From “the Ignoble Cross” to “Commonly Accepted Standards”: Dignity As a Juridical Term in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation

Russian jurisprudence recognizes inalienable dignity to be an innate objective value of all humans. But it also recognizes another kind of dignity: that of a person's subjective experience of his/her individual moral worth. Оver the past century, juridical use of this subjective dignity radically changed: from an a-legal moral quality that supersedes both law and others' opinion; to an externally observable moral quality under legal protection; to a legally protected subjective state, evaluated against “commonly accepted” standards.

Contemporary Russian law protects plaintiffs' “honor and dignity” from offense and slander. But the 1903 criminal codex protected only their honor: “inner dignity,” legal scholars argued, is a subjective state that “cannot be an object of offense, for it is constituted and lives within the individual regardless of others' relationship toward him, it obeys only the evaluation of his own conscience and his consciousness of the concept of duty.” Recognizing citizens as ethical subjects, the law limited itself to regulating externally observable actions, without intruding into the realm of individual ethical feelings.

But by 1961, slander laws extended legal protection to dignity. Insisting that “the performance of one's labor duty is the utmost criterion of social weight,” late-Soviet juridical discourse did what its pre-Soviet predecessor could not: it mobilized a scale by which honor and dignity could both be externally observed and evaluated. Measuring both honor and dignity by a person's striving to build the new communist society and fulfill his/her labor duty, this scale had preset limits: “the Soviet person who forgets about his dignity as a citizen of the country of socialism,” legal scholars argued, “loses his right to the respect of his Motherland.”

The moral scale by which dignity was evaluated disappeared from juridical discourse after the Soviet collapse, but the legal protection of “honor and dignity” remained. References to the dignity of Human Rights superseded references to communist morality, but could not provide the law with a new scale by which of make moral striving externally observable: Human Rights discourse employs dignity as an inalienable value of all humans, irrespective of their moral striving. Contemporary Russian jurisprudence thus lacks a codified scale that would allow dignity to be evaluated, forcing judicial practice to maneuver according to “commonly accepted social standards” and the term's “general linguistic usage.”

So we've come full circle: the slander laws that a century ago bypassed “inner dignity” as that which could not neither be offended by slander nor protected by law, have come to protect dignity, as defined by subjects' striving for “commonly accepted” social standards.