The end of 2013 witnessed a flurry of legal activity in the Russian Federation. A number of prominent political defendants—including the members of Pussy Riot; some, but not all, of the Bolotnaya Square demonstrators arrested in May 2012; and the Greenpeace activists arrested offshore three months ago—were released as part of a major amnesty passed by the Russian Duma. President Vladimir Putin’s unexpected pardon of Mikhail Khodorkovsky fueled additional speculation as to the future direction of Russian legal reform. Some observers cited Putin’s own initiative in freeing Khodorkovsky as an encouraging sign, while other commentators insisted that far from having taken a positive step, Putin had been forced to respond to persistent human rights pressures, especially in anticipation of the Sochi Olympics.
Both the amnesty and the pardon overshadowed what was a major milestone in Russian legal history: On Dec. 12, 2013, Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The amnesty itself was initiated as a traditional means of honoring such an important occasion.
Two decades may seem like a rather modest anniversary to outside observers, but for Russia, it is a notable achievement. Starting with the Fundamental Laws of 1906, Russia has lived under seven different constitutions, of which only one—the Stalin constitution of 1936—lasted more than 20 years. This turnover reflects Russia’s turbulent 20th century, and many doubted whether the 1993 constitution, which was born of intense political rivalry that eventually erupted into open violence, would serve as anything more than a transitional document. Yet it has now lasted two decades, sufficient time to assess whether the constitution can establish the legal institutions and procedures to protect the basic civil and economic rights of Russian citizens.