Legality in Soviet Political Culture: a Perspective on Gorbachev's Reforms
At the Nineteenth Party Conference in July 1988 the Gorbachev leadership made a commitment to far-reaching judicial reform and the extension of the role of law in public administration. In response to a public movement for legal reform the leaders went so far as to adopt as a goal the creation of a socialist state based on law (Rechtsstaat). The actual shape of the reforms remained to be determined, but it was clear that they would deal with such issues as the independence of judges, the right to defence, and the role of courts in both supervising criminal investigations and protecting citizen rights. 1
The adoption and implementation of reforms of this kind was bound to encounter difficulties, if only because of the traditional Soviet condescension toward law. Soviet officials and politicians were not used to subordinating their interests to law. Many of them treated the law as an instrument to be embraced when useful and ignored when expedient. In short, their actions reflected the syndrome known as 'legal nihilism'. 2
In a recent essay of remarkable breadth and insight veteran legal reporter Yuri Feofanov provided striking examples of legal nihilism. A classic was the infamous case of Ian Rokotov. 3 In 1958 police in Moscow apprehended this leader of a gang of hard currency speculators with a briefcase containing millions of rubles and a large quantity of jewels. At the time, speculation in hard currency brought a maximum punishment of eight years in prison, but just as the trial began an edict extended the maximum term to fifteen. How did this happen? The investigatory agencies had held a public exhibition of the goods seized, and the exhibition received a visit from a 'high, very high person, who was beside himself with rage'. On the very next day the edict appeared. Accordingly, the Moscow city court followed suit and sentenced Rokotov to fifteen years, but this did not assuage the
wrath of the very high person. Within weeks the law changed again, this time to allow capital punishment in cases of hard currency operations in large amounts, again retroactively. On appeal the RSFSR Supreme Court sentenced Rokotov and one of his young companions to death.