Russian Futures: North Korea-lite? Or the colonies’ revenge on the metropole?

This is a slightly longer version of a piece for Open Democracy.

Understandably, right now, with Russia’s annexation of the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine, all the focus is on the implications for the war, for Western support, and for escalation from the Russian side. As an anthropologist working on Russian politics and society, my own interest is in how the administration and governance in places like the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic reflects a possible future for the whole of Russia. We could call it ‘North Korea-lite’. But like all diet drinks, the satisfaction of the original is just not there.

First, some quick caveats: Russia is not, nor it is likely to become, a full-fat dictatorship. Right now, there’s a lot of debate about how constrained Putin is in his actions – both relating to the conduct of the war, and to the ‘home front’. There’s also, understandably, anger among Ukrainian supporters who rightly ask: ‘why is there no uprising against mobilization?’

The fact is, people who are surprised by Russians’ inability or unwillingness to resist, do not have a realistic picture of the effectiveness of Putin’s punitive state. It is not ‘fair’ to compare Russia with Belarus, or Iran, or pre-2014 Ukraine. The apparatus to monitor, interdict, disrupt, intimidate, punish, incarcerate, dissuade, distract, and mislead has been built to perfection in Russia since 2011 and was effective even before then. I will concede critics of Russians one point: it is true that many people are ‘bought off’. Even now, middle-class Russians in metropolises enjoy a nice quality of life if they are strictly apolitical.

So, to come back to Putin himself, while there’s some value in armchair psychology about his (incompetent and escalatory) impact on the war, the ‘dictator-or-not’ debate misses the point. By now, the Russian securitized state is a machine that largely runs on automatic in Russia itself. Yes, the leader can issue commands, and some of them matter a lot, but most of them have so many layers of execution to work through that inevitably they get distorted – witness the immediate backtracking around drafting soldiers. Some regions undermined the military enlisters, rebuking them strongly. Other regions claimed they’d already drafted enough. Putin himself yesterday had to make all kinds of qualifications to the previous statements made including a ridiculous and embarrassing statement about how even highly qualified medics might well have to serve as front-line infantry soldiers.

As I’ve frequently written, researchers should be doing much more to tease out the hard-to-detect and reach sources of resistance and sabotage against the war. Broadly this is called ‘infrapolitics’ and is a topic in a forthcoming co-edited book with Indiana University Press.

Once again, an automatic machine can have many inputters of commands, and its functioning can be compromised by too much input, even if broadly the commands work to the same purpose and share the same code. That Russia will not look like North Korea, or even China, is a function of the high degree of competition and conflict between regime factions, the emergence of new security players (like Prigozhin – the head of the private security firm Wagner – though this is exaggerated in my opinion), and the lack of clear ‘territorial’ division agreements in the economy where there is high-level corruption. These destabilizing elements were always present in Russia; the war accelerates them and exacerbates them. We can add to the mix failing social guarantees – previously a key source of regime legitimacy and ‘fair bargain’ for Russians’ agreement to be apolitical.

So why and how might Russia nonetheless come to resemble a state like North Korea? The answer I think, is in the even more extreme model of coercion and personalized rule that the East Ukraine territories represent. Even if they are completely incorporated as ‘normal’ Russian territories today, they offer a template of a militarized ‘barracks’ governance that Putin surely feels comfortable with, even nostalgic for.

These territories differed from Russia in that the still-meaningful rule of law in Russia does not apply there. Even now, people in Russia can resist the state – even the draft – using legal means as well as social pressure. A well-executed social media campaign can get a drafted person undrafted. Many people who resist might not ultimately be successful, but resist they can. In these territories, and in the imminent Russian future, states of emergency and allowing military concerns to overrule due process and the trappings of a legal order would be a logical conclusion to Putin’s slippery slope towards a barracks state. Only, unlike in Karl Marx’s formulation, this won’t be ‘barracks communism’ – where all aspects of life are bureaucratically regimented – but barracks state capitalism (I don’t think my main theses of this article need much updating). Elites will continue to taste the fruits of corrupt rent-seeking and enjoy an opulent lifestyle; subjects (no longer citizens) will be divided into quasi-feudal estates: state security personnel will get more rations and nicer bunks than the rest. This is Simon Kordonsky’s thesis about social castes in Russia, updated for wartime.

Already in February Russia took giant steps towards emulating the situation in the occupied territories, implementing strict censorship punishable by long jail time. Since then even non war-related opponents are remanded in custody indefinitely without a trial date, and without proper access to lawyers. I have highlighted the plight of Kirill Ukraintsev the labour activist – his case is detailed in the forthcoming book. He’s been in a holding prison for five months, accused of organizing an unsanctioned protest, a charge punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment.


The invasion also saw the Russian state make a large part of government and budgetary business officially secret. Other important elements are public intimidation of ordinary people (the police state becomes normalized and highly visible, and includes torture); militarization of society; disagreements between elites are solved via extra-judicial, even violent means. As a result, a process of rent-seeking assets ‘trickling up’ to the most powerful and connected is accelerated. Ordinary people are more immiserated and impoverished relying on literal handouts from their feudal lords.

Not all these elements are fully in place nor are they likely to be given Russia’s vast territory and wealth, but given Putin’s isolation, and his background, it’s not hard to believe he looks at these territories and sees a ‘simpler life’ where he believes his inputs to the system are less likely to be frustrated. He has for twenty years been used to thinking of himself as the ultimate arbiter of personalized deals dividing resources and their allocation in Russia. However, the same period showed how often his commands resulted in inefficiency, more corruption and what I’ve called an ‘incoherent’ state. It’s a measure of his continuing hubris that Putin might believe that making the whole of Russia into a ‘People’s Republic’ like in Donbas would see him retain control as the ‘warlord’ king. More likely it would just accelerate the disintegration of the Russian state into the misery that is life for many residents of the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine.

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