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Russian philosophy of law

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-E083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Russian thought is rarely associated with philosophy of law. The intellectuals of pre-revolutionary Russia are known rather for their uncompromising critique of legalism, passing sometimes into a genuine ‘legal nihilism’. Indeed, both right-wing and left-wing Russian thinkers – the Slavophiles and Dostoevskii on the one hand, the populists and anarchists (from Bakunin to Tolstoi) on the other – saw modern rational law as an instrument of egoistic bourgeois individualism, destroying the values of communal collectivism still preserved among the Russian peasantry. This attitude found expression not only in different forms of programmatic anti-capitalism but also in a tendency to discredit civil rights and political liberty as a mere mask for capitalist exploitation. Capitalist development and the juridicization of social bonds it involved were perceived as something peculiar to the West, coming to Russia from without and as such not worthy of acceptance. Law and legal rights were criticized in Russia from many quarters and for various reasons: in defence of an idealized autocracy or in defence of true freedom, on behalf of the Russian soul or on behalf of universal progress towards socialism, in the name of Christ or in the name of Marx. In this manner right-wing and left-wing Russian intellectuals supported one another in creating a peculiar tradition of the censure of law.

However, it would be wrong to draw from these facts a conclusion of an inherent hostility between the ‘Russian mind’ and the ‘spirit of law’. The ‘juridical world-view’ of the Enlightenment was well represented in imperial Russia. The modernizing Russian autocrats – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great – believed firmly in the power of rational legislation and won admiration from among leading European thinkers (Leibniz, Voltaire, Diderot) fir setting a good example for Western monarchs. The first radical critic of Russian autocracy, Aleksandr Radishchev (1749–1802), was in turn a theorist of natural law, a firm believer in inalienable human rights, and an enthusiastic worshipper of the American constitution. Under the reign of Alexander I (1801–25), who himself thought seriously about the introduction of constitutional rule in Russia, admiration for law was very strong among Russia’s intellectual elite. Radischchev’s disciples, Ivan Pnin and Vasilii Popugaev, inspired also by the Scottish Enlightenment, advocated the idea of a ‘civil society’ with a developed system of private law and legally safeguarded human rights. Nikita Murav’ev and Pavel Pestel, ideological leaders of the two trends within the Decembrist movement (named so after the abortive uprising of December l825), expressed their ideas in the form of detailed constitutional projects. A common feature of these projects, otherwise very different, was a pronounced juridical rationalism, sharply contrasting with all variants of a sceptical attitude towards law.

Citing this article:
Walicki, Andrzej. Russian philosophy of law, 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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