What Did Russia Build Within—the Digital Gulag or the Cyberpunk?

Seminars and Colloquia

There are two types of dystopias. One is “the digital Gulag” where the state controls every part of a human's life with cameras, internet and a social credit system. The other one is the “cyberpunk,” where the state has no monopoly access to digital data, nor any control over citizens sharing it with corporations, mafia and hackers.

China is the archetype of the digital Gulag. While Russia is considered to be close to the Chinese level of state control, it is in fact still a cyberpunk country. The state has no monopoly access to data: there is a huge black market for stolen data where investigative journalists can buy information, for example, on who tried to poison Navalny. This market is widely used by corporations and criminals, too. Muscovites are fully controlled by cameras with face recognition, while one can easily hide from the state in remote regions where there are no such instruments of control.

After the full-scale invasion the Kremlin is pushing Russia closer to the digital Gulag, but the cyberpunk still dominates. How can this happen? How does the digital Gulag help the Kremlin to control society, and how does cyberpunk help those who still try to oppose Putin? Finally, will Russia become a fully fledged digital Gulag state? If so, when?

Andrei Zakharov is a Russian investigative journalist who has worked for several media outlets, including BBC News Russia, RBK Group, and Proekt. He gained international acclaim for his investigation of Russia´s interference in the 2016 US election in connection with the troll factory of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Among his numerous accolades in journalism, he is a two-time winner of The Golden Pen (2015 and 2016) and a four-time winner of the Redkollegia (twice in 2017, 2020, and 2022). Zakharov left Russia in 2021 after he was designated as a foreign agent by the Russian government.

Kirill Rogov, IWM Visiting Fellow, provided commentary.

Clemena Antonova, Research Director of the IWM program The World in Pieces, introduced the speaker and moderated the colloquium's discussion.


Fellows Colloquia are internal events for the IWM Visiting Fellows and Guests.