Valery Dmitrievich Zorkin has sat atop the Russian judiciary for most of the last 20 years. Through both his rulings and his rhetoric, Zorkin has artfully shaped modern Russian strategic thinking and foreign policy.
“In Russia there is no law. There is a pillar, and on that pillar sits the Crown.”
As Chairman of the Constitutional Court of Russia, Valery Dmitrievich Zorkin has had an unparalleled impact upon the operations of the state, and the Russian social contract. The Chairman directly convenes and presides over all constitutional rulings with regards to the legal validity of laws passed by the executive and legislative branches. The Chairman also administers the oath of office for the President of Russia. Amongst recent reforms, the Chairman’s power has been brought closer under the purview of the President, with the executive abolishing the courts internal (and democratic) nomination process for position placement, replacing it with direct nomination from the President.
Who then is the man entrusted by Putin to this role? Valery Zorkin has been a figurehead in Russia since the 1990’s, and has become the very embodiment of the Russian rule of law. His prolific writings offer deep insight into emerging ideological trends within the Russian government, and the likely direction of not only the court but wider Russian society.
Zorkin recently surmised that “Russia is destined to be a strong state,” giving legal validity and special purpose to a new state of autocracy where rule by law is an essential component. This he calls “authoritarian modernisation”, believed to be an “effective methodology for the management of the future.” Putting a legal spin to what has become the “strengthening” – read tightening – of state regulatory functions under President Vladimir Putin, Zorkin envisages his own role as leader and statesmen of the Russian “Generals of jurisprudence,” who will set the country “on the road of law.”
Zorkin’s ideas are heavily influenced by the works of Boris Chicherin, whom he characterises as the “ideal Russian liberal.” The combination of “liberal measures and powerful authority” serves as supreme political wisdom for Russia. Though for Chicherin, and subsequently Zorkin, emphasis was always placed on strong autocratic rule, which he labelled “a good travel friend” for independent Russian courts. For Zorkin, these views also extend to the Executive, with more recent writings questioning the necessity of Russia having a two-party political system, and one directly at odds with the constitution and specifically Article 13(3)’s guarantee of political diversity and party plurality.
Also like Chicherin, Zorkin has looked favourably upon a constitutional monarchy, and indeed has frequented Russian monarchist meetings in search of building stronger foundations for such an institution. An absolutist form of monarchy undoubtedly appeals to the post-Soviet proclivity for social stability, and long-term policy making. For Zorkin, these ideals can coexist for the better with the institutions of the presidency, a position within the judiciary that he has sought to strengthen. Speaking, for instance, on proposed constitutional changes to redistribute powers between the president and Parliament, thereby weakening Putin’s authority, Zorkin decried this as anathema to the health of the Russian state, and nothing other than “legal idealism.”
Most troubling for Zorkin, however, is the concept and institution of human rights, which he describes as “groundless” due to its enshrinement of individual freedoms above social solidarity, and the prioritisation of minority interests over the majority. This is at odds with what Zorkin coins the “Russian legal mentality,” believing that those who depart from this system of rigid restriction cannot be categorised as human. Liberalism in this context is nothing but a policy to protect the selfish interests of the strongest global actors. Warning of the coming “post-human” future, Zorkin views Klaus Schwab’s “COVID-19: The Great Reset” as evidence of a greater conspiracy by Western elites, and specifically the World Economic Forum, to pursue global domination.
In proposing a solution to combat this “globalism” by Western elites, Zorkin draws upon 19th century conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontiev, calling for an authoritarian “freeze” to prevent this sub-human liberalism from penetrating Russia. Zorkin deliberately stokes conservative anxieties over the perceived international attack on “morally correct priorities”– like traditional heteronormative family structures and particularly the role of a man as patriarch.
The Chairman approaches Postmodernism in much the same light, decrying the “pitiless tolerance” of “post-Christian Europe.” Here, he sees Postmodernism as a Western propaganda effort aimed at destroying the fabric of cultural identity. Drawing parallels with Napoleon’s 1812 invasion, he considers certain NGOs and their Russian followers to be “Western civilized barbarians” who seek to invade Russia with the help of “postmodernist informational falsifications.” This blend of collectivism and conservativism lays the groundwork for Russian exceptionalism. The added mischaracterisation of the West as having collectively departed from enlightenment values has incentivised Zorkin and the court to propose a “universal human legal worldview” as an alternative to Western hegemony. What this worldview will propose in its stead is concurrently under development.
Such an adversarial paradigm is at the core of “Primakov doctrine” – espoused by Yevgeny Primakov in the 1990s to deny alternative centres of power with a strong Russian counterbalance. By the turn of the century, both Zorkin and Primakov came to insist that Russia assert its primacy and fight against Western hegemony. This will benefit the whole world, Zorkin later went on to state, through “the law of dialectics whereby the unity and struggle of opposites is the main driver of all development.” Fundamentally, Zorkin feared Russian stagnation most of all. A competitive Russia, or a Russia at war, is the optimal calibration for Russian society, he insisted. Indeed, aside from the special operation in Ukraine, this war is already taking place. “Standing on the ruin of the Soviet socialist system, and under pressure from the postmodernist practice of double standards and stifling economic sanctions,” Zorkin writes, “[w]e will have to literally fight our way through to our legal future.”
In 2005, Putin famously categorised the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” In much the same way, Zorkin has viewed the dissolution of the USSR and the “hastily and rashly altered borders” of post-Soviet eastern Europe as a “serious threat to international security.” And like Putin, Zorkin has engaged in historical revisionism, verging on scapegoating, highlighting the active role of American advisers behind former President Boris Yeltsin. In turn, this state-endorsed revisionism is aimed at legitimising the current government’s policy toward post-Soviet states.
For Zorkin and much of the Russian state apparatus, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc is a source of humiliation that must be rectified. The spectre of Western-backed colour revolutions in bordering nations makes the claim for a broader territorial reclamation a matter of pressing importance. Take for example the annexation of Crimea. The Constitutional Court was petitioned by the president to legally recognise the “Treaty on Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia,” admitting Crimea to the Russian Federation. The Court decided to defer fully to the Executive on this question finding the annexation legally valid. Under Zorkin’s command, the court was a mere rubber stamp. Crimea’s annexation, under the guise of self-determination, was in-effect a return to legal norms, not an obfuscation of it. The Western backed “Maidan 2014 coup d’etat,” Zorkin believed, was an unconstitutional seizure of power, and one that required the mutineers be criminally prosecuted:
“the Constitution of Russia as a democratic law-governed state does not admit the unconstitutional replacement of power…I cannot but note that state turnover as a means to solve problems is illness, pathology of political organism.”
This stands in stark contrast to his views on the first Chechen war. In 1995, Zorkin disagreed with the Court’s decision to recognise the president’s decree to bring the Russian military into Chechnya as constitutional. His dissent was based on his “judge’s conscience,” coinciding with a period of exile where he was removed from the chairmanship of the court but remained as a member (1993-2003).
Despite Zorkin’s dissent, the Chechnya decision was at its heart teleological. Much like the Crimean decision, questions of legality are answered before they arise. According to Justice Nikolai Vitruk, the court does not employ “constitutionality” and “legality” in its rulings, nor on the framers’ intentions on these meanings. Some constitutional questions in other words required ignoring in the interest “to preserve the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” For the executive and the judiciary, Russian foreign policy is too important for legal scrutiny. It will continue to operate unbridled and unchallenged as long as Zorkin remains Chairman of the Constitutional Court.
Scott Reid is a Juris Doctor student at Monash University and recently completed an internship with the International Bar Association. He has worked for the Parliament of Victoria and attended the AIIA’s study tour of Indonesia in 2019.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.