Many people ask me how normal life in Russia could be possible, given the headlines that dominate media coverage. Understandably, such reporting focuses on high politics and foreign affairs; this news is often disheartening for Americans who believed Russia was on the path to becoming a “normal” European country. But just as headline news about national politics in Washington D.C. does not tell the story of everyday American lives, the headlines that Americans read do not fully reveal everyday life as Russians live it.
For that, you have to dig deeper, and a great example is Everyday Law in Russia, by Professor Kathryn Hendley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Hendley has dedicated years researching Russia’s legal system, which she characterizes as a “dual system.” Yes, Russia’s legal system is often heavily politicized with judges taking orders from political figures or wealthy businessmen – a phenomenon Russians call “telephone justice” because the judge is getting her orders from someone with power, not from the law. But her research finds that a vast amount of work in Russian courts does adhere to the written law, especially when the issues are non-political, prosaic, and in the realm of civil disputes – that is, the legal issues that Russian citizens deal with in everyday life.
Through systematic survey research, she has found that Russians are very aware of “telephone justice” and therefore cynical about macro-legal protections and the rule of law in Russia. At the same time, they are well-aware that the courts and civil legal system can operate according to the rules, and can serve as a fair way to resolve disputes. She conducted extraordinary field research on two kinds of cases that most Russians face in their everyday life: disputes over everyday problems like water leaks in their apartment buildings and auto accidents. Through focus group sessions and observing justice-of-the-peace courts, she finds that Russians generally prefer to resolve disputes informally, through restitution or repair of such damages, largely to avoid the high financial and time costs of resolving cases in court. But she also finds that Russians are willing to bring such disputes to courts for adjudication before a judge if informal dispute resolution is not working, and that most such cases are viewed by the Russians who experience them as fair and law-governed.
So, how is normal life possible in Russia? It is true that political leaders are not bound by the rule-of-law, nor are they held accountable to Russian citizens through free and fair elections and independent media. Yet, Russians are very savvy in coping with their reality; they understand that “telephone justice” subverts the rule of law in Russia, but they also understand that within that macro-reality they can navigate their lives in ways that are fair, in cooperation with local courts and their neighbors. That is not much of a headline, but it is encouraging for anyone who cares about Russia.