Why do Russians ignore laws?

Russian Constitutional Court file photo

(Pravda.ru – Nadezhda Alexeeva – December 25, 2013) Do the Russians know the laws? Are they able to defend their rights in court? Are they aware of their constitutional rights? It seems that the level of legal culture in Russia is not particularly high, and even the officials do not read the Constitution. What is behind this legal nihilism, and what are the prospects to overcome it sooner or later?

This week the chairman of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin proposed an initiative to introduce an exam on the basic law of the country for all incoming civil service applicants. As it turns out, even Russian officials have a very vague idea about the Constitution. What can you expect from ordinary citizens when the authorities demonstrate legal illiteracy?

It so happened that the legal culture of the Russian population remains at a very low level.

Everyone can think of a number of examples when they had to deal with blatant ignorance of the law among both ordinary citizens and officials. For example, a Railways cashier is trying to convince her clients that if they are taking their own child abroad, for example, to the territory of Ukraine, they must have a notarized authorization from the second parent of the child, or else they will be taken off the train on the border. However, when it comes to border guards, they just look at the documents quickly and silently pass on. No questions, no attempts to take anyone off the train. The guards actually know the laws.

Even if we were not to delve into the maze of specialized codes and consider only the awareness of the most basic laws, the picture is quite depressing. For example, according to the Levada Center polls, 60 percent of the Russians have no idea about the content of the Constitution. 38 percent have never even opened the document, 25 percent read it once but could not remember the content.Another poll was conducted among police officers who were interviewed about their knowledge of the federal law “On Police.” The poll surveyed 2,000 police officers. Over two-thirds of them were not able to correctly answer the questions on the knowledge of the basic law governing their work. Furthermore, police often showed aggression towards interviewers, to the extent that they were detained and taken to police stations. Some said that they did not have the right to disclose the law “On Police,” and one young officer even said that the police service weapons were provided “to take hostages.”

One of the most problematic legal areas is labor relations. The vast majority of the working population does not bother to even look into the Labor Code. As a result, few people realize that they shall be paid double for all overtime beyond 160 hours per month (except when it comes to exempt employees, but in this case the employee is entitled to additional leave). As a result, this law simply does not work in Russia. And who is to blame – the employers who use ignorance of their employees or the employees who are too lazy to read a few dozen pages of the Labor Code?

Sociologists and lawyers call this phenomenon legal nihilism. There are plenty of scientific articles on this subject, and the authors are trying to figure out why Russians neglect their own rights and responsibilities.  What is behind it? Or is the situation not that bad and the legal culture in Russia is gradually improving?

A lawyer Vladimir Khromenko commented for Pravda.Ru:

“The problem is that a lot of new laws are being adopted these days, and it is not that easy to find and read them even for legal professionals. Even MPs do not always understand when and what laws were adopted. We need direct action laws, brief and logical. There are too many laws; there is a federal law for each local situation. Even ministers and MPs cannot read the bills. Their authors bring 900 pages, and no one can read them, we know how laws are passed. MP Makarov said once that he was proud to say that he was the only one of all the deputies who has read the budget law.”

What can we expect from ordinary citizens if even important financial and budgetary laws are adopted based on a brief summary?

Vladislav Grib, Deputy Secretary of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, Vice President of the Russian Union of Lawyers said:

“Most people are aware of the laws that affect their professional sphere. But the main task is to know the Constitution and basic laws, and there are problems with this. The level of legal culture is clearly insufficient, even for those with higher education. Teaching law in schools and universities is not a priority now, although this knowledge is very important in life. ” The lawyer explained that people do not need to know everything; it is sufficient to know at least the basic principles. Unfortunately, we are taught law in either too specialized or too superficial way. The need to standardize law teaching methods in all educational institutions is long overdue. According to the expert, the most important thing is to know the most basic things – constitutional rights, as well as who to contact in case of their violation. Sometimes people are confused by the media, particularly numerous shows imitating trials, especially criminal ones. The reality is far from the way it is portrayed by TV shows.

Perhaps, the reason for people’s indifference to legal expertise lies in two conflicting historical trends.

The first one is the post-Soviet infantilism typical for older people. Laws of that time had discrepancies, but were enforced much better than in the subsequent period. Most importantly, the state monitored observance of the laws, especially issues of work organization and such. Now people must make considerable effort to defend their rights. First they should read the text of the law. But this is not natural for the Russians because people are largely used to going with the flow. The achievements in the field of consumer rights protection mentioned by our experts are linked perhaps with the advent of a number of thematic television and radio shows aimed at protecting the consumer rights.

On the other hand, the legal apathy of the Russians is fueled by an age-old belief that court appeals are a pointless undertaking. People tend to arrange a parallel, shadow system of relationships based on personal acquaintances and monetary offerings to officials. The legal chaos of the 1990s did not contribute to the emergence of legal thinking either. Law was replaced with a system based on injustice and corruption. Officials, law enforcement officers and judges are not the only ones to blame. Bribery is common, but the system is corrupted primarily by citizens themselves who often see bribes as the only way to settle their issues.  At the moment the legal culture in the country is gradually improving, people are more likely to go to courts. The fact that civil courts rule in a just manner inspires optimism (Russians mostly complain about criminal courts). This is very important for the development of legal culture in Russia.