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The Legality of Liberal Revolution

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image of Review of Central and East European Law
For more content, see Review of Socialist Law.

Since the fall of communism, liberals have sought to reclaim the mantle of revolution. This new age of liberal revolution, they argue, culminates in a transformative ‘moment’ when the people unite to throw off their shackles and establish a democratic constitution. These founding moments are therefore extraordinary periods of unconstrained politics, where the sovereign people transcend the formal borders of institutionalized politics and legality to draft the constitutional boundaries of their new liberal order. Russian President Boris El’tsin placed his violent and illegal dissolution of the Russian Parliament and period of authoritarian dictatorship within this tradition of liberal revolution. Throughout 1993, El’tsin justified his decision to disband Parliament as the necessary action of an agent of the people in a period of extraordinary (and extralegal) politics. Western commentators have generally placed Russia’s constitutional foundation within this revolutionary paradigm of extraordinary politics. In Russia, however, both El’tsin’s methods and this revolutionary tradition are increasingly viewed with suspicion. This viewpoint is best expressed in the writing of the Chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valerii Zor’kin. Steeped in the anti-revolutionary ideology of the late tsarist Russian constitutionalists, Chairman Zor’kin argues that El’tsin’s actions at the Russian founding helped spawn a culture of lawlessness that has undermined Russian democracy. Although Zor’kin’s approach is flawed, it is an important reminder for liberal constitutional thinkers to reexamine the concrete effects of a desire for a democratically pure founding moment.


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