The Russian Federation's Legal System

 Map of the Russian Federation

A Brief History of the Russian Federation

To have any kind of understanding about the Russian Federation, you must understand the events of the past one hundred years as well.  After the Russian Empire was defeated in the First World War, communist forces seized power over the empire and formed the United Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR.  This event was led by Lenin and other communist leaders and is generally known as the October Revolution.  On October 24, 1917, Lenin ordered that Red Army troops storm the Winter Palace and arrest all Romanovs still hiding within its walls.  Soon after this, Lenin changed the worker's party’s name from that of ‘Bolshevik’ to ‘Communist’.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was elected the first chairman of the USSR and promptly moved the nation’s capital to Moscow.  Membership in the Communist party rose to a height of seven percent of the entire national population during the 1930s through 1950s, during the reign of Joseph Stalin, one of the most genocidal leaders in world history.

The economic and social growth of the USSR stagnated through the following decades, until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduced ‘Glasnost’ (openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (restructuring) during the 1980s.  Unfortunately, the Communist system could not handle the strain of such programs, and ultimately collapsed in December of 1991 when the USSR splintered into fifteen different independent republics.  At this time, President Boris Yeltsin signed a treaty officially dissolving the Soviet Republic, which lowered its national flag for the last time on December 31, 1991.

Early in 1992, Yeltsin’s administration initiated a hard-line monetary policy that grew in unpopularity at an astonishingly quick rate.  This attempt forced many state run economic systems to fail and lost numerous markets for Russian exports.  Living conditions within Russia quickly deteriorated and were further worsened by political
battles between President Yeltsin and Parliament, who was supported by then Vice President Ruskoi.   Both sides routinely tried to wrest control away from the other that continued fruitlessly until the ‘Civil War of Moscow’, in October of 1993.

Following this national crisis, the Russian Federation began a complete overhaul of its governmental systems, rewrote their constitution and designed the current system they now are working under.


The Russian Federation is a federal state with sources of including the Constitution, federal laws and laws of subjects of federation.  This system requires that all its administrative laws comply with the Constituion and any legislation passed by the State.  The power base in Russia is basically divided between the parliament and the president. Russia’s legislature, the Federal Assembly, is divided into two chambers – the upper Federation Council and the lower State Duma. The two houses meet separately, but may hold joint closed meetings.

The outline of the present parliament was created after President Boris Yeltsin dissolved a hostile legislature in the fall of 1993. A referendum in December of the same
year passed a new constitution defining parliament’s powers. The Federation Council, the Federal Assembly’s upper chamber, has 178 deputies, two from each of
Russia’s 89 regions. One of the members is the locally elected executive head; the other is the head of the regional legislature, selected by the elected regional deputies.
The Federation Council is the weaker half of the legislature, but still has been vested with considerable authority under the 1993 constitution. Deputies have the power to confirm border changes within the federation, approve the introduction of martial law or a state of emergency by the president and vote on the deployment of Russian armed forces outside of  borders. They are also empowered to schedule presidential elections, impeach the president, approve the appointment of Constitutional and Supreme Court judges and approve or dismiss the General Prosecutor.

While most laws submitted by the lower house, the State Duma, do not require the approval of the Federation Council before being sent to the president, some laws must
be ratified by both houses. These include laws on the federal budget and taxes; financial, foreign currency, credit, and customs regulation and money emissions; the
ratification or rejection of international treaties; the status and protection of the country’s borders; and declarations of war and peace.

The Federation Council has the option of voting on other legislation passed by the Duma. If the deputies do not make a decision on the law within 14 days, it is
automatically forwarded to the president for approval.

 However, if the deputies reject the law, committees comprised of representatives of both houses may be set up to make appropriate changes, and the law may go back
to the Duma for another vote.

 The Federation Council is headed by a chairperson and his/her deputies, elected by the chamber. The State Duma consists of 450 seats and is elected through two types of mandates. The first is the party-list vote, whereby 225 seats are divided among those parties which hurdle the 5 percent vote barrier to becoming memebers. The other 225 seats are distributed through single-member constituencies on a first-past-the-post, or a plurality, basis.  Deputies serve a four-year term and are not permitted to hold other types of employment. The Duma shoulders the main responsibility for passing federal laws. A law is adopted by a majority vote unless
otherwise provided for by the constitution. It is then turned over to the Federation Council, which has 14 days to take a vote on the issue. If it is rejected, it is returned to the Duma, which then can only pass it if two-thirds of the Duma deputies vote for it again in the same form.

According to the guidelines set out in the constitution, the Dumas’s responsibilities include approving the president’s choice of prime minister and holding a confidence
vote on the government. The head of the central bank is approved or dismissed by the lower chamber. It also has the right to declare amnesties and begin impeachment
proceedings against the president. The Duma is headed by the speaker and his/her deputies, elected by the chamber.

Russia’s executive branch of the government is headed by the president. The president is elected by popular vote and must receive a majority. In case one candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election is held. The term of office is four years, and one person may only serve for two terms. The holder of the office received broad powers under the 1993 constitution. The president controls the Defense and Security Councils and is in charge of the country's foreign policy. The prime minister is selected by the president but must be approved by the Duma. However, if the president's choice is rejected, the chamber can be dissolved by the president and new elections called.  The current president of the Russian Federation is Vladimir Putin, and with the prime minister chooses the Cabinet and the heads of the three "power ministries" - the ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs.  All these ministries report directly to the president concerning any matters that fall under their jurisdiction.The president can draft laws to submit to the Federal Assembly and has veto rights. An executive veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament. The president schedules elections to the State Duma and has the power to dissolve the chamber. The president is also the commander in chief of the armed forces, can appoint or dismiss top military commanders, and may declare martial law or a state of emergency.

The Russian Constitution

The Russian Constitution is divided into two sections, nine chapters, and 137 articles.  Based upon Russia's past history, in which no other form of democratic government has existed, civil liberties and self-determination are key points within their Constitution.  Equally important are the ideas of human rights and civil liberties for the private citizen.  Since the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of Communism, these rights and ideals were oppressed to the point of non-existence.  Now, with the rise of free markets and the proliferation of democratic rule,  the Constitution attempts to embody these changes in Russian society.  The preamble and first chapter are donated to expressing the right of citizens to own land, vote, express differing political ideals, and pursue objectives while maintaining the basic rights of all people.

The fourth chapter in the constitution deals with executive power and enumerates the powers and limitations of the presidential office.  Fearful of the possibility of another dictatorship under a strong central figure, most power resides within the legislature, limiting the chances of another Stalin or Lenin.  Another important provision in this chapter establishes the rule that the Russian President is subject to the laws of the federation, thus making him accountable for any and all actions he takes while acting in an official capacity.  The seventh chapter, which is the most important for this site, deals with the powers and role of the judiciary.  It sets outs the guidelines for the legal process in the civil and criminal areas of the law.  One new feature of the Russian legal system expressly enumerated is the right to a trial by jury if stipulated within the statute.  Each state, much like the United States, has its own court system that can have appeals reach the federal level after exhausting the local possibilities.

The Russian Legal System

The Russian system is a civil law system, like much of the Eurasian area.  Although precedent is not given great preference, it is involved somewhat in how judge's decide certain issues.  A Russian court of general jurisdiction cannot nullify a statute holding it unconstitutional; in other words, the judiciary in Russia in general has no functions of judicial review, with one exception--in 1991 the Constitutional Court of Russia was established. The Constitutional Court is vested with the power of constitutional review, i.e., it can, upon motion of an interested governmental organization, hold a statute or an executive enactment unconstitutional, or give its interpretation of the Constitution. It is also the rule that whenever an issue of constitutionality of an act involved in a case is raised during proceedings before a regular court, such an issue is automatically referred to the Constitutional Court. This Court functions autonomously from the rest of the Judiciary, in a manner unseen in American courts.

The Russian Judiciary

The judiciary in Russia is not a single whole; it is split into three branches: the regular court system with the Supreme Court at the top, the arbitration co urt system with the High Court of Arbitration on top, and the Constitutional Court as a single body with no courts under it. Whenever there is a dispute between business entities, the case is taken for trial by the courts of arbitration (business or economic courts in fact). The system of these courts is on two levels topped by the High Court of Arbitration. There are eighty-two courts of arbitration with some two-thousand judges handling about three hundred thousand disputes annually. But if a party to a civil case is a private citizen, not involved in business activities, the dispute has to be handled by a court of general jurisdiction.

Throughout Russia there are about fourteen thousand judges in some two thousand five hundred courts of general jurisdiction on various levels. The vast majori ty of
litigation in Russia is heard by these regular courts. In 1993 these courts handled, for instance, one million eight hundred thousand civil cases.

The major link in the regular court system is the people's court. It serves each city district or rural district. Apart from the arbitration court system, there are no courts of special jurisdiction in Russia like those handling domestic relations or probate disputes. As trial courts of general jurisdiction, the people's district courts handle over ninety percent of all civil and criminal cas es. Only a limited category of cases involving the most serious crimes fails di rectly under the original jurisdiction of the next level of courts--the oblast (region, province) courts. Cases are tried by one of several methods: a case ca n be tried by a presiding, professional judge and two lay judges called "people 's assessors," or by a panel of three professional judges, or by a single judge . In 1993 Russia started to experiment with jury trials (panels of twelve jurors). A jury trial is only available in serious crimes--those where jurisdiction originates in the oblast courts.  A decision made by the lower trial courts can be appealed through intermediate courts up to the Supreme Court of Russia. It should also be noted that all higher courts have discretionary trial jurisdiction over almost all matters of legal dispute.

Direct appeal to a higher court (in the Russian legal system the appellate procedure is called "cassational review") is not the only way for a party to complain against a trial court decision. The Russian legal system provides the right of citizens to appeal to higher courts even when the time limits prescribed for cassational review have expired. This right can be exercised not only by a person duly convicted an d serving the sentence, but by anyone who wants to proceed on behalf of such person.  Acting upon this appeal the chairperson of a higher court or the procurat or of the corresponding level exercise their supervisory powers and bring their own complaint (called "protest") against the lower court's decision.

The Supreme Court of Russia does not have the right of judicial review but has the right of legislative initiative and may submit its conclusions concerning the
interpretation of laws. The highly authoritative view of the Supreme Court is always taken into consideration by lawmakers, but it cannot overturn laws in the way the US Supreme Court can.   Apart from this, the Supreme Court issues guiding instructions for lower courts on specific matters of law based on the analysis of the administration of justice in a particular field of law. Such guiding instructions have a binding effe ct upon all courts as well as upon those state agencies and officials who use the law in their work. The rulings of the Supreme Court can therefore be used as guiding forces of Russian law rather than mandates.

Executive Branch and Law Enforcement

The Ministry of Justice of Russia exercises important coordinating functions in the legal field, but it is not a law enforcement agency like the US Department of Justice.  It is an executive agency that provides administrative support for the courts with t he formally stated purpose of improving the administration of justice and making judicial administration more efficient. In this respect, its functions are similar to those of the Federal Judicial Center and the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

There is now a move afoot from the courts to make themselves more independent from the executive branch, and henceforth from the Ministry. The Ministry is directly involved in systemization and codification of the laws. It directs the activities of notari al and official registry offices, forensic centers and laboratories. The Ministry promotes the development of legal science. The Ministry trains legal personnel for courts and runs courses of continuing legal education for judges.

In occasional competition with the Ministry is an extra-constitutional body established approximately three years ago that functions as advisor to the President on legal policy. It is called the State Legal Department of the President, abbreviated in Russ ian GPU. This organization promulgates draft legislation and reviews the drafts of other organizations in order to make recommendations to the President. Since its formation it has become very active in issues involving reform of the judiciary and criminal law.

Law enforcement functions are performed by the Procurator General's Office (procuratura) with subordinate agencies in cities and provinces, by the Ministry of
Internal Affairs with subordinate agencies, and by the Federal Counterintelligence Service (form er sized down counterintelligence department of the dismembered
KGB). The Procurator's office supervises the legality in the activities of all law enforcement agencies, investigates crimes and prosecutes criminals.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is the headquarters of all police agencies (called "militia" in Russia), but this ministry also runs correctional institutions and fire forces,
and performs some administrative functions. The Federal Counterintelligence Service is responsible for counterintelligence work, and it also investigates (jointly with
other agencies or separately) organized crime and terrorist acts.

Legal Training and Organization

Lawyers in private practice in Russia work mostly within colleges of advocates--self-managed, cooperative-type organizations There are about nineteen thousand
advocates in more than one hundred colleges. The highest body of advocates' self-management is the general meeting of a college. The presidium headed by the
chairperson is the executive board of each college. The presidium is elected by the general meeting for a term of three years.

These colleges of advocates are formed in accordance with territorial subdivisions--in the cities, regions (oblasts), Republics or autonomous entities. In its territory any college is represented by law firms or legal aid offices, which render all regular legal assistance to citizens: advocates counsel people, draft legal documents, represent plaintiffs or defendants in civil litigation, and provide defense in criminal proceedings.   Today, there are more American-type law firms in Russia functioning separately from colleges of advocates, and especially involved in representing private businesses.

Many lawyers are employed by the law offices of enterprises, ministries and agencies as in-house counsel (juriconsult). These lawyers have all powers of an attorney, but they represent their single and permanent "client"--their respective organization. Th ere are about twenty thousand of them in Russia, and in view of the economic reform this body of legal work is growing.

Of course, many in the legal profession teach or do academic research work. In Russia there are forty institutions of higher education in law (either a law school
attached to a university or a separate entity called a "juridical institute"). New private law schools are constantly being established. There are also separate research centers in law, the most prominent of which is the Institute of State and Law under the Academy of Sciences of Russia.


Since its inception in 1993, the Russian Federation has been undergoing a massive transformation.  This change, brought on by the rise of a democratic government and a free market, has greatly affected its legal field as well.  Although a civil law system, it has been undergoing massive change since its inception, with new laws and procedures being added to the system everyday.  So this country, with one of the most culturally rich histories in the world, could be considered an infant in the world of modern law; but considering its rate of growth, it will not remain that way for long.