Constitutional update

Since Vladimir Putin suggested amending the Russian constitution and set up a commission to discuss proposals, some 900 amendments have supposedly been submitted to the commission. We now have a better idea of which of these have passed muster and will be considered by the State Duma as additions to the amendments already submitted. The Speaker of the State Duma Viacheslav Volodin announced today that several new clauses would be added for consideration in the second reading of the constitutional reform bill, which is due in the next few days. The text of the changes is said to be 24 pages long. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet available on the Duma website, so we’re going to have to go off what Volodin told the press, but I am assuming that this is accurate.

First, the preamble to the Constitution will now say:

The Russian Federation, united by a thousand year history, preserving the memory of our ancestors, who gave us our ideals and belief in God, and preserving also the succession in the development of the Russian state, is a historically composed state unity.

This wording serves two purposes. First, it adds a references to God. Second, it entrenches the modern Russian Federation’s claim to be the successor of both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. It thereby throws a bone to the Church, while also resolving a debate about Russia’s identity, asserting that all of its past is part and parcel of an integral Russian whole. This is primarily of symbolic meaning, but it does possibly have some practical significance, making it difficult, for instance, to imagine any sort of Ukrainian-style decommunization involving the wholesale elimination of Soviet-era names and monuments.

Second, marriage will be defined as something limited to men and women. This will render same-sex marriage unconstitutional. So-called ‘family values’ will be further protected by another change which will declare that ‘children are the most important property of the Russian Federation’. This reflects the government’s desire to get Russians to have more kids. I doubt that putting these words in the constitution will do much to encourage them. It might, though, at some point be used in some legal argument to bolster the case for children’s rights.

Third, if the amendments are passed, the constitutional will now state that,

The state language of the Russian Federation on all its territory is the Russian language, as the language of the state-forming people [как язык государствообразующего народа].

This is a concession to Russian ethno-nationalism, though it doesn’t go as far as some would have liked, as it doesn’t say that Russia is the state of the Russian [russkii] people (as opposed to that of the Rossiiskii people – the distinction between russkii and rossisskii being a crucial one). It merely calls Russians the ‘state-forming people’, while at the same time maintaining elsewhere the description of Russia as the state of the ‘multinational Rossiiskii people.’ As such I doubt that this change is of much importance, although entrenching Russian as the state language could well have an effect in terms of favouring Russian-language education over minority-language education in parts of Russia where there are large populations whose first language isn’t Russia.

Fourth, the constitution is to be changed to guard against separatism and concessions of territory, with the following wording:

The Russian Federation guarantees the defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Actions (excluding delimitation, demarcation, and re-demarcation of the state boundary with neighbouring states), directed to the alienation of part of the Russian Federation’s territory, as well as calls for such actions, are not permitted.

Ironically, having supported secession elsewhere, the Russians are now proposing to ban it at home! And not just ban it, but make it illegal even to propose it. This means, for instance, that it will become unconstitutional to call for Crimea to be returned to Ukraine. One can see that this might lead to repressive measures against what might be considered perfectly legitimate political positions. Another interesting question is whether this proposed amendment will affect negotiations with Japan over the status of the Kuril Islands. Arguably, it could make it unconstitutional for the Russian government to cede the Kurils to Japan in any future negotiations. However, I suspect that such an act could be interpreted as a ‘demarcation’ or ‘re-demarcation’ of the state boundary, and so permitted.

Fifth, the Russian constitution will now regulate history. It will henceforth say:

The Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, guarantees the defence of historical truth. Diminution of the significance of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland is not permitted. Any pronouncement which blackens the achievement of our citizens is unconstitutional.

This clearly has the Second World War in mind, and reflects, among other things, Putin’s angry reaction to Polish and Ukrainian efforts to portray the Soviet Army as having not liberated Eastern Europe, but occupied it, and as such as having been morally equivalent to the Nazis. Having said that, this constitutional clause could apply to just about any war. If someone was to write, for instance, that Russian soldiers betrayed their country by abandoning their posts in World War One, would that not also be ‘diminution of the people’s achievement in defending the Fatherland’? As a historian, I consider this particular amendment entirely unjustifiable. It attempts to dictate historical analysis. I cannot approve.

I imagine that the State Duma will approve all these propositions. Overall, they reflect the conservative and patriotic mood in contemporary Russia, albeit in a somewhat limited way. They also reflect Putin’s style of balancing between different ideological trends. Non-systemic liberals won’t be happy, but systemic liberals get a small bone in the form of a minor shift in power from the president to the State Duma. Conservatives get some family value stuff and a mention of God. Russian nationalists get to feel happy about the mention of the ‘state-forming Russian people’; and Soviet nostalgists can go home happy that Russia is the successor of the USSR and that nobody will dare question the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War. Just about everybody gets a symbolic something, while in practice the system of government carries on much as before.

Assuming that the Duma approves the amendments, they are to be put to a public vote on 22 April (which just happens to be Lenin’s 150th birthday). No doubt they will pass by a large majority.


25 thoughts on “Constitutional update”

  1. I don’t think the post-Soviet adjustments count as ‘secessions’. And certainly neither does the disintegration of Ukraine in the aftermath of the ‘revolution of dignity’.

    In fact, one could argue that the disintegration of the USSR – secession of Soviet republics – was the culprit of all that mess.


  2. While not quite optimal, it’s certainly a phase shift in the right direction – and to a much greater degree than what almost any one of us dared to hope for. So relative to expectations, it can be considered to be more of a nationalist victory than a sovok or liberal one.

    For instance, these are the kind of proposals that were floating around just a couple of weeks ago.

    I am not a fan of the historical amendments – how pathetic is to for the rulers of a putative superpower to be triggered by what some Butthurt Belters in Eastern Europe say. But I am OK with letting sovoks have that bone they obsess over so much in exchange for recognition of ethnic Russians as state-forming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karlin sez: ” Victory Cult has entered its terminal stages.”


      “But I am OK with letting sovoks have that bone they obsess over so much in exchange for recognition of ethnic Russians as state-forming.”

      Why? You ain’t no one.


      1. Lytt, what do you feel our friend Karlin substituted for the O in his name. Or what is it supposed to symbolize? And why do you feel he might substitute <<< for the standard ((( , at least it feels he is.


  3. “Ironically, having supported secession elsewhere, the Russians are now proposing to ban it at home!”

    Hmm… Can’t recall Russia supporting Kosovo’s separatism…

    “Arguably, it could make it unconstitutional for the Russian government to cede the Kurils to Japan in any future negotiations. However, I suspect that such an act could be interpreted as a ‘demarcation’ or ‘re-demarcation’ of the state boundary, and so permitted.”

    Professor, why are you so hell-bent on giving the Kuril islands to Japan?

    “As a historian, I consider this particular amendment entirely unjustifiable. It attempts to dictate historical analysis. I cannot approve.”

    Oh, noes! How can we live with yout disapproval, Professor?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He means the Soviets bankrolling, arming and supporting Communist insurrections against sitting governments, I think – from China to the United States throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, etc.

      Since “Separatism” in many cases actually leads to “Civil War”, well…

      It’s state warfare, and obviously you don’t want it to be used against you, so it makes sense that Russia would want to be able to use such tactics whilst immunizing itself against said tactics.

      It’s not anymore hypocritical than a person who wants to disarm an opponent whilst pointing the gun at said opponent – so long as it’s not done under false pretenses…

      …so as long as Russia is saying that the United States is an enemy, and that it doesn’t object to Separatism “On Principle” (The Bolsheviks bombed and terrorized American cities throughout the early 20th century for starters, to say nothing of their coordination with Black insurrectionists burning those cities down).

      Then again, Russia has always hidden its agenda behind a facade of subterfuge as a largely closed society since the Revolution; it would be hard to gainsay the tactics of anyone else, including the USA (especially when the purveyors of such tactics are largely its former Communist/Socialist surrogates from Clinton to Bernie).

      I have to remind my Russian friends when they complain about the Ukraine being “stolen” by the USA….

      “Wait a second…Obama and Clinton [and all the other socialists involved in “stealing” the Ukraine] were nurtured and inspired by the Soviets and Communism – uhh, that would be YOU. They HATE America. That’s why they loved the Soviet Union”


      1. “Wait a second…Obama and Clinton [and all the other socialists involved in “stealing” the Ukraine] were nurtured and inspired by the Soviets and Communism – uhh, that would be YOU. They HATE America. That’s why they loved the Soviet Union”


    1. I do find it fascinating talking to Russians about Russian history; those who regard the Bolshevik revolution as a foreign conquest of the “founding” Russian People, and those who can’t bear to call it a “Russian Revolution” but who still feel obligated to regard the Soviet Union as a defining and essential part of its history – the responses and reactions are quite interesting to an outsider, particularly an American (Russians have some interesting perspectives on American politics too, when you can get a few drinks into them).

      It’s kind of like the modern Japanese; they are proud of Imperial Japan and its part in World War 2 – and will defend it and justify its merits to the hilt.

      It’s the same way with the Russians I know when talking about the Soviet Union, the Romanovs, the White Russians, etc.

      (the key is not to do it in a “mean-spirited” way, but to peruse the ethnic divides and culture of the Nomenklatura or Zaibatsu from a professional and academic understanding. Oh, and booze – while being able to hold your liquor and emotions better than a Russian can).

      Admittedly, I have not really met a Russian I can genuinely say thinks well of the Revolutionaries. They do exist. But I have met more than enough “Western secularists” and Communists (Jewish and otherwise) who loved the Soviet Union and have no interest in going out of my way to seek out their Russian counterparts – a failing of “understanding” I can live with .

      I’ve lived long enough to know that I don’t need to “understand” my enemy’s “reasons” to know he is my enemy.


  4. I don’t approve of all this “belief in God” nonsense. Does this make atheists second-class citizens? Bah! Besides, Russian statehood is actually older than 1000 years, and the first (Kievan) Rus was all, like pagan. There were a bunch of gods, not just one.


    1. Yeah. This reminds me of Vikings TV series, where Rus under Oleg the Prophet is presented as unambiguously Christian. About 100 years (if memory serves) before the actual christianization under Vladimir.


      1. If we are to accept that the legendary founder of the Ancient Rus – Rurik – is the same person of the more or less historical Rörik (Hrørek) of Friesland, then, yes, the first “head of state” of Russia was a Christian. Lacking in piety, that’s for sure, but who’s perfect? 😉

        P.S. The last season of the Vikings… No. Just – no. I will wait till a good parody review of the whole mess on YTube, instead of actually watching it.


    2. I don’t approve of all this “belief in God” nonsense. Does this make atheists second-class citizens? Bah!

      It may not be about “belief in God” centrally. Not that belief and God in and of itself would be interesting topics. …

      Any idea what a comparative study of the Russian vs the American use or misuse of religion would look like? Over the centuries, decades? Put another way, arbitrarily, were Southern American liberation theologians Russian agents only?

      But yes, in a way, it sent me back to my teenage age mental struggles around the topic, when I discovered the American right keeps kindling the “godly flame” which it seems helps them to find the appropriate argumental evidence based on their God given power to immediately distinguish between good and evil, after all they are kindling the flame, Always were.


  5. P.S. on the topic of religion, I happened to post this post about the Velikiy Post, and a VTSIOM opinion poll among Russians about observance of Russian Lent.
    The results are not inspiring for the “cram religion down peoples throats” crowd.
    On the other hand, there are some really good recipes for, like, mussels and rice in tomato sauce.

    P.P.S. – does anyone know the Indo-European etymology of the Russian word post meaning “fasting”? I don’t either, and I can’t find a good one on wiki. Must come from I-E *postus or somethinig like that, but can’t seem to find cognates in other languages. In case there are some historical linguists out there…


      1. You’re welcome, Aule. Any ideas about the etymology? I suppose there is a slight chance that *post as in fast might be related to the other *post (as in Latin, “postulate” etc.) which is also the source of the various “post” words, as in “planting a post”, “post office”, etc. As in, a foundation stick planted into the ground.
        Maybe some semantic thing like “primary postulate that one must fast during Lent…”

        That’s a bit of a reach, but I’m struggling here. More than likely, the two homonyms *post are not related. Mental note: must finish building that time machine, go back in history, and collect spoken utterances from I-E ancestors…!



        Происходит от общеслав. формы *роstъ, ср: др.-русск., ст.-слав. постъ (др.-греч. νηστεία), русск. пост, укр. піст (род. п. по́сту), болг. пост, сербохорв. по̑ст, по̏ст, словенск. pòst (род. п. pósta), чешск. půst, словацк. pôst, польск. роst, в.-луж. póst, н.-луж. spót; заимств. из др.-в.-нем. fasto «пост»


      3. P.S. – oops, sorry Aule, I shot off my reply before reading your link, thought that was just my link back at me. I just read your link, and I realize it’s actually a solution to what I asked for.
        And now I’m kicking myself, because the etymology totally makes sense. “post” is just another form of the word “fast”, with the typical Germanic consonant shift. yay!


  6. Just can’t get religion off my mind. Here is my latest, and actually totally on topic, for once!
    This includes Russian reactions to the mention of “God” in the Constitution. Including those of a conservative pundit and snarky readers.


    1. Could if be that having a reference to God in the document will please more citizens of the Federation than those who will be displeased?


  7. Professor Robinson,

    During a visit to the Katyn memorial complex with colleagues some time ago, I wondered how long it would take before the rapidly deteriorating state of Russian-Polish relations led to a shift in the official stance of the Russian government regarding this sordid affair. Browsing through the RIA website yesterday I bumped into these pieces:

    As far as I know, RIA had hitherto refrained from publishing viewpoints that support a ‘revisionist’ account of the fate of the Polish officers. What’s your take on this? Is Katyn likely to become another flashpoint in the memory wars between Russia and the West?


  8. This morning the U.S. MSM is writing that President Putin will arrange to be “president for life”, following suggestions that his term count will be reset to zero.

    The president gave a short speech today to the Duma in which he stressed the need to deal with the constitutional amendments. He did not mention the issue of any alleged endless presidency. The speech ended with the the words, “to be continued”, leaving us up in the air.


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