Defending Rights in Russia: Lawyers, the State, and Legal Reform in the Post-Soviet Era


285 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7748-1162-5
DDC 340'.060'47





Reviewed by Myroslav Shkandrij

Myroslav Shkandrij is head of the Department of German and Slavic
Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is the editor of The Cultural
Renaissance in Ukraine: Polemical Pamphlets, 1925–1926.


Defending Rights in Russia is the first extensive study in English of
the advokatura—practising lawyers who represent clients in court and
offer legal advice. The book charts the growth of the advokatura from
the liberalization of the 1860s, through early Bolshevik rule, to the
present rapid growth of the legal profession.

The Bolsheviks viewed the law as a temporary annoyance and expected
lawyers as a group to “wither away.” Indeed, between 1917 and 1921,
their number dropped from 13,000 to 650. The Soviet criminal court
became an authoritarian inquisitorial system. In the late 1930s, during
the worst purges, three-man sessions of the OGPU (secret police)
dispatched thousands of people to execution or camps without any legal
representation. In later Soviet decades, lawyers who defended dissidents
ran the risk of losing their careers.

In the 1970s, only 1.1 percent of defendants in criminal cases were
acquitted. In the 1990s, the acquittal rate in non-jury trials was still
only 0.4 percent, but jury trials had begun to lead to greater numbers
of acquittals. From the end of Soviet times until 2003, the number of
lawyers tripled to around 49,000. They have steadily become a force in
the safeguarding of civil rights and in the establishment of a legal
framework for commercial and other enterprises.

Jordan’s account makes clear how much still needs to be done. In the
town of Ivanovo, one lawyer complained that people usually go to the
local “racketeers” to get their conflicts resolved rather than
turning to the law, which is perceived as ineffectual. Most worrying are
the most recent attempts by Vladimir Putin to control the profession.
This is part of a push by the Russian president to muzzle the press and
intimidate all non-governmental organizations. Given the Russian legacy
of arbitrary state interference, it is clear that the profession and the
rule of law have a long path to travel before they become autonomous.

Jordan’s research is based on candid and revealing interviews with
people in the legal profession. The interviews, conducted in Moscow,
Ivanovo, and Petrozavodsk, are a great strength of this book, which will
be of interest to anyone interested in the evolution of civil society
and respect for human rights.


Jordan, Pamela A., “Defending Rights in Russia: Lawyers, the State, and Legal Reform in the Post-Soviet Era,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,