‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by Timothy Snyder


2018, 279 p & 60 p. footnotes

Perhaps it’s a function of geography and economics, but here in Australia at this time we are more concerned about the rising power of China than we are about the rising power of Russia. Nonetheless, we’ve been aware of it through reading about the U.S. election and the Mueller Report, through watching with curiosity the Maidan protests in Ukraine, and more tragically through the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17, which prompted particular Australian attention because of the large number of Australians on board.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Russia, Europe and America’ and with its very current focus, it seems a little incongruous that it should be written by a historian, rather than a political scientist.But historian Timothy Snyder is, and he was a close associate and friend of the late Tony Judt, another acclaimed 20th century historian. Echoing the title of F.A. Hayek’s treatise on market liberalization, The Road to Serfdom, Snyder’s book explores the danger posed to the Enlightenment values of reason and reasonableness through two linked historical narrative forces: the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.

The narrative of inevitability is the sense that the future is just more of the present, with nothing further to be done, as exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s hubristic and premature claim of the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy marking “The End of History“.  Communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had its own politics of inevitability: “nature permits technology, technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia”. (p.7)

When the politics of inevitability collapses, as it did in 1991 for the Soviet Union and in the wake of the GFC for Western economies, it ushers in the politics of eternity. He focuses on Russia, but any country could slip into the politics of eternity (and indeed, perhaps several other countries are already doing so). The politics of eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood (p.8), where progress gives way to doom, crises are manufactured and manipulated, and citizens experience elation and outrage at short interval (p.8). In both forms of politics, history and facts are used in particular ways.

Inevitability and eternity translate facts into narratives. Those swayed by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history. Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realize in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama. (p. 9)

Snyder argues that Russia was the first 21st century power to reach into the politics of eternity, and that it has been increasingly successful in exporting it to other countries.  He points to Vladimir Putin’s championing of the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, an early critic of Bolshevism who was expelled from Russia in 1922. Impressed by the ideas of Hitler and Mussolini, Ilyin proposed a lost, innocent “Russian Spirit” which would throw of the Bolshevism inflicted on an innocent Russia by the West, which would be rescued by a manly, virile redeemer who would unite his people to welcome God to return to the world and help Russia bring an end to history everywhere.  Vladimir Putin identified Ilyin as his chosen chronicler of Russia’s past (even though Ilyin was no historian); he organized the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains from Switzerland to Moscow for reburial in 2005, and he ‘brought home’ his papers from a university in Michigan. His essays were reprinted and reportedly, given to all Russian civil servants.

The purpose of his book, Synder claims, is “an attempt to win back the present for historical time, and thus win back historical time for politics” by “trying to understand one set of interconnected events in our own contemporary world history, from Russia to the United States, at a time when factuality itself was put to the question.” (p.9). His book moves roughly chronologically from 2011 onwards in six chapters titled as opposites: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Succession or Failure; Integration or Empire; Novelty or Eternity; Truth or Lies; Equality or Oligarchy.  He identifies two of Ilyin’s strategies at play: first, identifying enemies to the Russian spirit – homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, separatists, and second, exporting to other countries an attack on truth and facts by outright lies and manipulation, with the aim of using disinformation to divide and polarize democracies (most particularly U.S. Europe and Britain).

We saw the first of these at play in the Breslin school massacre and the Moscow theatre siege, which were blamed on Chechen separatists. With the invasion of Crimea, the poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko and the Skiprals in London, the ‘intervention’ in Ukraine, and the shootdown of MH17 we saw outright lies as the Russian government denied all involvement despite clear evidence to the contrary. We have seen how Vladimir Putin models himself as a hyper-masculine, horse-riding, shirtless ‘redeemer’- and indeed, with the exception of Angel Merkel and Marine Le Pen, women have no place at all in Snyder’s book. And with the Mueller report (which had not been released at the time of publication of this book) we see Russian influence in American politics, even if Mueller did not directly link it with Trump personally. Snyder suggests that Russia is content to use Trump as a ‘useful idiot’, pumping him up as a ‘successful businessman’ and allowing him to sow his own distrust and manipulation of facts. Russia is happy for the European Union to turn on itself and splinter through Brexit,  and it has the computer networks and resources to give prominence to far-right politicians in the West and prod these forces into action.

This book is meticulously footnoted, drawing both on newspaper articles (as one might expect in such a recent history) and academic texts. It is a fairly complex read, and in joining the dots it ranges across countries and events. In doing so, he takes the time to explain the event before weaving it into his broader argument. I found this book chilling and depressing. I’m not sure that individuals are going to have the strength to resist such powerful forces, and everywhere I look – America, Britain, Europe – I find even more reasons to despair.

Perhaps he didn’t want to end up at such a bleak destination because he closes his book by arguing the importance of truth; distinguishing between the true and the appealing, and resisting cynicism. “To seek the truth means finding a way between conformity and complacency, towards individuality.”(p 278)

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom. We begin a politics of responsibility. (p.279)


Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9


2 responses to “‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by Timothy Snyder

  1. Pingback: ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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