"The Road to Unfreedom, Russia, Europe, America" by Timothy Snyder

Here’s the good and bad about the ugly.

The good:

From a lifetime of research into the human misery caused by European fascist or totalitarian governments in the Twentieth Century, Snyder in this book wishes to reflect and warn about the gathering storm in our own country. He makes a convincing case about the threat posed by Putin’s oligarchy and fascist-tendency Russia to American and European democracy. I like his notion that democracies are partly founded on the succession principle. In a state where political power transfers from one leader to another through voting, there is a separation between whatever ruler is in power and the state itself. There will always be another election, always a way to remove the current occupant. Rulers are serving their country for a specific time, not the other way around. Snyder contrasts that with fascist states, where power rests until death in the hands of a ruler. Predictable, clear and regular succession becomes impossible. Fascist rulers must use fantasy to deflect the nation from the reality of being-in-time.

Fascist rulers thus attempt to have their nation focus not on history, that is, the-stories-of-human-beings-immersed-in-time, but rather on the eternal nature of the state. Snyder terms this the politics-of-eternity. Snyder also considers how fascist leaders seek to deny the impact human beings and their institutions, laws and actions can have on the life and fate of a people and a country. Such leaders insist that the state and the leader’s power are an inevitable unfolding. Human beings can’t act to control what happens. Snyder terms this the politics of inevitability. He traces much of the impulse for Putin’s fascism to the vast inequality of the Russian kleptocracy. True democratic nations feel they can change, make laws that will address the ills of society. Life can get better. These nations and societies are far less unequal, in terms of income, access to health care, schooling, protections of modern states that derive from a lawful society. The corruption of Russia, with its murdering of journalists and political opponents, its disregard for the rule of law, requires a politics-of-eternity in order to maintain its hold on power.

Snyder outlines how Russia attempts to undermine the rule of law in the European community and the United States. He details Russia’s cyberwarfare attacks on democratic institutions in the West. Russia wishes to replace these institutions with fascist ones, that will support Russia’s imperial claims both to parts of Ukraine, and the notion of a Russian Eurasia ruled by autocrats. Snyder cites the reviving of the White Russian philosopher Ivan Illyn, now quoted by Putin and other powerful political figures in Russia, to show the deep intellectual underpinnings of the Russian idea of state. I had thought of Russia’s rulers as mere gangsters, out to rob an entire petro-state. Snyder shows how Russia attempts to export this idea of a state that Illyn articulated through his writings.  

Snyder writes with passion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and how the West didn’t seem to understand the nature of Ukraine’s opposition to Russian cyber and military attacks. He blames the West for paying attention to what Putin said was happening in Ukraine, or at least giving much space in news accounts to Russian denials of military involvement, rather than what those in opposition to Putin and the Ukrainian kleptocracy said. He sees that the true democratic efforts of Ukraine were to join the Europe of law and democracy. That’s what motivated the protestors in Kyiv at the Maidan. They wished the prosperity of their country to be shared with far more equality than the oligarchs of Russia or Russian-supported Ukraine would permit. If Ukraine were part of the European order, then the people of Ukraine might have a chance for a nation of laws that would protect them and share the wealth. Snyder sees the Ukrainian-Russian war as the contest between the forces of democracy and fascism.

Putin understands how Syrian refugees flooding into Europe would destabilize the moderate liberal democratic coalitions in Germany, France, Great Britain. Russian conduct in the Syrian civil war has been meant to generate as many refugees as possible. This has indeed given rise to far-right political parties in those European countries, even the successful vote in the UK to leave the European Union. Snyder points out the psychosexual aspect of Putin’s fascism in the Russian leader’s homophobic pronouncements and legislation.

In these ways in his last chapter Snyder outlines the influence of Putin’s ideology and methods in the Trump presidential campaign. Russian state apparatus and its vast resources understood the fault lines of American’s society, particularly over racism and immigration, and perceived that cyber warfare would help candidate Trump. Snyder’s sources are mostly what I’ve already read in the The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books or heard on Rachel Maddow or MSNBC. Assembling all of it together, within his framework of a contest between democracy/rule of law on one side and fascism on the other, does serve to highlight the dangers Trump poses.

I liked a lot his coupling of the parts of the US most affected by the opioid crisis with those areas voting for Trump. Snyder shows how much the vote for Trump reflected the undemocratic politics of despair.

The bad:

I both liked his talk of European nations binding together, after WWII and the loss of their overseas colonies, into a common economic unit, and found his notion a bit sketchy. Snyder asserts these nations weren’t ever really nation-states, without their colonies. Imperialism accounted for their power and identity as political entities. There seemed some truth to attributing mutual interest in the EU’s formation. But to say that this sceptered isle or the efforts of Joan of Arc weren’t expressions of nationalism or state-identity would seem to need far more of an explanation than he allows. The notion of a German identity does seem much more a late 19th and 20th Century construction, and perhaps the Italian one might coalesce in that time-frame. Poland and Ukraine do seem to be inventing their sense of their nationhood even as we speak. Imperialism and its demise does have a huge influence on the consciousness of all of Europe. Hitler treated the east as he understood the British treated India. But Snyder seems to be using a far more complicated idea to apply to current history than he allows for in his discussion.

It reads like a book written quickly, without enough care given to organization or development of ideas. Snyder needed a far better editor who might have corrected the times Snyder repeats himself. The writing goes from urgent and insistent to an undisciplined rant at times. It feels that Snyder’s great strength, his deep understanding of Twentieth Century European history, has also altered his perception of the present. He can’t get the bloodlands out of his vision of what might be happening in Europe and America right now. His anguish about what fascism has wrought generates his fear it might be happening again. His writing sometimes gets far away from the historian’s reasoned analysis.

Snyder stresses so many times how Putin plays Trump and the American electorate that I wanted to insist Donald is our boy, first and foremost. Trump’s long line of philosophical and political forebears, George Wallace, Charles Lindberg, et al., didn’t need an early 20th Century Russian philosopher to tell them how to advocate for the suppression of African-Americans or Jews. Fascism and Trump are as American as apple pie. In fact, in Hitler’s American Model, James Q. Whitman shows how the early Nazis visited the American South to learn how to develop legislation and policy for separating and denying citizenship to a target minority.

Snyder stresses so much either Putin or Trump’s disregard for the truth that the reader might consider lying a new element in our politics. President Truman insisted that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets, necessary to defeating the Japanese enemy. Historians have shown that Truman knew these cities were inhabited by Japanese civilians and that Japan wanted to surrender. President Johnson insisted the Vietnam War was both winnable and necessary. The Ken Burns/Lynn Novick film demonstrate how Johnson knew the US couldn’t win and it didn’t matter to US interests. Lying is the apple pie of American politics.

Snyder talks about the politics of innocence, particularly in Russian discussions of the polluting of their country from the degenerate West. But I fear that he might have overstressed Russia’s contribution to our current struggle, making the US some sort of innocent, corrupted by the Russian menace. American lynch mobs asserted they were killing rapists far before Ivan Illyn was born. Trump is our native son.