In The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder examines what he sees as the real nature of the growing threat to democracy. He gives us a history of modern Russia under Vladimir Putin and an explanation of how he has influenced both Europe and the United States for his own political ends. He briefly sets out the history of Ukraine to prove that it is a separate country.
History is an aperture between inevitability and eternity
In the introduction, Snyder writes:
“History is and must be political thought, in the sense that it opens an aperture between inevitability and eternity, preventing us from drifting from the one to the other, helping us see the moment when we might make a difference. As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair. Erosion reveals what resists, what can be reinforced, what can be reconstructed, and what must be reconceived. Because understanding is empowerment.”
Snyder believes that there are two major dysfunctions in society: “the politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity.” Both politics, in different ways, enable the development of an authoritarian state because they both relieve people of any responsibility for their own future.
The politics of inevitability
The politics of inevitability is based on optimism, where ‘the future is just more of the present’ and history guarantees a linear direction, making the future predictable. Classical Marxism is an example of politics of inevitability because it sees the future as automatically leading to a socialist revolution and the overthrow of capitalism.
The politics of inevitability in America after the end of the fall of the Iron Curtain was the belief that free-market capitalism and liberal democracy was the way to a safe, prosperous, bright future. It was the background to Western optimism that liberal capitalism would ensure stability, peace and prosperity through market forces. These expectations have encountered major setbacks, which Snyder argues are partly due to the dysfunctional inevitability and eternity concepts.
The politics of eternity
The politics of eternity could be defined as something more like ‘politics detached from history’. While the politics of inevitability is driven by idealism, the politics of eternity is driven by despair. Politics of eternity look to the past threats and challenges the nation has faced, and present them as current reality, as it ‘places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood’.
“Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats.”
Fascism as an example
Fascism is perhaps the clearest example of a form of government based on the politics of eternity. It entails the suspension of historical understanding and of truth. It cannot exist in a world where verifiable facts could motivate actions. It means total suppression of free speech and goes hand in hand with state propaganda.
Its aim is not only to make people to believe that a lie is true (according to Goebbels this happens if lies are repeated often enough), politics of eternity wants to convince people that nothing is true. Propaganda works to undermine people’s belief in facts. Then the leader assumes the right to declare what is true. He can present lies without fearing scrutiny.
A story of victimhood
According to Snyder, Russia is locked in a cycle of eternity politics, feeding its story of victimhood. Putin even manufactures crises to be able to manipulate the resultant emotions in the population. Russia is also spreading its harmful politics of eternity into other countries. Such sentiments are often based on some genuine grievances and take different forms in most of the former Soviet bloc countries.
Based on this theoretical model, Snyder shows in numerous chapters how Russia under Putin has moved from inevitability to eternity. He shows how the fascist World War II-era ideas of Ivan Ilyin were revived by Putin. He lists a series of pro-fascist Russian intellectuals that enabled Putin’s current government.
Trump: a temporary blip
With the rise of populist movements, people whose views are based on politics of inevitability believe Brexit and the election of Trump is just a temporary blip which will right itself. I suppose this is one explanation why in the UK many anti-Brexit campaigns did and still don’t motivate enough people to come out in street protests.
Snyder warns that the recent upsurge in populism signals a deep dissatisfaction with what is seen as complacent elites and their failing social and economic policies.
Snyder sees a shift in the vector of influence, from the East to the West. Trump’s ‘fake news’ is just a reheated Russian form of disinformation. Russia wants to “demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States” (p 11).
Putin is a fascist who openly quotes known fascist writers and promotes them to high positions. He calls the US and Western Europe decadent enemies to Russia. He says they are driven by a mad compulsion to ‘homosexualise’ the world by forcing everybody to allow gay marriage.
Putin is alleged to have manipulated elections both in Russia and other countries around the world. He eroded democratic freedom in his country. Any promises he might make to other countries cannot be trusted. He has promised his home audience that he will destroy us.
More like Russia
“Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia.” Snyder believes this has been Russia’s plan since 2008. He primarily targets the European Union and America. His invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was based on his ambition for the creation of a Eurasian state.
Ukraine seeking a closer relationship with the EU threatened this ambition. He countered this by a military reaction plus a propaganda campaign through Twitter and Facebook. Both Brexit and Trumpian campaigns used social media targeting of vulnerable groups to achieve their aim. Putin’s tools are a mixture of misinformation and corrupting Western politicians with huge money incentives, and, if useful, blackmail.
Snyder describes in the final chapter how Russia created a fictional character ‘Donald Trump, successful businessman’. Russians groomed him from the 1990s onward with huge loans and real estate purchases. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, made millions advising Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians. Every member of Trump’s inner circle had extensive contact with Russian agents.
Snyder is careful to stress that Trump himself might not have collaborated with the Russians. Likely he was used as a tool whose ambition and ignorance made him a perfect fit for Russian interests. Trump has governed according to Putin’s playbook, according to the politics of eternity. I recognise a number of these in UK’s current government:
- Constant reference to a past era of greatness
- Willingness to hurt oneself if, in doing so, you can hurt someone else more
- Repetition of blatant, easily verifiable lies with no evidence to back them up other than the fact of the assertion.
Putin wants us to become so distrustful of the rule of law and the political system that we no longer believe that anything will matter. So what if we are governed by corrupt, bumbling liars? Putin wants us to believe that everybody is a corrupt, bumbling liar, so one is just as good as another. That would make Western populations as unhappy as Russians. His success lies in decreasing our power and thus increasing Russia’s relative power.
Snyder presents us with choices, which also make up the titles of chapters in his book:
“Individualism or Totalitarianism
Succession or Failure
Integration or Empire
Novelty or Eternity
Truth or Lies
Equality or Oligarchy
Thus individuality, endurance, cooperation, novelty, honesty, and justice figure as political virtues. These qualities are not mere platitudes or preferences, but facts of history, no less than material forces might be. Virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish.”
This book is a must read for people looking for explanations as to how and why Britons and Americans voted for toxic and harmful politicians and the way out of this chaos.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 2018
Available in paperback and on kindle. Not available in Kent public library.