Culture, Politics and Laws: Comparing France and Russia in the 20th Century

DWIJARAJ BHATTACHARYA

With the vast nature and scope of politics, be it in terms of the laws that are governing the society or in terms of mechanisms used for the enforcement of the formal state dictate, there exist numerous approaches in present day literature which provide a theoretical and conceptual framework to enable a holistic and at times focused study of various forms of polity either in a hierarchical environment (federal structures) or in most cases a spatial paradigm (between various countries). Amidst these competing frameworks, two frameworks are held in pre-eminence the institutional approach and the cultural approach.

The institutional approach develops a theoretical framework drawing on the rational consumer theory of microeconomics, where the principal assumption is the rational characteristics of individual actors primarily motivated by utility maximisation. The framework thus results into a metamorphosis of collective action which is a net of all individual actions. The final and most crucial hypothesis of the approach rests in the claim that cost-benefit structure propagated by the institutions of any nation results into the prevalent nature of the political activity, thus making the institutions of a nation crucial, if not sacrosanct in comparing the polity of two nation states.

The cultural approach, on the other hand, deviates from the key assumption of the institutional approach firstly in terms of the nature of human beings and the process of decision-making, and most importantly in terms of defining the incentive structure for such decisions. The approach draws upon the distinction of soft and hard institutions and proposes that political agents are subservient to the cultural and social ethos more than any abstract laws, furthermore the nature of utility (for a utility maximising individual) isn’t unidimensional and has social and cultural characteristics to it which is heavily influenced by historical events. Thus, the key idea in this approach is to analyse the polity through a cultural lens, which shall reveal the political landscape of the actors.

With the apparent ontological dichotomy, it becomes imperative that for the remainder of the paper one approach is selected and later developed for the countries of choice. Thus the paper will utilise exclusively the cultural approach since it is both broader in terms of identifying the stakeholders’ interests and has more depth, given the multi-layered social cocoon under which human agents live. The elements of the institutional approach are mostly derivatives of historical cultural norms and are thus captured greatly by the cultural approach, whose significance is becomes more apparent since there are plenty of cases, where soft norms supersede hard laws especially when looking at cases of dowry, child marriage and other subjects of personal law.

Using the cultural approach the paper will focus on the polity of Russia and France to bring out the key aspects of their political landscape. The reason these countries are chosen is first because of their primary legislations are both derivatives of the civil law system (where France predominantly follows the Napoleonic Code and Russia follows the Napoleonic Code with Germanic influence). Secondly, the countries are both in post-industrialisation phase, suggesting a similar focus on key aspects of welfare politics, like education, health-care etc. Third, historically both the countries have been under oppressive systems and at times under foreign occupation, however, the aftermath of the eclipse of such regimes have been extremely different. Thus, the key distinctions between these two states seemingly originate out of cultural connotations, and thereby enhance the scope of investigation which shall focus on three areas namely, freedom of speech (especially political), individual autonomy and extra-territorial outreach.

The present day conception of Russia and France originated not out of the hallowed Treaty of Westphalia, but out of the October Revolution, 1917 and the February Revolution of 1848 respectively. These monumental revolutions occurred primarily because of the free flow of ideas against the then oppressive regimes, which was able to mobilise a certain section of the population to provide effective leadership to a predominantly peasant revolution. This parochial reading of history suggests that the ethos of a free press and freedom of expression should be widely regarded as a sanctimonious entity. However, the societies have had subsequent cultural conditioning that has for all intents and purposes created a divergent cultural momentum when it comes to freedom of expression.

The February Revolution of 1848 had brought the Second French Republic to life, but the idea of a republic in France has existed since mid-17th Century. The French revolution of 1789 was a result of a free flow of these ideas, but the first republic didn’t survive for long. Following the demise of the first republic, there were a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions by the then military leaders, political elites and leading intellectuals of the country. This series of revolution and counter-revolution generated a plethora of literature, some of which have achieved the status of antiquities, and has established freedom of speech and expression as a sine-qua-non for the present day France.

Though the Russian revolution was similar in character, the resultant political system varied extremely. The founding fathers who arrested the growth of the Russian Empire did reap the privileges of the freedom of expression especially during their exile in West European countries, however once tasked with maintenance of a state, atop the bedrock of the then germinating communist ideals found it necessary to curb such freedoms. The curtailment of the said freedoms didn’t generate a great deal of dissent primarily because the then Russia (USSR) was culturally disposed against the propagation of any but traditional education, given the majority of the population still operated under feudal norms.

Therefore, it is evident that the historical forces created distinct cultural fabrics in the two nations, with a divergent disposition towards freedom of expression albeit their initial similarities and common legal paradigm (since both are predominantly civil law countries). This cultural divide in terms of accessible agency of the citizenry has also seeped into the realm of individual autonomy. The creation of the French Republic with individuals at the centre helped further the culture of individual determinism, thus moulding the subsequent acceptance of deviant sexuality. In the case of Russia, the feudal cultural fabric till date hinders the emancipation of homosexuals. Furthermore, the decriminalising of domestic violence by the Putin Administration is a manifestation of the feudal cultural norms present in Russia which stands at an odds with the French regime of anti-domestic violence and postmodern regime of child rights originating out of the cultural evolution in France.

Finally, the cultural momentum of being a superpower has affected the foreign policies of both the nations. The recent Russian forays into their neighbouring countries, especially Ukraine and places of strategic interest captures the leftover cultural momentum of USSR, something that France also engaged in subsequent to World War 2 (WW2). However, the military losses of France after WW2, especially in Vietnam, has softened the manifestation of the cultural glut of supremacy, thus limiting the intrusiveness of present French foreign policy. This uncanny similarity and subsequent divergence is yet another manifestation of the cultural undertones in the two countries.

It is safe to say that institutions definitely alter the social and cultural fabric of a nation, however, no institution can ever survive without any pre-existing subscription base, which is determined by the cultural undertones of the society. The case of France and Russia, nations born amidst the fire of revolutions and later crumbling down from the zenith of world dominance is a stark reminder of the varying political landscape, curated by cultural relativism.

(Dwijaraj is pursuing his Master’s Programme in Public Policy at the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at dwijaraj@nls.ac.in)

Image Source: https://www.crossed-flag-pins.com/Friendship-Pins/Russia/Flag-Pins-Russia-France.html

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