oDR: Opinion

Are we seeing the end times of Russia’s police capitalism?

By mobilising working class and minority ethnic men for war against Ukraine, Russia launched its first class war of the 21st century

Kirill Kobrin
3 November 2022, 12.56pm
A Russian soldier outside Mariupol
(c) ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Mobilisation in the Russian Federation is a sad sight. Hundreds of thousands of people uprooted from their homes and driven, perhaps, to their deaths – the ruins of their former lives left behind. Ahead lies destruction, and the mobilised soldiers are both the instruments and, to a lesser extent, the victims of it.

Yet while this picture is almost universal – there have always been wars – in Russia it always looks rougher, more sentimental. Downcast peasants and boys herded into some dirty square in front of an unremarkable train station, all wearing similar clothes and similar expressions on their faces as a sentimental tune plays in the background.

The brute force of the Russian state doesn’t only hit you where it hurts, it does not recognise human life as such, which is why the current authorities have no doubts, no regrets. The Russian state, as if following Foucault’s mantra of ‘discipline and punish’, does not see any value in its current object of discipline and punishment, the mobilised soldier.

Instinctively, the Russian authorities are trying to fight against Ukraine (and the collective West) with foreign hands – hands that are different by virtue of their social class or national background. The regime is trying to shift the dirty work of the war onto ‘others’, whose existence, in its eyes, is purely functional. As if the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine was just like the upkeep of Moscow, where migrant workers from Central Asia sweep the streets and repair the roads.

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Oppression in today’s Russia is, of course, based on race, ethnicity and religion – but the most primitive class principle is its ultimate guiding force.

The ‘other’ for the Russian authorities is not so much a resident of Dagestan or Buryatia, but a poor man, whether a worker, a peasant, a teacher or a small entrepreneur. He is the main instrument of the war, but, after Ukraine, he is also one of its main targets.

The other war

At the beginning of October 2022, two Russian independent media, iStories and CIT, conducted a joint investigation into who is most often taken to the war in Ukraine. The result confirms that Russia’s national republics and the poorest sections of its population provide the most soldiers for mobilisation.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s ‘partial’ mobilisation really is partial in the sense that it has only targeted a part of the population, on the basis of their social and national characteristics. The ensuing exodus of middle-class Russians with higher education to Kazakhstan or Georgia only exacerbates this point.

The Putin regime is a dictatorship of a special kind of bourgeoisie, formed as a result of the never-ending influence of the Russian security services and law enforcement on the Russian state and society

The Russian government is thus waging two wars at once. One is a war of aggression against Ukraine, pursuing goals that remain unknown (because the Kremlin itself cannot formulate them clearly). This is a war with goals that emerge and transform along the way, depending on the circumstances and moods of those who started and continue it. This is why Vladimir Putin and his entourage have fallen into a reactive mode, as they follow their paranoia and face up to the reality of the international balance of power.

But the second war waged by the Russian authorities has clearer aims. This is a war against a significant part of the Russian population. It is a logical continuation of the internal policies of the Putin regime, a manifestation of its class character and real – albeit unformulated – ideological foundations.

Of course, there is nothing ‘Soviet’ nor ‘communist’ in the Putin regime: if this is sometimes talked about, mainly in the West, it is either from an inability or unwillingness (often the latter) to understand and define the current state of affairs in Russia.


A poster of Russian president Vladimir Putin seen damaged on the floor in a police station in Kupiansk, Ukraine, 26 September 2022


(c) Ashley Chan/ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy. All rights reserved

The Putin regime is a dictatorship of a special kind of bourgeoisie, formed as a result of the never-ending influence of the Russian security services and law enforcement on the Russian state and society after the country gained independence in 1991.

Until recently, this regime’s task was to reproduce the opportunities for its own functioning. Beneficiaries received maximum incomes, which could be shared with their various service personnel, from technical to cultural. (The latter did not even need to be recruited and formed: they made a relatively smooth transition from their previous status as cultural servants of the Soviet government to serving the oligarchs and government.)

The Putin regime is a special kind of police capitalism that emerged not in a client state of the US, China, Saudi Arabia or even the old Soviet Union. Instead, Russia is a regional police state, or at least claims this status.

Claims to this status, by the way, have determined the special role of foreign policy for Russia over the past 20 years. Putin’s Russia could not become a second Jordan or Shah’s Iran, since it does not have its own security backer like the US. Putin’s Russia could not become a second China or India, because it did not have – and still does not have – its own unshakeable agenda, where a vision of the country’s internal structure and its role in the world would come from the same perspective, rather than a hysterical reaction to a lack of respect from abroad.

An unfamiliar enemy

Nevertheless, this regime – more precisely, its insiders – has managed to extract and increase income quite safely for about 20 years, exploiting the energy resources and infrastructure inherited from the late Soviet Union. Naturally, this income was unevenly distributed among all the interested parties, who, of course, constituted a minority of the population. The majority was left behind, and it keeps getting in the way.

During the 2000s, there was still a danger that Russian citizens would declare their rights and interests. However, the Russian regime quickly realised that the majority did not have the ‘words’ for this kind of declaration – there was no political force that could represent and formulate its moods, desires and so on. The Russian Communist Party could claim this role, but this pathetic organisation instead mystifies the interests of those social groups which it supposedly represents. It could have been trade unions, but they were neutralised even faster via banal corruption, manipulation and threats. Finally, it could have been a socialist or social democratic party, but the authorities could not allow this.

The ideal of Putin’s dictatorship is a sparsely populated country where the revered security services are served by IT specialists, helpful designers, cowed journalists and artists

In parallel, the process of social atomisation continued in Russia, resulting from the absence of any social policy of the state, coupled with the influence of the new Russian pop culture, media and propaganda. The Russian state, unlike the USSR, completely abandoned all attempts at positive social engineering. As a result, the majority turned out to be left to their own devices. The state, which came to believe in extreme, American-style individualism (now served up as traditional family values), has ceased to support society’s interests even minimally.

Still, the very physical presence of the Russian population disturbs the Putin regime.


"Z" has become a popular symbol for Russia's war against Ukraine


(c) Dmitrii Melnikov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

First, it is not clear what to expect from the atomised masses of people: passivity can turn into an explosion of hatred at the drop of a hat, especially when Putin’s propaganda and post-Soviet pop culture depends on anti-intellectual moods and wildly illogical emotions.

The ‘explosion’ scenario is purely theoretical, but it exists – and it bothers regime insiders deeply. It is not difficult to neutralise a liberal intellectual, because you know what to expect from him. He is part of the servant class. But what can you expect from a completely incomprehensible worker from Ust-Ilimsk, a peasant from the Kostroma region, a car mechanic from a Buryat village, and so on?

Second, the Russian majority must be supported financially, that is, income must be shared with them. The worse state the Russian economy is in, the more unpleasant it is to do so. Whatever economists and demographers say, the majority is not particularly necessary for the Russian economy. In the future, all these people would be perfectly replaced by migrant workers and robots. At the very least, migrant workers can be paid less – and there is absolutely no need to support their lives. The same goes for many Russian regions – they could be given away, if they weren’t part of a great country.

The ideal of Putin’s dictatorship, concocted from neoliberal cynicism, KGB sadism and Western managerial logic, is a sparsely populated country where the revered security services are served by IT specialists, helpful designers, cowed journalists and artists, who can even be allowed to sometimes be moderately free. Plus an education system that reproduces the above. And doctors (they should be well financed, but for some reason it never works out), engineers (who will grin and bear it) and researchers (who need watching). And a modest number of hard working Russians. The rest can be replaced by quiet slaves or drones. The rest – the majority – are the regime’s ‘enemies’, an intolerable legacy of past eras.

One way or another, the Russian majority must be finally humiliated, finally defeated and, if possible, at least partially physically destroyed. With mobilisation, Russia’s first class war of the 21st century began.

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