Russian President Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin has passed a law that allows him to pick and choose which international decrees it complies withGetty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that allows the Constitutional Court of Russia to decide whether or not to comply with judgements made by international rights courts – a measure seen as a response to Russia losing many cases in Strasbourg, and being ordered to pay large sums of money.

The practical dimension of this measure is obvious. Oil prices are down, and Russia has never bothered to diversify its oil-addicted economy. The ruble has tumbled. The federal budget is taking a hit, and in light of all that, the last thing Russia wants is to pay money to former Yukos shareholders − the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay out €1.87 billion ($2bn bn, £1.36bn) to them after ruling the tax evasion case against Yukos was replete with "unfair proceedings".

There is also, however, the symbolic dimension. Russian officials have long resented uppity organisations and individuals for daring to challenge them in more or less independent international courts. And challenge they do, because today, according to the statistics, the Russian legal system returns more guilty verdicts in criminal cases than it did during Stalin.

Russian judges enjoy close professional relationships with Russian prosecutors, and even in mundane, non-political cases, a verdict of innocence is seen as inconvenient, a means of upsetting a cosy bureaucratic relationship. Officials in Russia are therefore deeply annoyed when so-called "outsider" courts disrupt a comfortable status quo in which the individual defendant is at the complete mercy of the state.

At a time of increased outward displays of patriotism and anti-Western hysteria seen on state-owned television networks, this legal rupture with the outside world has been ostensibly done in the name of sovereignty. Yet it will not benefit the ordinary Russian citizen, but the bureaucratic class, which can now prey on the citizen with even more abandon than usual.

Of course, the new law stipulates that Russia's Constitutional Court can pronounce outside rulings "non-executable" should they deem them to contradict the Russian Constitution. Yet the Constitution itself is not a legal blueprint for today's Russia. For example, the Russian Constitution forbids censorship, yet a ham-fisted law against obscene language – specifically targeting outspoken artists – was passed without a backward glance last year.

In fact, reminders of the legal status of the Constitution are a cause for annoyance and even suspicion.

Peaceful protester Ildar Dadin has just been jailed for three years under harsh new anti-protest laws (which themselves go against the right to freedom of assembly) – all for the horrifying, subversive activity of standing outside with placards quoting the Constitution.

Ildar Dadin
Russian opposition activist Ildar Dadin (R) and fellow protesters hold flares and a poster reading 'Yesterday - Kiev, Tomorrow - Moscow!' during a rally in Moscow in December 2014Getty Images

In fact, the freedoms awarded by the Russian Constitution can make the ordinary people who've read it feel extremely uncomfortable.

As prominent Russian psychologist Ludmila Petranovskaya has recently argued, many Russians have reacted to worsening economic conditions with a surprising sense of relief. They are not used to living reasonably well and, as Petranovskaya argues, they see the new upheavals as "coming home".

As Petranovskaya further argues, this thinking extends to other aspects of life in Russia, not just the worsening economy. She points to a centuries-long tradition of "feeding people to a perpetually hungry predator-government" – whether they be serfs or soldiers, dissidents or random bystanders – and to the ideologues of this tradition, from conservative clergy to reactionary writers, who shout that Russian individuals must always suffer for a vague, mythical "greater good" (which usually just translates to "good for the elite").

Officials in Russia are deeply annoyed when so-called "outsider" courts disrupt a comfortable status quo in which the individual defendant is at the complete mercy of the state.

A person who has internalised the values of this very flawed, but very old system respects neither a comfortable life nor basic justice. The legal humiliation individuals suffer in Russian criminal courts is seen by them as perfectly normal – perhaps sad, but also comfortably familiar.

The notion that a foreign court could occasionally overturn this dreary but well-established dynamic is disturbing. It is seen as an introduction of alien concepts and ideals – not to mention as an admission that not all is as well in Russia as it should be. That last bit in particular is too painful for people to consider, especially those people who remember the Soviet Union well and frequently confuse their fond memories of childhood with justice and prosperity.

As sociologist Vladislav Inozemtsev recently pointed out, however, Russia's relationship with the West is like a pendulum. Today, the pendulum has swung sharply away from the West, but in a system characterised by upheavals, in the future it is likely to swing back with tremendous force.

A lot of these pendulum swings, I would argue, are aided by Russia's continued search for its own identity. Is it an empire? A modern nation state? Who are its real allies? Real enemies? I see no real consensus about that in ordinary society and among the elites. Fiery rhetoric coming from Russian television only seems to underscore general doubt and confusion. A people who are secure with themselves don't conduct televised witch hunts or suffer from a siege mentality.

The biggest question then is: how many will be sacrificed – whether in kangaroo courts or elsewhere – before Russia can truly find its footing?