14 February 2024

Teaching Human Rights in Russian Legal Education

The Re-Sovietization of Rhetoric in Human Rights Courses

Although the USSR participated in preparing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it actively criticized its final version adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The essence of this criticism was that human rights should not be a matter of international law and that priority in this area should remain with national law. At the same time, the USSR’s representative criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights content for its “formalism” and the absence of “real objective guaranteed human rights, as in the USSR.” By the latter, he primarily meant socio-economic rights. As a result, during the post-war period, the USSR did not use the term “human rights” at all. It was only after the signing of the Helsinki Accords and the rise of the human rights movement within the USSR that the “socialist concept of human rights” was developed, a primary role was assigned to socio-economic rights, and rights were inseparably linked to “the fulfillment of the duties of Soviet citizens,” including labor. The socialist doctrine of human rights was declared the pinnacle of legal thought in this sphere. In the second half of the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the special concept of human rights in the USSR and stated that “human rights are universal.

Human rights education in the 1990s: expectations and reality

Respondents from the Russian Academy often refer to the 1990s as a period of considerable legal freedom in Russia, particularly in higher education.  Russia actively transformed its higher education system, and in 1996, it joined the Council of Europe, leading to the emergence of the first practices and specialists in the European Court of Human Rights field. Professional associations of lawyers dedicated to researching and defending constitutionally guaranteed human rights also emerged.

Lecturers in Russian law schools simultaneously taught human rights and incorporated fundamental human rights documents, primarily within constitutional and international public law. Russian lawyers participated in foreign internships and actively engaged in the process of reforming the Russian legal system. All these issues were discussed and actively published in both Russian and international legal journals. However, despite activists’ efforts, Russian legal education largely remained conservative and failed to reflect on the lessons of the Soviet past. It was particularly evident in course programs where instructors used literature on human rights published in the USSR as teaching materials.

Unfortunately, the process of de-Sovietizing Russian legal education proved to be challenging. Breaking the continuity in legal education between Soviet and Russian law proved to be a difficult task. Many Russian professors who received their education in the USSR saw no need to revise their approaches and perspectives. This facilitated a regression back to Soviet legal education principles as authoritarian tendencies in the country strengthened.

Hybrid autocracy and human rights education

The rise of authoritarian tendencies in Russia after Putin came to power in 1999 affected not only the system of higher education in general but also the practice and content of human rights education. The 2000s were a time of positive dynamics of human rights education in Russia, with the establishment of UNESCO chairs in Russian universities,  where students studied, among others, basics about human rights and UN human rights protection. However, despite a significant number of lecturers offering selective courses on various aspects of human rights, Russia did not provide comprehensive human rights programs at its universities.

At the beginning of the 2010s, the situation improved – Russian universities established a consortium to teach human rights on the MA level, consisting of several leading universities that provide MA courses in human rights, most of them in international law (international criminal law, humanitarian law). The Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow established a Master’s program in human rights, and Smolny College introduced a human rights program as a minor in the St Petersburg State University.

Human rights syllabi in 2000s: Rule of Law and  the Soviet legacy

While these developments—teaching human rights courses and establishing a Master’s program in human rights—appear successful on the surface, they mask underlying issues with the content and forms of legal education in human rights that have existed since the beginning.  Our analyses made in 2012 revealed several significant issues in the human rights curricula of Russian universities (we reviewed 22 of them) in the 2010s. Most of the courses were taught by lecturers, primarily lawyers, who were educated in the Soviet Union. This background directly influenced how these lecturers perceived human rights and how they imparted their knowledge to the audience.

In the description of human rights courses, the authors of the programs often equate human rights with the rights of citizens, emphasizing the interdependence of rights and responsibilities of citizens. This position is a characteristic feature of the Soviet conception of human rights. Such a view was associated with the Soviet idea of the connection between human rights and fulfilling one’s duties. Another Soviet characteristic is the emphasis on discussing socio-economic rights, with an apparent lack of discussion of the first generation of human rights, known as “negative” rights. The same feature is also characteristic of the Soviet discourse on human rights.

The Soviet influence is also apparent in the disregard for the primacy of international law in human rights over Russian law. This can be observed in the sequence of presentations. In almost all the courses examined, the analysis of human rights within the framework of the constitutional law of the Russian Federation precedes international agreements. At the same time, in most cases, the primacy of international norms and rules in human rights over the Russian Constitution needs to be clearly defined. In some courses, the reason why it appears this way is evident: it stems from the belief in Russia’s “special path,” this time not socialist but “civilizational.”

In discussing the socio-political foundations of human rights, the courses of that time gave significant importance to attempts to highlight Russian legal culture as unique and to connect the ideology of human rights with the “civilizational” or “cultural” peculiarities. As a result, the Russian path in law and human rights is described as unique, diverging from other countries. In this regard, despite Russia formally joining democratic countries, there was already a noticeable tendency towards isolationism, creating theories of human rights purportedly exclusive to Russian citizens as members of a particular cultural community.

Human rights organizations or their history in the USSR were almost absent in almost all the examined courses. When human rights organizations were mentioned, they were mainly government organizations, not non-governmental organizations. As for instances of human rights violations, these primarily pertained to a restricted set of groups (most commonly women, children, and individuals with disabilities) and rights (mainly socio-economic and environmental). Political rights and freedoms, as well as their violations, were rarely presented in these syllabuses.

The reading lists for these courses are also noteworthy, as they include many books that, according to the authors, provided reliable information about human rights and were published in the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s.

While it is plausible to assume that only certain aspects of the educational programs directly influence the actual courses, the rhetoric and language used in teaching human rights undeniably reflect a specific perception of human rights. This perception, it seems, had been overlooked in the democratic world for quite some time, under the assumption that human rights education is inherently positive, regardless of how and by whom they are taught.

International cooperation in human rights education, which predictably ended after the onset of the full-scale war against Ukraine, has not significantly impacted the content of the core courses in human rights taught in modern Russian universities. For example, the Human Rights Consortium continues to exist, uniting nine master’s programs. The content of the courses taught in these programs noticeably began to change only after the full-scale aggression of Russia against Ukraine.

Human rights education in 2010s – moving from the European tradition

In the new courses developed between 2010 and 2020 and taught in the universities participating in the Consortium, we can find the same features that we believed were characteristic of the courses in human rights taught in 2010-2011.

For example, in the course on human rights that was approved in 2017 and taught at Kazan Federal University, Russian legal norms are always mentioned before international ones, as reflected in the students’ understanding of “intra-state (Russian) and international legal acts in the field of regulation.” The course is titled “Human Rights in Russian and International Law.” The course on human rights taught at the Faculty of Law at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow has no international standards in human rights; only Russian ones are covered. In this same course, the literature list at HSE includes publications from the 1970s with titles such as “Rights and Obligations of Soviet Citizens” and “The Legal Status of the Individual in a Socialist Society.”

In the course at Kazan University, the fundamental features of Soviet discourse are repeated:

  • Human rights are presented as a “system of rights and obligations.”
  • Soviet legal thought became integral to the “development of thought on human rights,” referencing even to Soviet Constitutions of 1936 and 1977 (!)
  • The norm of the “civilizational aspect” of human rights is reiterated in the topic “Human Rights and Civilization,” as well as “national and universal aspects in the system of human rights.”

It should be noted that there are other examples as well. For instance, Professor M. Entin’s course on human rights at MGIMO appears professional and balanced, devoid of the shortcomings inherent in most contemporary human rights courses. However, Professor Entin’s scholarly publications appear to be openly biased, particularly regarding European mechanisms for protecting human rights.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that a number of courses and programs that demonstrate a more balanced approach to teaching human rights continue to exist. Examples include the Ural Humanitarian University and the St. Petersburg branch of the Higher School of Economics. At the same time, special human rights programs at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow) were closed after the start of the war, and the Faculty of Artes Liberales at St. Petersburg State University, where human rights were taught in a completely different context, was effectively dismantled.

Return of the Soviet concept of human rights?

In general, it can be observed that the language used to describe human rights in the language of higher education was, to a large extent, a slightly modified Soviet language of human rights. Despite the change in the political course, it continued to reflect the Russian population’s understanding of human rights and the use of human rights as a tool in foreign policy arguments.

It is important to note that the perception of human rights by the Russian population has always been quite specific and, to some extent, inherited the concept of human rights from the Soviet era. Research conducted in the late 90s and early 2000s shows that post-Soviet citizens highly valued socio-economic rights and were practically uninterested in the state and the protection of political rights. This situation has changed very little during Putin’s rule, and overall, it can be said that the perception of human rights by the Russian population remains essentially Soviet, with some adjustments regarding the importance of habeas corpus.

However, the growing mistrust towards the West in Russia since the early 2000s, as well as general disillusionment with the results of political transition and economic reforms, along with the aggressive anti-human rights propaganda of the Russian regime for a long time, has led to a perception of human rights as a “Western theory” that does not fit the Russian people. In some modern human rights courses, for example, there is a reference to S.V. Tkachenko’s monograph, where the reforms of the 1990s are directly called “Westernization as a form of colonization,” and changes in Russian law, including human rights, are understood solely in a critical light.

This context made it easy in the 2010s to weaponize human rights in the Kremlin’s foreign policy rhetoric and subsequent direct aggression; the rhetoric of “protecting human rights” became the justification for both the annexation of Crimea and the initiation of full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Russian practice of using law as a weapon – “lawfare” – began to use human rights as a part of such practice. It can be argued that Russia Higher Education Institutions became part of the transformation of international human rights law into an «authoritarian international law» of human rights.


The onset of full-scale aggression against Ukraine led to an apparent crisis in the field of human rights research and education. This crisis primarily stemmed from the fact that everything happening was a blatant and flagrant violation of international law. Russian forces not only violated the Geneva Conventions but also committed acts of genocide (particularly in Bucha and Mariupol). In this situation, teaching internationally recognized human rights standards became difficult. It was much easier and safer to assert that all democratic human rights were “politicized” while Russia was merely being “defensive.” As a result, there was a resurgence of Soviet-style teaching of human rights, with the denial of universal mechanisms and criticism of existing institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights, which Russia had already left.

Everything is possible” now in Russian Higher Education Institutions – to discuss sustainable development, ecological rights, and issues of poverty, together with anti-colonialism (in the Russian version of it). The patterns of the Soviet era have resurfaced, not only in rhetoric but also in practice. Present-day lecturers who dare to teach human rights in Russia must either betray the standards of human rights law when discussing the war in Ukraine or human rights violations in Russia, or resort to Aesopian language, official formulas, or other protective measures reminiscent of those used by the older generation of professors in the late 70s and early 80s. The only difference now is the total boycott of Russian universities by democratic countries and most international organizations. Human rights education has been forced to revert to the patterns of the 70s, where Soviet conceptions of human rights law are combined with aggressive pro-war propaganda and a complete inversion of international law.