Timothy Snyder doesn’t like Donald Trump. Really, really doesn’t like him. He fears that under Trump, American (and also European) democracy may collapse into some sort of nasty fascist tyranny. And he wants us all to know who is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, so that we can defend ourselves against it while there is still time. And who is to blame? You know the answer, of course. It’s Russia.
Snyder explains all this in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. You will have to excuse me. This is going to be a very long review. Snyder is quite a high profile intellectual in the United States. He’s doing a tour of the country, selling this book, and giving talks and media interviews. I doubt that many Trump supporters will read his book, but a fair number of middle class, liberal intellectuals will, and no doubt many of them will suck it all up, not realizing that they’re being conned. For that reason, The Road to Unfreedom requires a detailed response. Unfortunately, there’s so much wrong with it that I can’t adequately deal with it in just a few lines. So, it’s going to take a little time. Please bear with me.
Inevitability v. Eternity
‘On or about April 2010, human character changed’. So writes Timothy Snyder on page 6 of The Road to Unfreedom. It’s typical of his style: grand, sweeping generalizations stated as absolute truths without any supporting evidence. I must admit that I personally can’t see any such change in the human character, let alone on such a specific date, but Snyder believes it to be true. Then, or thenabouts, he says, the world began to transition from what he calls the ‘politics of inevitability’ to the ‘politics of eternity’.
These two terms provide the theoretical framework for Snyder’s analysis. Unfortunately, he never defines them very clearly, nor do we get any sense of these ideas come from. The politics of inevitability, Snyder says, is ‘a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives.’ ‘By contrast, the politics of 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. … Progress gives way to doom.’ Snyder claims that, ‘eternity politicians manufacture crises and manipulate the resultant emotion. … belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens.’ He then adds that, ‘Inevitability and eternity have specific propaganda styles. Inevitability politicians spin facts into a web of well-being. Eternity politicians suppress facts in order to dismiss the reality that people are freer and richer in other countries.’
I confess that I am immediately sceptical of any generalized categorization which lumps countries into two such groups. I am especially sceptical when the categories aren’t entirely distinct (why do only eternity politicians manufacture crises and manipulate emotions? Can’t inevitability politicians do so too?) and when no hard facts are produced to justify the categories and the characteristics claimed for them. Snyder says repeatedly that ‘inevitability involves x’ or ‘eternity involves y’, but he never substantiates these claims. If this were a student thesis, one would have to tell the student to do a hell of lot more work on his theory section. The whole inevitability/eternity dichotomy comes across as some neat idea Snyder dreamt up in the bathtub one evening, but nothing more. It lacks firm intellectual foundations.
Regardless, Snyder claims that ‘We are slipping from one sense of time to another.’ Russia, he says, has already shifted from inevitability to eternity. As the country which got there first, and in an effort to preserve its rulers’ wealth and power, it has ‘sought to export the politics of eternity: to demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States.’ To do this, Russia’s leaders have drawn on ‘fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin as a guide’, with Ilyin providing ‘the specific ideas that have helped leaders shift from inevitability to eternity.’
According to Snyder, ‘Ilyin the philosopher ignored or despised: individualism, succession, integration, novelty, truth and equality.’ These matters (individualism, succession, etc) then form the basis for the bulk of The Road to Unfreedom, with chapters devoted to each of them. As he progresses through them, Snyder shows how, in his opinion, Russia has undermined each and every one of them, first at home and then abroad. So let’s look at these all in turn:
In Snyder’s view, modern Russia is a fascist state. He uses the term ‘fascist’ repeatedly. Ilyin is a fascist; Putin is a fascist; Aleksandr Dugin is a fascist; Aleksandr Prokhanov is a fascist; Sergei Glazyev is a fascist; and so on. The bulk of his attention, however, is devoted to Ilyin. What makes Ilyin a fascist is his alleged contempt for a) individualism and b) the rule of law. Thus, writes Snyder, Ilyin’s ‘vision was a totalitarian one. … We must cease to exist as individual human beings.’ Snyder adds:
Lawlessness from the far Left, Ilyin thought, would have to be exceeded by a still greater lawlessness from the far Right. In his mature work, Ilyin thus portrayed Russian lawlessness as patriotic virtue. … Ilyin used the word “law”, but he did not endorse the rule of law. By “law” he meant the relationship between the caprice of the redeemer and the obedience of everyone else. … The loving duty of the Russian masses was to translate the redeemer’s every whim into a sense of legal obligation on their part. The obligation, of course, was not reciprocal.
This philosophy, says Snyder, has proved very attractive to the corrupt oligarchs ruling Russia, as it has allowed them to sanctify ‘radical inequality at home’. According to Snyder, Ilyin portrayed Russia as a virgin defiled by the West. Russia was righteous, and ‘In 1917, Russians had simply been too good to resist the cargo of sin arriving from the West.’ This idea has enabled today’s ruling elite to make a claim to Russian innocence and victimhood and so divert attention away from their own failings and onto the West.
There are a couple of problems with all this. First, Snyder greatly exaggerates Ilyin’s influence. Second, his interpretation of Ilyin’s philosophy is decidedly odd.
On the first matter, Snyder likes to write things such as ‘Putin relied upon Ilyin’s authority to explain why Russia had to undermine the European Union and invade Ukraine’. This is untrue as Putin has never referred to Ilyin in the context of discussions of either the EU or Ukraine. More generally, the idea of Ilyin as some ideological guru of the ‘Putin regime’ is rather far-fetched. As Yuri Lisitsa, who edited 30 volumes of Ilyin’s works, has pointed out in comments on this blog, the Russian state never provided a kopeck to help publish Ilyin’s writings. One shouldn’t make too much of the fact that Russian politicians occasionally cite him.
On the second matter, it’s entirely wrong to say that Ilyin despised individualism. Looking through the footnotes, I observed that Snyder had failed to reference Ilyin’s On the Essence of Legal Consciousness, a book he worked on for over 30 years, and whose final form could be said to represent the ‘mature’ version of Ilyin which Snyder refers to. This is what Ilyin says in On the Essence of Legal Consciousness:
Every person is distinctive and singular in his own way. … [Therefore] freedom of the will is essential. … The fundamental dignity of the human consists in living a spiritual life independently of any heterogeneous encroachment and pressure. True self-determination in spirit is the deepest law of this life.
In discussing such matters Ilyin on occasion uses the word individuum meaning ‘individual’, rather than (as he does in the quote above) the word lichnost’, meaning ‘person’ and implying somebody connected to a wider group. Russian conservatives generally avoid the former in favour of the latter. Ilyin’s use of individuum in a positive sense is thus quite significant. The idea that he despised the individual doesn’t hold up to firm scrutiny.
Nor does the idea that Ilyin rejected law, and so justifies the alleged lawlessness of modern Russia. In an introduction to a recent English translation of On the Essence of Legal Consciousness, Philip Grier, who is surely by far the most knowledgeable Ilyin scholar in the English-speaking world, remarks that Ilyin’s book ‘constitutes perhaps the most impassioned defense of the rule of law ever penned by a Russian legal theorist.’ I would be interested in what Snyder has to say to that. Far from arguing that law is just a matter of doing whatever those in authority say, without reciprocal obligations, Ilyin states that law is concerned above all with promoting human beings’ natural rights to live autonomous, dignified, and worthy lives. Thus no state which abuses these natural rights may be considered legitimate. Snyder says that one of the defining characteristics of fascism is contempt for law. On this basis, Ilyin can’t be called a fascist. The foundation of Snyder’s thesis turns out to be rotten.
Next, Snyder moves onto the issue of succession – i.e. how power is transferred from one set of hands to another. To be fair, Russia doesn’t seem to have sorted out how to do this in a transparent and democratic fashion. But Snyder takes the issue in a rather odd direction. Essentially, his argument is that post-2012 and the protests which erupted following allegations of fraud in the Russian elections, Putin compensated for his own supposed lack of democratic legitimacy by seeking to undermine the very concept of democratic legitimacy worldwide. The idea was that if democracy could be discredited in other countries Russians wouldn’t worry about not having it in their own. Thus Snyder writes, ‘Putin’s response to the protests of 2011 and 2012 was to explicitly endorse and propagate Ilyin’s version of the politics of eternity, to imagine Russia as a virginal organism troubled only by the threat of foreign penetration.’
Snyder backs this up with some strange statements. For instance, he claims
The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia. … President Barack Obama had cancelled an American plan to build a missile defence system in eastern Europe in 2009.
This is only partially true. Obama cancelled elements of the missile defence scheme, but other elements went ahead. Other oddities include a claim that Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov ‘was willing to see the Soviet executioners as Russian patriots’ (among other things, Tikhon is head of the Sretenskii Monastery, which is dedicated to Christians executed by the Bolsheviks); that as advisor to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, Paul Manafort had a ‘plan to increase Russia’s influence in the United States’ (in fact, as even Luke Harding admits, Manafort worked to increase US influence in Ukraine); that Yanukovich ‘began his term by offering Russia essentially everything that Ukraine could give’; and so on. Overall, in this section of the book I couldn’t help but feel that I was being bashed repeatedly over the head with rather weird versions of the truth.
Next, Snyder sets about informing readers that nation states are a fiction. European nations were first of all empires, and then became integrated into the European Union. They were never nation states, and it is only through the process of integration that any form of democracy and independence is possible. Russia has rejected democracy in favour of ‘the perfect fascist empire’ supposedly proposed by Ilyin. It has decided, therefore, that it must also reject integration, and for that reason has embarked on a mission to destroy the EU and to supplant it with its own Eurasian empire. According to Snyder this ‘explicit rejection of Europe’ means ‘exporting Russian chaos.’
Again, this thesis is poorly substantiated. After all, the Russian government and Putin in particular have never explicitly rejected Europe. The fact that Vladislav Surkov felt it necessary to argue recently that Russia should do so is an indication that this is still a matter which is being argued about. Putin meanwhile continues to speak of Russia as culturally European.
Snyder claims that, ‘Putin presented Eurasia as an instrument to dissolve the EU’. Like so many of his claims this is surely untrue. As far as I have been able to find out, Putin has never said that he wishes to ‘dissolve the EU’, let alone presented the Eurasian Economic Union in that light. But to make his case, Snyder doesn’t cite Putin, or other officials. Rather, he goes into a long digression into the thought of what he terms ‘fascist’ Eurasianist thinkers such as Lev Gumilev, Aleksandr Dugin, and Aleksandr Prokhanov, as well as the conservative Izborskii Club. This greatly exaggerates these peoples’ political influence. Snyder calls the Izborskii Club ‘the intellectual hub of the new Russian nationalism’. In reality, it is just one of many ‘hubs’ and not at all the one most favored by the Russian state [for information on these various hubs, see the writings of people like Marlene Laruelle and Katherina Bluhm].
Snyder also on occasion misrepresents Izborskii Club members’ beliefs. Notably, he uses the example of Sergei Glazyev (another ‘fascist’) to argue that Eurasianism helped ‘maintain Russian kleptocracy’ and Russia’s position as ‘the most unequal country in the world’. But Glazyev is an extraordinarily outspoken critic of both kleptocracy and economic inequality. He complains that, ‘Our economy has turned into a cannibalistic mechanism of production, with the offshore business-aristocracy taking money out of the country without paying taxes.’ He argues that the existing economic system is unable to either promote sustainable growth or reduce inequality because of the “policy of the financial authorities to serve the interests of international capital.’ Glazyev’s economic policies certainly aren’t mine, but to portray him as a promoter of inequality is just plain wrong.
This isn’t the only thing Snyder gets wrong. For instance, he argues that as part of Russia’s grand plan to destroy the EU, it played a decisive role in Brexit. He writes:
Computer programs that sent out millions of targeted messages engaged massively on behalf of the Leave campaign. … more than 90% of the bots tweeting political material were not located in the United Kingdom. … Brexit was a triumph for Russian foreign policy.
It sounds frightening; it’s also false. In recent months both YouTube and Facebook have declared that internal investigations revealed ‘no evidence of Russian interference in Brexit vote.’ And an Oxford researcher found that there were just 400 posts on Twitter about Brexit from Russian accounts. Snyder simply ignores all this.
Next on Snyder’s list of subjects is novelty, and this is where he turns to Ukraine. With the Maidan revolution, he says, Ukraine sought to break out of eternity by trying something new. Russia, wishing to preserve eternity, sought to stop it. What we get by way of evidence is a very one-sided view of Maidan and the war in Donbass. According to Snyder, the police instigated all the violence on Maidan, and ‘The Maidan brought four forms of politics: the civil society, the economy of gift, the voluntary welfare state, and the Maidan friendship.’ This makes Maidan sound like some gathering of Christian brotherhood, all love and peace and mutual generosity. Maidan, he says, was ‘tolerant on the language question’ and ‘about the rule of law.’ He makes no mention here of the various laws restricting the use of Russian in the media and in education which have followed the revolution, nor about the numerous violent breaches of the rule of law committed by Maidan protestors. As history, it’s not very good.
The same could be said of Snyder’s analysis of the war in Donbass. As he depicts it, the war was entirely the work of the Russian state which had been planning an invasion for some time. As early as 14 February 2014, a week before the ouster of Yanukovich, Snyder claims, ‘Russian troops were mobilizing to invade Ukraine and overthrow its government’. Needless to say, no evidence is produced to justify this assertion, which is decidedly strange given that it would have meant overthrowing Yanukovich! By 20 February (when Yanukovich was still just about in office), ‘the Russian invasion force was already on the move’, writes Snyder. No doubt such claims make Russia look bad, but they’re pure fiction.
Later, Snyder says that ‘In April, Putin publicly recited the goals of Russian policy as … the “disintegration” of the Ukrainian state.’ In his footnotes, I failed to find where he got this from. As far as I know from my own research, it’s false. Again and again Putin’s public position has been that Donbass is part of Ukraine. I don’t know of any time when he has ‘publicly’ spoken of the ‘disintegration’ of Ukraine as a ‘goal of Russian policy.’ One can’t help but feel that Snyder is making it all up.
I realise that I have take up a lot of your time already, but it was necessary to show just how inaccurate Snyder’s depictions of history and philosophy are. That’s important because what Snyder comes onto next in his book is a discussion of truth. Given Snyder’s own troubled relationship with the facts, this is kind of ironic.
Snyder’s discussion of truth focuses on Ukraine, and includes a long description of Russian dissembling regarding the war in Donbass. To be fair to him, there has indeed been a lot of this. But his own descriptions of Ukraine are so one-sided as to be not much better. For instance, he blames the deaths of the numerous civilians killed by Ukrainian artillery on the Donbass rebels. They chose to defend cities, so they in effect turned the civilians into human shields, he argues. Yet later he denounces Russian brutality in attacking rebel-held cities in Syria. But surely by his logic, the Syrian rebels are guilty because they have chosen to defend cities and so turn civilians into human shields? Snyder seems to want to have it both ways.
On Syria more generally, Snyder engages in some conspiracy theorizing. It was ‘no coincidence’, he says, that Russia began its military campaign in Syria two days after Angela Merkel announced that Germany would take in a million Syrian refugees. The whole purpose of the Russian military campaign, claims Snyder, was to ‘generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic’ and thereby help destroy the EU. As so often, no evidence for this assertion is provided.
‘To end factuality is to begin eternity’, Snyder writes. On this basis, The Road to Unfreedom is firmly in the realm of eternity.
And finally, we get to the denouement of The Road to Unfreedom – a discussion of the election of Donald Trump. This consists of a long repetition of the well-established narrative of Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election. Snyder has no doubts that Trump is ‘an American loser who became a Russian tool.’ Russia, he says, wanted ‘to destroy the European Union and the United States. Russian leaders made no secret of this’. (An odd assertion – I’ve never seen any statement with them saying that they had such a desire!) But for all his confidence that Russia got Trump elected, Snyder doesn’t have any new evidence to prove the case. Collusion remains totally unproven, despite prolonged investigations by numerous media outlets, the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Once again, Snyder is on shaky ground here.
Where Snyder gets closer to the truth is towards the end of his book when he discusses growing inequality and the failings of the modern American system. If you’re looking for an explanation of Trump’s victory, those would be good places to start. Russia is just a diversion.
To conclude, The Road to Unfreedom is a strange book. It’s founded on some dubious theoretical precepts which Snyder uses to advance the thesis that Russia is succeeding in some dangerous plan to turn the West into an oligarchic tyranny. Having established his framework and thesis, Snyder attempts to prove it by taking Ivan Ilyin and turning him into some extraordinarily important philosophical figure, while also describing Ilyin as an out and out fascist. This both exaggerates Ilyin’s significance and distorts his philosophy. Thereafter, having grounded itself on rotten soil, the book sinks into a rather paranoid view of the world, with Western democracy portrayed as standing on the edge of destruction because of the malign influence of Russian fascism. And that too is ironic. Snyder complains that Ilyin’s politics of eternity portrayed Russia as an innocent perpetually threatened by external enemies. Yet Snyder portrays the West as an innocent threatened by its own perpetual enemy – Russia. And that makes Snyder a politician of eternity also.