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Review of my book “Law Rights and Ideology in Russia” by P. Sean Morris, in Marx & Philosophy Review of Books

Bill Bowring
Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power
Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2014. 238pp., £30 / $54.95 pb
ISBN 9780415831994

Reviewed by P Sean Morris

P Sean Morris

P Sean Morris studied law in Moscow (1998-2003) and is currently a researcher at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki. His research interests lie in the fields of international law broadly conceived, critical legal theory, and developments in Russian politics and law. (



This book traces the various ideological and legal developments in the Russian Federation and forms a captivating narrative which shows how the influences of Karl Marx and Adam Smith have shaped the evolution of Russia over hundreds of years to the rise of modern “sovereign democracy” or managed democracy in the Putin era. Moreover, like the broader debate surrounding law and ideology, the book brings to the forefront key issues in the development and practice of the rule of law in Russia and how it is juxtaposed with the new ideology of sovereign democracy. In effect, the book tells a tale of the practice of ideology in law. In general, the book deals with how Marxian thought evolved in Russia and how a new thought, based on the resurrection of Carl Schmitt, is proving to be the ideological foundations of modern Russia. But, at the same time, there are a number of questions pertaining to law and ideology that the book raises, and not all of them are adequately answered.

Authors often wrestle with questions such as: is law, or the rule thereof, the legal expression of a political ideology, and can the rule of law be separated from the “political vertical” of a state? These questions can be contentious and any attempt to provide satisfactory answers can transcend many fields: political science, sociology, history, legal science, philosophy among others. Furthermore, any “correct” answer can be dismissed for being subjective or for being based on a particular agenda. Unfortunately, that is one of the negative trappings of research into questions that concerns “law and ideology”, and often it is best to point only to the developments in a particular state to offer a meaningful discourse.

For some time now, at least since Vladimir Putin rose to power in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa (new Russia in this context, but Russia generally in other references), he has been promoting the idea of vertikalnaja vlast(power vertical) – or rule from the executive, in which power is consolidated centrally and manages the affairs of the state. The idea of vertikalnaja vlast in which a central source manages and coordinates the government and state in a tight manner is based on the view that in complex societies such as Rossiyskaya Federatiysaonly a central source of power can deliver the rule of law to unite the state. In this case the rule of law is an expression of the political. This is how I have come to construct the notion of the “political vertical” based on (a) the vertikalnaja vlast doctrine and (b) law seen as an extension of politics.

But my (subjective) outlook raises a number of other questions, and this is where the well-known Russophile, Bill Bowring comes in, because he has managed to provide a number of answers to similar questions in this work. Bowring’s work sometimes reads like a tale from Alexander Pushkin’s Istoriya Pugacheva (A History of Pugachev, 1833-4) or Mikhail Lermontov’s Stranniy Chelovek (A Strange Man, 1831 first published in 1860). Both works were written thirty years prior to the great legal and political reforms of Alexander II that began in the 1860s. Bowring manages to provide a narrative full of drama, tragedy and philosophical encounters, all the while narrating the various epochs that shaped Rossiyskaya Federatiysa in its ideological and legal evolution. And, Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, is indeed “strange” (Winston Churchill famously quipped that Russia is a riddle, full of mystery ‘inside an enigma’ (3)), and full of various rebellions (revolutions) that often aspire to great ideals and change.

Law and ideology from a Russian perspective are both progressive (revolutionary) and represent a struggle to adapt. If Pushkin was recounting the Pugachev Rebellion with new material and Lermontov was discussing a romantic drama with tales of sadistic rule, then Bowring is also narrating various Russian epochs with new material and telling the tales of victimhood via human rights and the death penalty, albeit with Russian material some of which he browsed at libraries in Moscow. Bowring’s narrative is set in three “scenes” that embodies a typical format when discussing Russia: i) the imperial period, broadly Chapters 1-4, ii) the Soviet period, Chapters 5-6, and iii) Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, Chapters 7-10, followed by a conclusion and an autobiographical sketch by Bowring of himself.

From the very beginning, Bowring is adamant that the book is just a collection of episodes and themes that are landmarks, and warns his readers that the ‘book is not a general history of law in Russia; neither is it one of politics or ideas.’ (1) Indeed, one gets the feeling that the book contains snippets, or “landmarks” of history of law in Russia, of how ideological theories shaped Russia during the imperial and Soviet periods, and how some of those ideas are again taking shape in the new Russia in the form of “sovereign democracy” (managed democracy), a theme Bowring discusses beautifully , although that discussion is brief. Russophiles get a rapid introduction to a series of historical and theoretical events in the history of Russia which most of the early chapters cover, while seasoned Kremlinologists can pay close attention to two particular chapters: the one on Yevgeniy Pashukanis and the chapter on “sovereign democracy”.

In Chapters 1 and 2 Bowring recounts how Karl Marx and Adam Smith influenced ideological and legal innovations in Russia. Bowring relies heavily on a number of authors, using numerous long quotations, to demonstrate that Marx and a combination of early Russian religious beliefs embed the idea that Russia had a messianic duty to save the world thus creating a ‘Russian identity and ideology.’ (17) A religiously infused Russia coupled with early Marxian thought set the tone for Russia’s course with destiny. Bowring is not convinced that we ought to believe that Russian ideology and legal philosophy began with Marxian thought. Adam Smith, he contends, also had a role, and in Chapter 2 he produces a convincing discussion on how the Scottish enlightenment influenced legal innovations in the Russian empire, in particular through the Scottish educated jurist Semyon Desnitskiy (1740-89) and the German educated Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-65).

Unlike Chapter 1, which lacks substantial discussion of the lengthy quotes, Chapter 2 provides an excellent narrative on the early emergence of reformism and legal thought in Russia. The effects of those legal innovations and reforms kick in, in the 1860s, when Tsar Alexander II initiated the great legal reforms in Russia that Bowring discusses in Chapter 3; and which, in an ironical twist of fate, Putin reactivated in the 2000s. One of those reforms was trial by jury which Putin successfully restored in Russia. But prior to the new Russia, the remnants of imperial Russia flirted with a mixture of Marxism and Lenin’s Bolshevism, ideas that gave the world the Soviet Union. Soviet jurists had to adjust their legal and philosophical thoughts to fit the new paradigm, and Bowring explores the works of eminent Soviet jurists such as Pashukanis in Chapter 4 and the idea of self-determination in international law in Chapter 5.

The short lived flirtation with communism and the disappearance of the Soviet Union overnight (in 1991) left Russia in a wounded state, and by 1999 a new tsar from the “imperial courts” of St. Petersburg arrived in Moscow. His message was a new form of Russian conservatism and interpretation of the rule of law:vertikalnaja vlast, and “sovereign democracy” would be the new mantra that began to shape Rossiyskaya Federatiysa. In Chapter 6 and 7 Bowring recounts how the internal struggles by “provinces” in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa for independence along the lines of the Republics of the former Soviet Union created a ‘parade of sovereignties’ and autonomy. In a number of themes Bowring highlights some of the complications thatRossiyskaya Federatiysa faced with its subjects, and how it had to enter into bilateral treaties.

Those discussions are too short and in any event cannot be fitted into a book that purports to give snippets of the events that shaped Russia. The internal struggles for “independence” (autonomy) in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, Bowring declares, had much stronger roots than in most western democracies which gave Russia a greater tolerance of religious and legal pluralism. By Chapter 8, Bowring begins to show his strength, and in what is the best chapter up to that point, he describes the pro and cons of the human rights debate inRossiyskaya Federatiysa and its accession to the Council of Europe (COE), and then in Chapter 9 the debate on the death penalty. By this point, it is also evident that Bowring has an agenda – Russia is terrible at compliance with its obligations in the human rights field and this is due in part to ‘anti-Western and anti-liberal thinking’ (173) and, what seems “strange” to Bowring, Russia’s efforts to abolish the death penalty (191), especially the steps taken during the imperial period.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book, in particular from a law and ideology perspective, is the discussion of sovereign democracy in Chapter 10, which Bowring argues ‘has a direct impact on law and on human rights’ (194) in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa. The idea of sovereign democracy – ‘the supreme independent (sovereign) power of the people (democracy)’, as one justification puts it, is largely a phenomena ofRossiyskaya Federatiysa where, broadly, the vertical power consolidates the Russian government and manages the affairs of the state from a central point (president and siloviki). One of its sponsors declares: ‘Russian democracy – is sovereign, and the sovereignty of the Russian state – is democratic … Precisely for this reason in the globalizing world the defense of the interests of the state demands the uniting and not the breaking up of sovereignties.’ (197) The emergence of this new form of thought in modern Russia is the work of a handful of young conservatives who belong to institutions such as the Supreme Court, influential research institutes in Moscow with government connections, and elite academic institutions.

The proponents of sovereign democracy have resurrected theorists such as Carl Schmitt to argue thatRossiyskaya Federatiysa had a duty to defend its national interests especially from external influences such as the European Court of Human Rights to which it subjected itself when it joined the COE. Bowring is rather disturbed at the invocation of Carl Schmitt in the new Russian ideology of sovereign democracy and the impact Russian constitutional scholars, who are proponents of sovereign democracy, have on ‘the ideology of law and relations between Russian and the European Court of Human Rights’ (203), Although the Chapter ends without a proper conclusion or assessment, without a doubt Bowring has a deep insight into Russian law and ideological developments, in particular the ones he highlights as landmarks in this narrative.

But Bowring’s narrative suffers from a few shortcomings. The most anticipated discussion, and arguably the most gripping chapter – on sovereign democracy – suffers from a lack of detailed discussion. This is also a feature in most of the other chapters. Although rich in mostly Russian sources and lengthy quotations throughout, one often gets the feeling that a skeletal brief for a court argument has been drafted and presented without the support of extensive analysis.

Nevertheless, Bowring uses his combined talent in law and philosophy to produce a narrative that will grab the interest of Russophiles and Kremlinologists alike. But perhaps one of the greatest contributions that Bowring makes is giving anti-Russians a useful insight into how to contextualize their arguments when making claims about Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, because westerners generally make a lot of claims about Russia without properly understanding the enigma that spans the Eurasian landmass with its varied “peoples”, ideas and legal pluralism. Bowring should be commended for transferring some of that knowledge into an accessible format in what is largely a gripping discourse on a strange people often fraught with rebellions.

18 February 2015

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