Alexander Yakovlev helps ease
tensions in Russian government

In the two years since he was last in residence at the law school, Alexander Yakovlev has been helping to shape the future of his native Russia. As the representative of Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the Federal Assembly, Yakovlev found himself playing a major role in helping ease political tensions within the newly formed government.

"It was a very good two years in the official position, but I had a good feeling twice: when I began and when I ended and returned to the academy," said Yakovlev with a smile. According to Thomas Remington of the political science department, Yakovlev was responsible for easing much of the fierce political confrontation that had led to the shelling of Russia's parliament in October 1993.

One of Yakovlev's first tasks as Yeltsin's representative was to organize a joint reconciliation committee to discuss establishment of a constitutional court. Since political opponents were deadlocked over the issue, it fell to Yakovlev to propose a solution: he called for representatives of both sides to sit down together and discuss the issue face-to-face, then vote.

"It was so simple that no one was able to say anything against the idea," said Yakovlev. "They were pressed to put aside their prejudices and their sometimes very strong emotions." Eventually, the law establishing Russia's constitutional court was passed by a two-thirds majority of the Federal Assembly. "The constitutional court is already working, serving as a kind of 'checks-and-balances' mechanism," Yakovlev said.

Yakovlev's open, direct approach to problem-solving seems integral to both his personal and professional philosophies. "It's a very old but very essential sociological truth: the broader the dissemination of information, the fewer prejudices [and] one-sided decisions and [the] greater possibility for cooperation. Information is the basis for cooperation."

As an example, Yakovlev cited Yeltsin's successful formation of a consolidated body, consisting of the speakers from the upper and lower chambers of the federal assembly and Yeltsin's own representative, which was established to discuss possible new legislation. Cooperation between legislative and executive branches is essential for Russia's future, said Yakovlev. "Without separation of powers, no free government is possible, but without cooperation between separated powers, no political authority can function at all."

While he was completing his high-profile political assignment, Yakovlev's book on the emergence of Russian constitutionalism was published in English. Striving for Law in a Lawless Land: Memoirs of a Russian Reformer (1995) presents the socio-historical factors that shaped legal development in Russia, including the role of former President Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika and Yeltsin's efforts to build a law-based Russian state.

Now that Russia has established political freedoms, the country's next challenge is to provide economic freedom for all its people. "All political freedoms are now a reality for the first time in 2,000 years of Russian history," Yakovlev said. "So we have the basics of democracy, but that is only a form for the substance of life. You are free, but for what? Real privatization will be the key goal for the next several years. It means establishment of the real middle class, the real kernel of democracy, which is now only beginning to emerge.

"We must have a substantial number of people who are both politically and economically free," Yakovlev continued. "Economic freedom means you have property or you are earning enough to have a stake in the political process. If you are simply without anything to lose or anything to acquire, it is hard to expect that you will be constructive and active in political life. We needed political stability for acquiring economic freedom. What are political freedoms for? They are to guarantee your economic rights. Freedom without bread sounds rather hollow, but bread without freedom is only prison."

Yakovlev is teaching two courses this semester, one with Remington on the politics of constitutional reform in Russia, and a course with Harold Berman, Woodruff Professor of Law, on the transformation of the Russian state from the early 19th through the 20th centuries. Yakovlev describes his teaching approach as one of "integrative jurisprudence, making history a part of the theory of law," because he believes that "history practically never dies. It may be forgotten, but it influences people profoundly, perhaps subconsciously, and expresses itself in their political behavior."

Even in Russia's unprecedented new political situation, said Yakovlev, "it sometimes seems that political actors are playing a part that was written long ago." When students look at the situation in Russia today, "they are listening to the history of Russia. And when they see the analogy between history and contemporary events, history becomes a living thing."

When he returns to Russia, Yakovlev will continue to serve as a member of the Institute of State and Law in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but he also is on the faculty of one of the country's new private law schools, where the law of supply and demand means better salaries for professors. He stresses that Russian and American students have much in common: both are willing to pay good money for a quality education, and student reaction is "universally positive if you tell them something that is interesting to hear."

-Elaine Justice

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