Are We Traveling the ‘Road to Unfreedom’?
The New York Times Book Reviews, May 9, 2018
THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM
Russia, Europe, America
By Timothy Snyder
359 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $27.
Historians of the first half of the 20th century take little pleasure in
today’s renewed interest in their subject. We don’t like the parallels between
the West then and now: the rise of intolerant nationalist right-wing parties;
the loss of faith in democratic institutions and the longing for a strong
leader; the demonization of minorities like Jews or Muslims; or the
unwillingness or inability of democracies to work together.
We are living in dangerous times, Timothy Snyder argues forcefully and
eloquently in his new book, “The Road to Unfreedom.” Too many of us, leaders
and followers, are irresponsible, rejecting ideas that don’t fit our
preconceptions, refusing discussion and rejecting compromise. Worse, we are
prepared to deny the humanity and rights of others. In his chilling
“Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” Snyder explored the ghastly
consequences of tyranny and the breakdown of human values and norms in the
center of Europe.
The road to unfreedom, as Snyder sees it, is one that runs right over
the Enlightenment faith in reason and the reasonableness of others — the very
underpinning, that is, of our institutions and values. Recent examples, found
around the world, demonstrate both how important conventions and mutual respect
are as a way of maintaining order and civility — and how easily and carelessly
they can be smashed. Just think of President Trump’s regular impugning of the
loyalty of those who work for the American government, in the F.B.I., for
So many of us no longer care, as we should, about understanding
ourselves and our pasts as complex and ambiguous. Rather we look for comforting
stories that claim to explain where we came from and where we are going. Such
stories relieve us of the need to think and serve to create powerful
identities. They also serve the authoritarian leader who rides them to power.
Snyder makes a valuable distinction between the narratives of
inevitability and those of eternity. The former are like Marxism or faith in
the triumph of the free market: They say that history is moving inexorably
toward a clear end. The latter do not see progress but an endless cycle of
humiliation, death and rebirth that repeats itself. Not surprisingly these often
draw on powerful religious iconography. Both, as Snyder points out, produce
intolerance of those who disagree. By questioning the narrative’s supposed
truth, you are removing yourself from the community of true believers.
Liberal democracy is being undermined from within, but not only from
within. In addition to the general malaise Snyder identifies, “The Road to
Unfreedom” also points to human agency — in particular that of Vladimir Putin.
At home and abroad Putin has willing collaborators and “useful idiots,” as
Lenin supposedly called them, who think Putin means well or can be won over.
Yet the evidence is that Putin is ruthless in his determination to hang on to
power and destroy those he perceives as enemies of Russia, a large group. He
has used covert and not so covert means (think of the “volunteers” in eastern
Ukraine who drove Russian Army trucks) to destabilize neighboring governments
and to stir up dissent in countries from France to the United States. Within
Russia, as recent elections illustrate, he bends the Russian people to his will
through a mixture of coercion and persuasion. As Snyder says in one of his
incisive comments, Putin’s dominance is based on “lies so enormous that they
could not be doubted, because doubting them would mean doubting everything.”
To understand Putin, Snyder argues persuasively, you must understand his
ideas. On examination these are a strange and toxic mixture of fascism,
religion and 19th-century notions about race and the struggle for survival. His
pronounced use of sexual imagery would also interest Freud. There is a stress
on power and virility and corresponding fears of sexual nonconformity. Putin
and his obedient press regularly attack gays and gay rights as part of a
Western conspiracy to destroy Russia. When Ukrainians turned out in massive
protests in 2014 against their corrupt pro-Russian dictator Viktor Yanukovych,
the Russian press claimed that behind the organization there was an L.G.B.T.
lobby and warned of a “homodictatorship.”
One of the key thinkers venerated by Putin and his circle is a hitherto
obscure Russian fascist, Ivan Ilyin, whose views are absurd but terrifying in
their implications. God, Ilyin says, made a mess of the world but fortunately
there was one pure and innocent being — the Russian nation. Whatever Russia
did, and does, to defend itself is legitimate. One day it will find its
redeemer — inevitably a strong and virile man — and triumph. (As Snyder points
out, there is an insuperable dilemma: What happens when the redeemer dies?)
Wearing the mantle of the redeemer, Putin will wage war on Russia’s enemies:
namely, his own citizens who want democratic rights; Ukrainians and other
neighbors who want independent states; or the European Union and the United
States because they offer the temptations of another way of life. Fortunately
(this theory goes) both the great rivals are decadent and worn out and doomed
to vanish, with some help from Russia, into the dustbin of history.
In 2013 Russia’s foreign minister unveiled an official “foreign policy
concept,” which foretold a bitter competition for resources and space across
the world. Eurasia would emerge as a “unified humanitarian space” from the
Atlantic to the Pacific and at its core would be the great power of Russia. In
the words of another of Putin’s favorite thinkers, Lev Gumilev, Russia
possesses a vital energy, “passionarity.” Here we get into L. Ron Hubbard
territory. Each nation in the world, as defined in the discredited 19th-century
racial sense, is the product of cosmic rays. Since the Russian ray came late in
time, Russians are young and brimming with energy.
Knowing relatively little about Putin’s private views or about who
really has influence over him, it is hard to tell if he actually believes such
stuff or whether he uses it as compensation for Russia’s many and manifest
weaknesses. What is clear is that he is prepared to inflict as much damage as
he can get away with on Russia’s enemies and he has had considerable success.
Snyder set out to write a book about Russia and its relations with
Ukraine and Europe, but he found the trail led to Western Europe and the United
States as well. Russia spreads false information, like the story — that never
took place — of a German schoolgirl’s gang-rape by Muslims, or Obama’s supposed
birth in Africa. It gives financial and other support to right-wing parties or,
in the case of Britain, to those supporting the Brexit campaign. Putin no doubt
sees it as payback, since the West promoted dangerous ideas about democracy and
human rights in his own country. Russia has honed its cyberwar skills, shutting
down communications and financial networks in Ukraine and Estonia and, now, as
recent reports say, penetrating the systems that control American power
stations. Surely, though, the reader wants to say, Snyder must be exaggerating
and jumping to conclusions when he calls Trump “Russia’s candidate”? Yet it is
unsettling that so many people near the president or his campaign have links to
Russia and that the president himself has been so reluctant to comment publicly
on Russia’s more egregious moves.
So what can the concerned citizen do about the decay in our public life?
We must, Snyder says, keep digging for the facts and exposing falsehoods. As
Thucydides, the father of history, said, “Most people, in fact, will not take
trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the
first story they hear.” We should mistrust one-sided accounts of the past or
the present. “The Road to Unfreedom” is a good wake-up call. You don’t have to
agree with all of Snyder’s conclusions, but he is right that understanding is
Margaret MacMillan is the author, most recently, of “History’s People:
Personalities and the Past.”
A version of this article appears in print
on May 13, 2018, on Page 11 of the Sunday Book Review with
the headline: Gathering Storm.
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