Background: changing regimes and foundations for civil liberties
Civil society: these words still sound strange in Russia. Notions of personal freedom and the rule of law that have shaped the notion of civil society are not found in the strong Byzantine tradition prevailing throughout the history of the Russian Empire. For centuries, this tradition had successfully prevented the introduction of many progressive practices in Russia.
The first serious attempts to introduce the concept of a state ruled by law and to lay the foundations for civil rights were made in the 1860s, when Tsar Alexander II initiated reforms. Since then, but with repeated setbacks, Russia has been increasingly moving closer to European norms. Democratic institutions were gradually introduced, starting with certain elements of local self-government, and extending through the rudimentary electoral and parliamentary culture and constitutionalism of the early 20th century. Most importantly, the principles of legality took root, including the establishment of an independent judicial system, laws governing civil and criminal procedure, and trial by jury.
The advances in the legal profession during that period were remarkable. For example, issues in juvenile justice, still a new phenomenon for many post-Soviet Russian jurists, were discussed heatedly in Russia before 1917, and the level of discussions was rather advanced even by European standards of the time. Rapid industrial progress brought the further liberalisation of society during this early period. The press levelled increasing criticism about examples of abuses of power, and against arbitrary rule in general. Russia remained an autocracy, but these developments stimulated the cultivation of civic virtues, at least among the educated, independent citizens’ groups that began to spring up, from students’ unions at the universities to trade unions in industry.
The process was interrupted, and then eradicated, by the Bolsheviks’ usurpation of power. The consequent chaos of the ensuing four-year civil war erased all the progress of the previous half-century and culminated in a dictatorship of the Communist victors. The government exercised total control, and the few citizens’ groups that were allowed to function mostly served official propaganda purposes. As a result, Russia again moved far away from European norms.
Since the collapse of Soviet regime, however, Russia has restarted along its difficult road towards respect for human rights and democracy. For the first time in the country’s history, the Russian Constitution of 1993 declared the supremacy of citizens’ rights over those of the state, and of international legal standards over national legislation. But even before that, since 1989, tens of thousands of active CSOs, the foundation blocks of civil society, had taken root all over the country. They consistently pressed administrators to follow the law and the legislators to improve it. Each year their presence was becoming more noticeable.
True, many of them were short-lived, but others learnt by experience, gained authority and effectively took care of various socially unprotected groups left unattended by the state. By 2006, about a million and a half people were working in hundreds of thousands of CSOs across Russia. Yet today they cannot be sure about their future.
In the 1990s, Russia signed the main corpus of international treaties in the human rights sphere. Independent courts, independent mass media, open frontiers and the recognition of private property – all these attributes of a civilised state, as well as citizens’ fundamental rights and political liberties, have been guaranteed by law. But despite these advancements, political conditions in today’s Russia raise cynical attitudes about these rights and liberties.
Respect for civil rights and the rule of law are, so to speak, genetically coded in a society: the gradual realisation of rights builds on the experiences and achievements of past generations, experiences that are duly recorded and preserved, which grows into a tradition that few in these societies would question. But cultivation of such a tradition takes a long time. In Europe, principles and standards for a free society were being transformed into laws, often through political struggles, but in a natural way for society, not dictated from above. These laws became more possible after these principles and standards had already become widely accepted and supported by a substantial part of the population.