one, it has little in common with it. The constitutional ideas that landed in Russia’s alien and rather aggressive cultural environment quickly corroded and lost their initial meaning. To move forward, Russia must first perform an “excavation of meanings”—the restoration of their authentic meaning to the simple constitutive principles that everyone supposedly knows. There is no freedom without equality, and equality is possible only where there is fraternity.



Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a constitution begins with liberty. But the understanding of what constitutes liberty is completely different in Russia and in the West. The Russian man understands liberty as untrammeled freedom—in other words, as the fulfillment of his desires stemming from his material or spiritual needs, unhampered from outside. This is primarily freedom from any “external” constraint on one’s behavior. But upon close examination, such freedom turns out to be limited, since the “external” continues to exert an influence on the person even when he thinks that he has become independent of everything external—it forms the structure of his needs, to which he still remains a slave. Freedom in this traditional understanding is relative, and ultimately turns out to be only the liberty to satisfy one’s needs, which one does not control. Absolute freedom can exist only when and where there is the habit of regulating one’s needs. The highest form of liberty is achieved by self-restraint.

The less a European depends on his whims, the freer he is. The Russian approach to liberty is not only different, but even directly contrary to the Western approach, under which freedom is understood not so much as the ability to satisfy one’s needs without limitation, as the ability to limit them. This, of course, is not a universally held view, but it is the dominant one. Freedom in this sense is also control over one’s personal “genuine nature,” over passions, whims, and needs—in other words, independence from all that is “material” in the broadest sense of the word. Of course, a culture of mass consumption introduced changes in the life of Western society, but it has not yet managed to corrupt the concept of freedom that was forged at the dawn of liberalism.

Unfortunately, the habit of self-restraint is not among those cultural paradigms that are esteemed in Russia, and therefore is not considered a necessary component of freedom. Spinoza’s thesis of freedom as the recognition of necessity has never really been understood in Russia. The less a European depends on his whims, the freer he is; and the Russian feels freer when it is easier for him to satisfy his. European freedom goes back to Christian idealism, Russian freedom to pre-Christian materialism. It is for this reason that Russian freedom, sooner or later, always ends in non-freedom.



In real life a person cannot be fully emancipated from his needs (as this contradicts human nature), and thus, he will never be free in the absolute sense of the word. The path to freedom lies in the constant struggle of man with his “genuine nature”—in other words, in self-restraint. This is equally true in Russia and in the West. But in the West there exists something that helps considerably to limit one’s cravings to the benefit of freedom, something that in Russia is almost totally absent: equality. Equality is an inhibitor (a brake, a limiting factor) of individual needs, passions, and desires. If you reflect on it, it is the key to freedom, and it makes the very existence of freedom possible.

It’s not that equality was repudiated in Russia. But there is a special Russian approach to equality, as there is to liberty. In Russia, equality is understood to mean “leveling.” In other words, what is in fact unequal is easily termed equal. As opposed to freedom, equality in Russia is not relative, but absolute. In the traditional Russian consciousness, people are equal irrespective of their physical, mental, or moral merits or shortcomings—all are “God’s creatures.” Under such an approach, good becomes the same as evil; reason is equal to foolishness; work is equal to laziness; a victim is equal to the executioner; and a lie is equal to the truth.

Consequently, in Russia the stimulus to remove real inequality is missing, because everyone is deemed inherently equal. And since everyone is equal, each person, irrespective of his status, has an equal right to everything that others have, without limitation. In this sense, the constant expropriations and redistribution of property are intrinsic to the Russian mentality. The Russian view of equality stimulates not self-restraint, but, to the contrary, an unbridled thirst for consumption, because “we all deserve it”—more precisely, everyone deserves what someone else has. This brand of equality is not an inhibitor, but a catalyzer of the unrestrained satisfaction of needs. It stimulates voluntarism and limits real freedom.

In the West, such a concept of equality was never dominant. Rather, it was always recognized that people are not equal in their inclinations, abilities, and intellectual, volitional, and moral qualities, without even touching on the social inequality that came from external factors. The striving to destroy this inequality was an inalienable part of socialist and communist utopias, but was never inherent in liberal doctrine or in constitutionalism. Deeming all these differences absolute and ineradicable, constitutionalism postulated, in contradistinction to them, relative, “segmented” equality between people according to only one parameter—equality under the law.

Equality under the law is the basic touchstone of the constitutional consciousness and the constitutional system, the common denominator which permits the gathering of people who are actually different and unequal in everything into a civil society. To paraphrase Lenin, this is the same link, which, if you seize it, lets you pull the whole chain of the constitutional structure. And this is the “constitutional gimmick” that gives a Russian person the most trouble. Russian social consciousness cannot overcome the dialectic of absolute actual inequality of people and their relative equality under the law. Right down to the present, the entire mode of Russian life is cut from an entirely different pattern: Russian society, supposing that all people are equal in and of themselves, simultaneously acknowledges and approves of their inequality under the law. The article of the Constitution that establishes the corresponding principle (equality under the law) is the most declaratory one in it.



The secret of such different approaches to the issue of equality is rather simple on the one hand, and very complicated on the other: in the West and in Russia, there are different understandings of what man is, and the question of which is primary, the individual or society, is answered differently.

In the Western paradigms the individual is primary and is considered to be a member of a certain brotherhood, which is a voluntary alliance of different persons who are equal under the law. Their equality is possible only because, notwithstanding all their actual differences, each person is considered to be a bearer of “civic consciousness“—an abstract “human essence,” a sort of “spiritual substrate,” which turns the individual into a personality. People in the West are equal under the law insofar as they are all considered members of this “fraternal club.”

The first priority must be the practical introduction into Russian life of the idea of equality under the law, which up to now has been more of an ornamental feature of the Constitution than a working principle. It is the very bridge that would permit Russia to cross from anarchy to a freedom based on responsibility and self-restraint.

Obviously, the doctrine of equality under the law in civil society is a liberal transformation of the religious idea of equality under God in the Christian community, in which the category of “civic consciousness”—a key category for Western liberalism and practically unknown in Russia—is a sublimation of Christian understandings of the soul and of spiritual kinship, just as the law is a sublimation of the Christian view of God.

In Russia, the space that was made for fraternity in the West is filled by “communal society” (or a “society of togetherness”). As opposed to fraternity, the communal society is primarily undifferentiated—in other words, not divided into parts, but whole. This whole does not acknowledge the persons who make it up as independent spiritual entities. The spirituality of the communal society is fully and wholly concentrated in the abstraction itself, and the separate individual is spiritual only insofar as he is a reflection of the communal whole. In Russia the individual shines with a reflected light; the living person here is like the moon, and the imagined whole is like the life-giving sun.

There is no place for fraternity in the traditional Russian consciousness, and therefore in Russia there cannot be equality under the law. The individual here does not have relations with another person directly; he is not considered to have any independent spiritual nature; and each connection is possible only through the whole, to which everyone is connected in his own way. People in Russia never were equal under God, and therefore they are not equal under the law. And where there is no equality under the law, there cannot be any freedom either.


The Constitution Is a Revolution of Consciousness

Those few who have not yet stopped reading will be rewarded, as my digression into the depths of philosophy is limited to those discussions of liberty, equality, and fraternity above.

It can be seen even from this dilettantish survey that the prerequisites of constitutionalism are rooted in culture. If the cultural soil for constitutionalism is not prepared, any political or legal efforts will be nullified by the so-called “enforcement of the law in practice.” So long as, in the consciousness of the Russian elite, the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” is interpreted as “anarchy, leveling, spiritual community,” the political system will be based on Count Uvarov’s triad of “Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationality.” It’s like the old anecdote: no matter how many beautiful ideas you bring to Russia, upon assembling them, you’ll always be left with a Kalashnikov.

Returning to the initial idea. A huge task awaits the Russian constitutionalists, the scope of which almost no one has assessed accurately—they must radically change the Russian mentality, and overcome centuries-old habits of thought. Efforts made by Russian constitutionalists along these lines so far have been reminiscent of children building a kite to fly to Mars. The kites, of course, are all the possible constitutional texts.

The constitutional project is much broader than the text of a constitution. Its goal is to turn inside out the traditional Russian political consciousness, which is conditioned by the entire system of religious and philosophical attitudes that have existed in Russia for centuries. Moreover, as the bitter experience of recent decades has shown, the mere importation of “ready-made” constitutional ideas will not solve the problem—it is necessary to create a consumer demand for them that is as robust as the supply of good ideas.

The question is naturally posed: is that possible? Fortunately, no single nation, nor any government in the world, was ever born with an innate constitutional consciousness. All the peoples of the world have had the same traditional childhood. The code-based understanding that is a Russian’s calling card today would not have seemed unusual in the time of the Florentine Republic—Putin and Medici would have easily understood each other. What has been done by some can be done by others.

People are changed by hardships, and peoples are transformed during revolutionary times. A revolution is a tragedy, but it also affords unlimited scope for historical creativity; not for nothing have revolutions been called “the locomotives of history.” The great French Revolution was begun by one nation, but a completely different nation emerged from it, with a different mindset and feelings.

The real potential of change is always hidden from the observer’s eyes until society starts to move. No one knows today what Russia is actually capable of. Constitutionalism can be a reality in Russia only when it is a product of mass consumption, and not a parlor game; and popular demand for a constitution is possible only during a revolution.

Fortunately, a revolution is impossible to organize. You can neither rush one nor slow it down; it happens of its own accord when the political solution has become too thick, and this always happens unexpectedly (and it is impossible to calculate what “the last drop” will be). When that happens, both constitutionalists and fascists will struggle for control of Russia (though I’m not sure that fascism is ultimately possible in Russia). The winner will be the one who is better prepared for such a struggle.


Does Russia Need a New Constitution?

Within the question of whether Russia needs a new constitution lurks a real stumbling block. The truth is there has never yet existed a real constitutional order in Russia. Therefore the word “new” is superfluous—Russia needs a constitution, period. A better question would be this: Does Russia need a new constitutional text, or can it try to build a constitutional regime based on the existing text (with a number of amendments to it)?

There is no single, clear-cut answer to this question, and the fate of the present constitutional text will have to be decided depending on the political context. I cannot rule out that considering the “2018 election factor,” the current political regime will itself propose to society such a new constitutional text that there will be hell to pay. After all, it could consist of absolutely anything, perhaps even an official restoration of autocracy. Good is the enemy of great, so the text is not a goal in and of itself.

A new constitutional text seems quite necessary not on its own account, but as the trigger for a renewal of the constitutional process that was interrupted in 1993. It is the instrument with which to launch a broad constitutional movement, during which a strong constitutional party can emerge in Russia. From a tactical point of view, work on the text of a new constitution could itself become the core around which the crystalline lattice of a new constitutional political structure could begin to form—and for this reason alone, it makes sense to begin the new constitutional project immediately.

The task of this project is, of course, not so much the modernization of Russia’s political institutions (although that is also important), as it is the modernization of Russia’s political consciousness. The first priority must be the practical introduction into Russian life of the idea of equality under the law, which up to now has been more of an ornamental feature of the Constitution than a working principle. It is the very bridge that would permit Russia to cross from anarchy to a freedom based on responsibility and self-restraint. Only in this way can Russia see the birth, as a brotherhood, of the civil society about which much has been said these past twenty years, but so little done.

Russia needs a new constitution not because the current text is bad, but because the previous constitutional project failed. We have to accept this and start work again. But that does not mean that a new constitution must be written “from scratch.” On the contrary: a failure is no less useful than a success. All of the successful and unsuccessful constitutional experiences of the previous decades must be taken into account. The constitutionalists must move forward in full consideration of their mistakes—the main ones being ignoring the cultural prerequisites and the inability to create a popular base for the constitutional movement.

Above all, one thing must not be forgotten: a working constitution is the only hope Russia has of preserving itself as a unified and sovereign state for more than a few decades. The Imperial model of Russian development has played itself out, and efforts to prolong its existence in new, exotic forms will inevitably lead to Russia being first divided, and then crushed by the hostile civilizational tectonic plates that threaten to slide over her. Only the transformation of Russia into a national constitutional state, something like a United States of Eurasia, can afford the Russian world a new civilizational chance.


Read Part 1 of this essay here.

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