How well does Russia speak the language of international law?

Anna Dolidze pic crop.jpg

The language of international law has become another battleground between Russia and the West.


Anna Dolidze
6 February 2015

As a system of signs and codes dependent on an individual’s fluency, language can be – and is – used as a metaphor for understanding international law. Indeed, the conceptualisation of international law as a language and discourse is  firmly established in international law scholarship.

As a non-native speaker, Russia has approached international law with two rhetorical moves. While at times it pretends to the role of a disaffected foreigner, Russia also presents itself as an empowered multilingual speaker, which aspires to uphold and interpret the rules of a language recently acquired.


The peaks and troughs of language learning are familiar to most. Though estrangement and disenchantment with a language and its speech community are initial pitfalls, non-native speakers often come to experience a sense of empowerment nurtured by the creation of a new multilingual identity. And nowwhere more so than in Russia.

The Russian political and intellectual elite has for long perceived international law as a foreign language, and Russia – its disaffected non-native speaker.

One thinks of the 18th century Russian statesman Baron Pyotr Shafirov, who lamented Russia’s estrangement from the West. For Shafirov, the community of European states was a speech community inaccessible to Russia – an exclusive club of civilised nations to which Russia aspired. The language of this community, international law, was far from universal.

‘What in our times is called international law, in reality encompasses only a circle of European powers.’

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russia’s status as a non-native speaker became more evident. As the Bolsheviks broke with international law and asserted Soviet socialist theories of international law, they returned to the bosom of their mother tongue by defining Russia as separate from ‘decadent’ Europe. 

Consider, for example, the words of Yevgeny Korovin – a leading Soviet legal scholar working at the Institute of Soviet Law – from 1923: 

‘In reality, there is currently no ‘general’ international law. For a long time, international law has been divided into a number of legal circles. Today, the theory of ‘universal’ and ‘global’ international law is nothing more than a myth. What in our times is called international law, in reality encompasses only a circle of European powers, in particular the Great Powers.’


With the gradual importation and translation of international law, however, Russia acquired a new linguistic identity. Russia has since become a multilingual speaker whose fluency in international law cannot be doubted.

In the mid-19th century, Russia experienced a surge in international law scholarship. Under the tsars, Russian theoreticians of international law saw themselves as translators and channels of Western European international law scholarship.

In the mid-19th century, Russia experienced a surge in international law scholarship.

Russia’s expanding linguistic competency in international law can be seen in the country’s leadership in the field of international lawmaking during the 19th century; and its role in developing the foundations of international humanitarian law is well acknowledged. 

For instance, the 1868 St Petersburg Convention, convened under Russian leadership, and chaired by Russia’s War Minister Dmitry Milyutin, resulted in the St Petersburg Declaration – the first international agreement prohibiting certain, particularly cruel, weapons of war. The so-called Martens clause, an accepted maxim in international humanitarian law, is named after its author, 19th century Russian statesman Fyodor Martens. 

Russia’s renewed embrace of the language of international law has been particularly evident since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, witness the numerous signings of international treaties. The Russian Federation ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998. In 1997, Russia ratified the Law of the Sea Convention. And at the 1997 summit in Denver, Colorado, the G7 group of leading industrialised democracies became the G8, with Russia joining as a full member.

Judgments of grammar

As a multilingual speaker fluent in the language of international law, Russia has moved to assert control over judgments of grammar, and has disagreed with previously determined linguistic rules established by the native-speaking community.

‘We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.’

Russia’s position as a newly energised multilingual speaker, emerges in the bold moves of Russia’s leadership in interpreting international law and, in particular, in asserting its own role as one of the guardians of international rules. This assertion on the world stage takes place in relation to some of the world’s most troubled conflicts. Addressing President Obama in relation to the Syrian crisis, President Putin stated in a September 2013 op-ed for the New York Times that, ‘we are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.’

As to Ukraine, Russia’s newly established position as the guardian of the grammar of international law is particularly evident. President Putin’s ‘Crimea address’ in March 2014 emphasised the Russian leadership’s mastery of the language of international law. In the speech, President Putin gave an overview on international law, with reference to Kosovo, including the relevant judgment by the UN International Court of Justice, and repeatedly passed judgment on the correct application of the rules of international law.

Putin went on to chide the West: ‘Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun.’

And, meeting with the Russian Human Rights Council in October 2014, Putin remarked that events in Ukraine ‘revealed the full-scale crisis of international law, of the basic norms of the Universal Human Rights Declaration and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.’

This is more than a matter of semantics. Interpreting the ongoing conflict between Russia and NATO countries through linguistics allows us to see that, whatever the outcome of the most recent crisis, the deeper disagreement in relation to the foundational rules of the grammar of international law is here to stay. The heated exchanges between interlocutors from Russia and the West is one more source of conflict, this time over who controls the proper uses of language, a competition over the legitimate sources for assigning judgment on international law. 

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData