Orthodoxy and the Rule of Law in Russia

by Paul Valliere and Randall A. Poole

book cover

Scholarly study of the interaction of law and religion is well established in Europe and America, but it is not evenly distributed across the religious and ecclesiastical spectrum. There is a vast literature on some aspects of the subject, such as religion in the American constitutional order and law in the history of Roman Catholicism. Issues of law and religion in the Orthodox world, however, have not received much attention. Law and the Christian Tradition in Modern Russia (Routledge, 2022), a volume sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and edited by Paul Valliere and Randall A. Poole, seeks to promote awareness and further investigation of this subject. Since law is an essential ingredient of the public sphere in every developed society, the topic is of obvious relevance to scholars and activists exploring public Orthodoxy.

Our book focuses on the most creative age in the history of Russian law—the century stretching from the Napoleonic wars to the revolutions of 1917. A team of North American, European, and Russian scholars presents twelve concise portraits of outstanding Russian jurists and philosophers of law of the period. A few of these figures, such as Mikhail Speransky and Vladimir Soloviev, will be familiar to Orthodox readers, but most are not well known beyond the circle of specialists in Russian law and legal thought. Also included in our volume are chapters describing the historical and ecclesiastical background of law and religion in Russia.

The story of Orthodoxy and law in Russia has always consisted of two distinct but mutually relevant topics: the production of legal norms within the Orthodox Church itself (canon law), and the interaction of the Orthodox Church with the juridical values of the environment in which the church has found itself. The classical Orthodox canonical tradition, which took shape in Byzantium before the Christianization of Russia, was introduced into Russia along with the other traditions and practices of the Orthodox Church. In this sense, the church was a source of law in Russia. But the church was also a subject of law because no Russian state could afford to ignore it. For centuries, the Orthodox Church was by far the largest and best organized institution in the Russian lands. Its role in the Russian polity could not be overlooked or marginalized.

Law and legal development were by no means lacking in medieval and Muscovite Russia. The popular image of Muscovy as an “oriental despotism”—a dubious concept in any case—has been challenged by recent scholarship. Nevertheless, no one would deny that a robust, self-conscious, and well-schooled legal culture arose in Russia much later than in the West. The same can be said of the Orthodox world generally. A venerable legal tradition existed in the Byzantine state, of course, but after 1453, the institutional network supporting this culture declined precipitously and state support disappeared entirely. Not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did the work of rebuilding a juridical culture get under way in Russia and the rest of the Orthodox world.

The relatively late emergence of a Russian juridical culture contributed significantly to the Western stereotype of Russia as a country incapable of achieving the rule of law and therefore having to rely on autocratic forms of control. For reasons of their own, the Slavophiles and some of Russia’s greatest writers, including Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, also promoted the notion that juridical values contradicted the spirit of Russia. Skepticism toward juridical values, often tied to anti-Catholic polemics, surfaced in twentieth century Orthodox theology as well. Against this background, the story of a dozen brilliant and productive Russian Orthodox jurists and philosophers of law stands as an important corrective.

The critical study of Orthodox canon law was an integral component of the juridical tradition that developed in nineteenth-century Russia. The leading canonists of the period—Aleksei Pavlov, Ilya Berdnikov, Mikhail Gorchakov, Nikolai Zaozerskii, and others—are virtually unknown except to specialists, but the body of work they left behind surpasses anything achieved in Orthodox canonical studies since their time. Along with a few canonists in other Orthodox churches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the modern Russian canonists are an indispensable starting point for addressing the long list of issues facing contemporary Orthodox canon law. Writing in 1972, a half-century after the last works of the pre-revolutionary canonists, Father John Meyendorff opened his essay on “Contemporary Problems of Orthodox Canon Law” by stating, “If there is an area in which contemporary Orthodox thought can be said to be in crisis, it is certainly canon law.” Meyendorff’s article is now a half-century old itself, yet the conflicts and ruptures afflicting twenty-first century Orthodoxy show that his statement remains as pertinent today as it was in 1972.[1]

The history of Russia’s struggle to achieve the rule of law also remains pertinent in our day. Authoritarian values are still prominent in contemporary Russia, not only in the state, but in church and society as well. Faced with this reality, many outside observers and even many Russians give in to a sense of inevitability: “This is how Russia has always been, and always will be!” Law and the Christian Tradition in Modern Russia calls this pessimism into question, not by inveighing against it, but by documenting the incontrovertible achievements of Russian jurists, philosophers of law, and canonists in the century preceding the collapse of 1917–1921 and the long Soviet winter. Orthodox readers and all who wish Russia well in the twenty-first century will find this story worth thinking about.

[1] Meyendorff’s essay was published in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 17/1 (1972): 41–50; republished with revisions in Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 99–114.

Paul Valliere is Emeritus Professor of Religion at Butler University.

Randall A. Poole is Professor of History at the College of St. Scholastica.