Between hammer and anvil: the Russian Constitutional Court’s position on the abolition of the death penalty

Available in Russian

Price 100 Rub.

Author: Olga Komshukova

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2020-5-112-133

Keywords: capital punishment; Constitutional Court as a political institution; political argumentation; the legitimacy of Constitutional Court decisions


The key factor in maintaining a moratorium on the death penalty in Russia is its membership in the Council of Europe, which requires compliance with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the abolition of the death penalty. One of the proponents of maintaining Russia’s adherence to the Convention is the Russian Constitutional Court. However, the return of the death penalty as a capital punishment finds some support in Russia. Therefore, the Constitutional Court has to maintain a balance between two forces: internal pressure from public opinion and a number of conservative government representatives, and fidelity to the fundamental principles of the Russian Constitution and international law, backed up by international obligations undertaken by Russia. The purpose of this article is to identify and analyze contradictions among the priorities of the Russian Constitutional Court in its implementation of foreign and domestic legal policy through a political and legal analysis of its argumentation regarding the abolition of the death penalty. In turn, full-fledged analysis of the Court’s argument is possible only by taking into account the domestic and international contexts. The article is structured as follows: firstly, it examines the evolution of the question of the abolition of the death penalty in Russia and the main decisions of the Russian Constitutional Court related to the introduction and maintenance of a moratorium on the death penalty. Secondly, it examines the domestic context of decisions taken by the Court from the perspective of key actors (the professional community, government officials, public opinion). Thirdly, it considers the international context of decision-making (the development of relations between Russia and the Council of Europe, the Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as foreign experience with the issue of abolition of the death penalty). In conclusion, the article analyzes the main arguments of the Russian Constitutional Court to justify the need to abolish the death penalty and discusses the role of the Constitutional Court in resolving the death penalty issue.

About the author: Olga Komshukova – Lawyer, Ph.D. Student, Graduate School of Political Sciences, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Komshukova O. (2020) Mezhdu molotom i nakoval'ney: pozitsiya Konstitutsionnogo Suda RF po voprosu neprimeneniya smertnoy kazni [Between hammer and anvil: the Russian Constitutional Court’s position on abolition of the death penalty]. Sravnitel'noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, vol.29, no.5, pp.112–133. (In Russian).


Berlyavskiy L.G., Taraban N.A. (2013) Pravo na zhizn' i problema smertnoy kazni: konstitutsionno-pravovye aspekty [The right to life and the problem of the death penalty: constitutional and legal aspects]. Yuridicheskiy mir, no.1, pp.19–24. (In Russian).

Fallon R.H., Jr. (2018) Law and Legitimacy in the Supreme Court, Cambridge, MA; London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Friedman B. (1998) The History of Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part One: The Road to Judicial Supremacy. The New York University Law Review, vol.73, no.2, pp.333–433.

Ginsburg T., Moustafa T. (eds.) (2008) Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ivanov A.V. (2015) Problemy otmeny smertnoy kazni v resheniyakh Konstitutsionnogo Suda Rossiyskoy Federatsii [Problems of the death penalty abolition in decisions of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation]. Rossiyskiy sud'ya, no.7, pp.35–38. (In Russian).

Kierulf A. (2018) Judicial Review in Norway: A Bicentennial Debate, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kolokolov Ya.N. (2010) Smertnaya kazn': Konstitutsionnyy Sud RF dayot novoe tolkovanie problemy [The death penalty: the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation gives a new interpretation of the problem]. Rossiyskiy sud'ya, no.1, pp.6–10. (In Russian).

Lindseth P.L. (2010) Power and Legitimacy: Reconciling Europe and the Nation-State, New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Madsen M.R. (2007) From Cold War Instrument to Supreme European Court: The European Court of Human Rights at the Crossroads of International and National Law and Politics. Law and Social Inquiry, vol.32, no.1, pp.137–159.

Medushevsky A. (2020) Global'nyy konstitutsionalism kak pravovaya teoriya i ideologiya pereustroystva mirovogo poryadka [Global constitutionalism as a legal theory and ideology of the reorganization of the world order]. Sravnitel'noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, vol.29, no.1, pp.15–42. (In Russian).

Medushevsky A.N. (ed.) (2014) Konstitutsionnye printsipy i puti ikh realizatsii: rossiyskiy kontekst: Analiticheskiy doklad [Constitutional principles and ways of their implementation: the Russian context: Analytical report], Moscow: Institut prava i publichnoy politiki. (In Russian).

Mikhaylov V.K. (2016) Perspektivy primeneniya smertnoy kazni v Rossii v usloviyakh nalichiya vozmozhnosti neispolneniya svoikh mezhdunarodnykh obyazatel'stv s “odobreniya” Konstitutsionnogo Suda [Prospects for the use of the death penalty in Russia in the presence of the possibility of non-fulfillment of its international obligations with the “approval” of the Constitutional Court]. Rossiyskiy sud'ya, no.11, pp.37–42. (In Russian).

Petrukhin I.L. (2001) Sud prisyazhnykh: problemy i perspektivy [Jury trial: problems and prospects]. Gosudarstvo i pravo, no.3, pp.5–15. (In Russian).

Rarog A.I. (2016) Ugolovno-pravovye pozitsii zakonodatelya i pravoprimenitelya [Criminal legal position of the legislator and the law enforcer]. Lex Russica, no.11, pp.46–60. (In Russian).

Shishkova A. (1999) Konstitutsionnyy Sud otmenil smertnuyu kazn'. Vremenno [The Constitutional Court abolished the death penalty. Temporarily]. Advokat, no.3, pp.36–40. (In Russian).

(2018) Interv'yu s Predsedatelem Konstitutsionnogo Suda Rossiyskoy Federatsii Valeriem Dmitrievichem Zor'kinym [Interview with the Chairman of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation Valery Dmitrievich Zorkin]. Yurist, no.12, pp.4–18. (In Russian).