Russia is frequently called authoritarian - in discourse by western politicians, in the news and in casual discussions. Is it however officially designated by the US (or any western country) as an authoritarian state? Is there such a designation (like there are designations of terrorist organization or state sponsor of terrorism)? If yes, what are the legal consequences implied by such a designation? - I would expect that this implies at least

  • restrictions on doing business with/in such a state
  • asylum rights for the citizens of such a state, claiming to disagree with the state authority

I suppose that there existed designations that applied, e.g., to the Soviet Union or Cuba. Notably, the Soviet or Cuban citizens who reached US soil had rather straightforward access to refugee status - Moscow on the Hudson gives a classical depiction of such a defection, but there have been thousands of people who did similar things, the high-profile defectors including such personalities as Viktor Korchnoi, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolph Nureyev.

From hearsay: it seems that this was grounded in the designation of the USSR as not free: after the fall of the Soviet Union and opening of its borders, too many people were able to come to the US and claim refugee status, so the descendants of the USSR were declared free (apparently to these days?).

  • 3
    "restrictions on doing business with/in such a state". There wouldn't be much of a global market left if the US/West didn't trade with authoritarian states.
    – Polygnome
    Mar 9, 2022 at 8:41
  • I don't think that this has any formal legal meaning in U.S. law. It isn't an official designation. It is descriptive.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 9, 2022 at 21:46

1 Answer 1


It depends what you mean by this exactly. There's no law basis in the US for such a formal designation, as there is for terrorism sponsors. There wasn't even one for the USSR. This should not be confused with laws that enabled sanctions on the USSR, like export restrictions (COCOM etc.), which have recently been stepped up against Russia too, albeit with different names.

However, the State Department's characterization of Russia as authoritarian is clear enough, e.g.:

The Kremlin increasingly relies on repression to stifle civil society and critical voices, including new legislation restricting educational and cultural exchange programs, designating media outlets and NGOs as “foreign agents,” more pervasive use of the so-called “undesirable foreign organization” designation, and even using the COVID-19 pandemic as a justification to further restrict freedom of expression and assembly. The Russian government uses arbitrary designations, criminal convictions, and administrative barriers to disqualify potential opposition candidates, ensuring no independent voices can participate in government processes. New constitutional amendments approved by the government and endorsed in a nationwide vote in July 2020 will, inter alia, provide President Putin the opportunity to remain in power until 2036.

The closest thing that might qualify as an official designator is the Magnitsky Act (2016). I haven't looked at the official language, but Wikipedia's summary is that:

the bill, which applies globally, authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S.

As for immigration/asylum decisions (which seems to be another part of your qustion), I don't know if an official designation was needed during the USSR time. I think there is/was enough flexibility left in the hands of the immigration officials/judges that no official designation was necessary.

However, on some occasions, US presidents used their power to designate specific groups of refugees during the cold war, e.g.:

Between 1947 and 1991, U.S. immigration policy was shaped by the larger Cold War. In many case special allowances were made for migrants coming from Communist countries. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used his so-called parole powers to admit 30,000 refugees from the failed anti-Communist Hungarian Revolution.

And better known is the similar Act on Cuba:

After Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, many Cubans came to the U.S. as political refugees. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act allowed permanent resident status to Cubans who arrived in the U.S. after 1959.

Eisenhower's 1956 decision was based on the 1953 Refugee Relief Act. Wikipedia's summary of the latter is that:

Under this act, 214,000 immigrants were admitted to the United States, including 60,000 Italians, 17,000 Greeks, 17,000 Dutch and 45,000 immigrants from communist countries. The act was designed to aid those fleeing European Communist countries, like the Soviet Union and Eastern Germany.

Interesting enough, perhaps, this act made a formal distinction between refugees and escapees; those who had just ran from country that was deemed under Communist rule, were put in the latter [sub-]category.

(b) “Escapee” means any refugee who, because of persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, or political opinion, fled from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or other Communist, Communist-dominated or Communist-occupied area of Europe . . .

There was precedent for Eisenhower's decision in how the Truman administration had dealt with "the Balts":

among the DPs [displaced persons] that Truman wished to admit there were refugees from the three Baltic states whose annexation by the Soviet Union was not recognized by American government. Deportation of the “Baltic Boat people” – refugees who had already come to America’s shores in yachts purchased and equipped in Sweden – was ruled out by the Department of State. Two issues overlapped in this case: anti-Communism and the U.S. policy which proclaimed non-recognition of the Soviet seizure and forcible incorporation to the USSR of the Baltic States. Moreover, the DP Act of 1948 providing for the admission of 205,000 DPs contained a clear preference for the Balts. Up to November 1950 – based on the provisions contained in both DP Acts – close to 217,000 visas were issued of which 60.5 thousand were allotted to the Balts.

I think however that outside of the few such mass admission events, the yearly number of escapees from the Soviet block was low enough so that no special designations were used/needed; the US quota system and general asylum provisions handled the rest.

That last paper also notes that in 1979/1980, US immigration legislation has broadened the refugee definition so it didn't specially mention Communism anymore (and the "escapees" category was eliminated) but for

persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

and that consequently

the refugee admissions increased significantly. 41% of all Cold War refugees [to the US] arrived in the last decade of this era [meaning 1981-1990].

  • I suspected that the treatment of USSR and Soviet refugees was a consequence of accumulated sanctions/laws/decisions. Note that I am not disputing here the characterization of Russia as authoritarian, even if I am personally for a more nuanced view (see here). Mar 9, 2022 at 8:55

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