Tag Archives: Timothy Snyder

Book review: The road to unfreedom

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.

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Continue reading Book review: The road to unfreedom


How not to write history

Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.

Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.

It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.

One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.

Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?

First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.

It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.

I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.

Quotations, quotations

I don’t like to keep returning to the same topic, but The New York Times leaves me little choice. A few months ago I wrote a piece denouncing a lecture by historian Timothy Snyder which, roughly speaking, proposed the following thesis: Vladimir Putin has quoted philosopher Ivan Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; ergo Putin is a fascist. Today Snyder repeated his thesis in an op-ed entitled ‘How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election’. In this he argues that, with Ilyin as his philosophical guide, Putin is trying to ‘discredit both elections and their observation’ and thereby ‘bring down democracy everywhere’.

According to Snyder, ‘Mr Putin has relied on Ilyin’s authority at every turning point in Russian politics’. This is clearly an enormous exaggeration given that Putin has quoted Ilyin a grand total of five times in the 16 years that he has been in power. Furthermore, Snyder’s description of Ilyin’s views is decidedly one-sided. He writes, for instance, that ‘Ilyin believed that individuality was evil’. Now I confess that I haven’t read everything that Ilyin wrote, but I’ve read a reasonable amount, and I have yet to come across anything which would suggest such a conclusion (see the quote below about soldiers being individuals). Moreover, Snyder errs in saying that Ilyin’s critical views of formal democracy could justify undermining democratic procedures in foreign countries. Ilyin was actually of the view that in some countries, such as Switzerland and the USA, formal democracy worked well. He made it clear that, even if he didn’t want Russia to follow their example, he was very happy for other countries to do things the way they did. The political system of each country had to match that country’s specific form of legal consciousness, he insisted.

But Snyder’s errors on those points are not what I am most interested in challenging. Rather, what exercises me is the assumption underlying his argument, namely that if someone quotes somebody who at some point said something else which was distasteful, then the person doing the quoting obviously shares that distasteful opinion in full.

To show why this is wrong, let us consider somebody else Putin has cited: the Slavophile thinker Konstantin Aksakov. Does Putin share all Aksakov’s views on everything? Surely not. There is the Konstantin Aksakov who supported centralized state power. But there is also the Konstantin Aksakov who was something close to an anarchist. There is the Aksakov who backed autocracy. And there is the Aksakov who opposed serfdom and was a fierce proponent of free speech. Which Aksakov is Putin?

Take some other examples. Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, but he was also at one point a member of the Nazi Party. Many philosophers continue to cite him and make use of his ideas. It would be ridiculous to claim that they are all Nazis. The jurist Carl Schmitt has become increasingly popular in academic works in the past decade. He too was a member of the Nazi party. But it would be preposterous to call all the legal scholars who cite him fascists.

So, let us look at which of Ilyin’s sayings Putin has actually referred to. There are as follows:

25 April 2005:

The great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote that, ‘State power has its limits … The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness, and convictions. It cannot regulate scientific, religious, and artistic creation. … It musn’t interfere in moral, family, and everyday life, or except in extreme necessity restrict economic initiative.’

10 May 2006:

The well-known Russian thinker Ivan Ilyin said that the calling of soldier is a high and honourable title and that the soldier ‘represents the national unity of the people, the will of the Russian state, strength and honour’.

23 January 2012:

It is this special quality of Russian statehood that was outlined in Ivan Ilyin’s works: ‘Not to eliminate, not to suppress, not to enslave other people’s blood, not to stifle the life of different tribes and religions – but to give everyone breath and the great Russia…to honor all, to reconcile all, to allow everyone to pray in their own way, to work in their own way, and to engage the best in public and cultural development.’

26 June 2013

As the famous philosopher Ivan Ilyin said, ‘The Russian army will never forget the tradition of Suvorov, which maintained that the soldier is an individual’.

4 December 2014:

I will cite here Ivan Ilyin: ‘Whoever loves Russia should desire freedom for it; first of all freedom for Russia itself, its international independence; freedom for Russia—as the unity of Russian and all other national cultures; and finally, freedom for Russian people, freedom for all of us; freedom of religion, the search for justice, creativity, labor, and property.

Professor Snyder thinks that these quotations make Putin a fascist. I cannot imagine what definition of fascism he is using to draw this conclusion. In 1990 the New York Times admitted that Walter Duranty’s reporting was some of the worst it had ever printed. Given what the newspaper is publishing nowadays, Duranty is facing some stiff competition.

Bandwagon of errors

The Ivan Ilyin bandwagon continues to gather passengers. The latest on board is historian Timothy Snyder, who delivered a lecture last week to the Watson Institute at Brown University in which he sought to explain Russian foreign policy through an analysis of the philosopher’s writings. The lecture promotes a familiar theme, namely: Vladimir Putin cites Ilyin; Ilyin was a fascist; therefore Putin and the regime he leads are fascist. Needless to say, I have a few problems with this, and Snyder’s lecture forces me to return once again to the topic of ‘Putin’s philosopher’, even though it means repeating myself somewhat.

Snyder begins his talk by saying that Russia’s problem is that it isn’t a real state, in that it has not worked out a system of succession of power. Instead, its leaders have deliberately chosen to falsify elections and leave Putin in power almost indefinitely. At the same time, Snyder sees the war in Ukraine as an effort to break up the Ukrainian state and prevent the European Union from becoming a state. To explain Russian behaviour, therefore, Snyder suggests that we need to find ‘an idea which is comfortable with the lack of a state’ (11.00 minute point in speech). That idea is ‘fascism’. Thus Snyder argues that it is no coincidence that the war in Ukraine has coincided with the revival of ‘a fascist geopolitical thinker’, namely Ivan Ilyin.

Next, Snyder relates favorable comments Ilyin made about Mussolini and Hitler, and after the Second World War about Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. According to Snyder (23.50 minute point), Ilyin ‘equates Jews and Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Jews, and therefore approves of Hitler’s discrimination against Jews’. Snyder says that Ilyin was (35.50 minute point) ‘a Eurasianist who says we’re all basically fascists’. The message he sends is that ‘we [Russians] are innocent’ and anything which goes wrong is always somebody else’s fault (mainly the West’s). (42.00 minute point)

My purpose here is not to defend Ilyin. I’m personally of a liberal and democratic inclination. Instead, my concern is the overly simplistic theme espoused by Snyder and others: Ilyin = fascist, therefore Putin = fascist, therefore we all need to be very scared.

In my last post, I said that the ideas of Eurasianism and Alexander Dugin were just several among many influencing Russian policy makers, and even then in a highly bowdlerized way. The same could be said of Ilyin’s ideas. It’s highly debatable whether Ilyin is really as influential as Snyder makes him out to be. But even if I’m wrong about that, Snyder presents only a fraction of what the philosopher’s ideas are all about.

It is indeed true that Ilyin said some positive things about fascism. But he was hardly alone in a lot of this. Winston Churchill, for instance, praised Mussolini in a 1927 speech, saying that fascism ‘has rendered service to the whole world’. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called the Italian Duce ‘that admirable Italian gentleman’. And David Lloyd George described Hitler as ‘a born leader of men, a magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’ But we don’t generally call them all fascists.

Moreover, although he supported authoritarian rule, Ilyin was simultaneously a trenchant opponent of all forms of totalitarianism, which he described as ‘godless’. And contrary to Snyder’s depiction of Ilyin as an anti-Semite, the Nazis actually dismissed him from his job teaching in Berlin for refusing to preach anti-Semitic doctrine. In the end he had to flee Germany.

If Snyder is right that fascists are happy with a lack of proper states, then Ilyin can’t possibly have been a fascist since the establishment of a strong, law-based state was one of his most strongly expressed principles. Ilyin placed an extraordinarily high importance on the law and on the development of ‘legal consciousness’ (pravosoznanie), things which are quite incompatible with fascism (which Snyder admits is associated with ‘arbitrariness’). Ilyin also repeatedly said that the state must be limited, that it must not intrude into people’s personal lives, and that the people must enjoy freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and so on. Rather than saying that everything was somebody else’s fault, in his book On Resistance to Evil by Force Ilyin emphasized that those who fight an external evil have to accept that they are themselves partially responsible for it. Bolshevism, he wrote, was merely the external manifestation of the internal spiritual failings of the Russian people. He did not, as Snyder claims, say it was something imposed on Russia by the West (although he certainly viewed Marxism as a Western, not a Russian ideology).

Next, when you look at the bits of Ilyin which Putin has quoted, they are definitely not the more authoritarian ones. In 2005, for instance, Putin cited comments by Ilyin about the need to limit state power; and in 2014 he cited a statement by Ilyin about the importance of freedom.

In an article entitled ‘The Complex Legacy of Ivan Ilyin’, American scholar Philip Grier describes the philosopher’s thought as being often ‘paradoxical’. Snyder, however, seems to prefer simplicity to complexity, and so misrepresents both Ilyin and modern Russia. Clearly, Ilyin wasn’t a pro-Western liberal democrat, and if you think that Russia ought to be a pro-Western, liberal democratic nation, then Ilyin is not the philosopher for you. But it’s a step too far to go from there to saying that current Russian foreign policy is fascist in orientation.

‘The alternative reality of propaganda’

One of the advantages of working at a university is having access to a large number of academic journals. In this post, therefore, I will take the opportunity to highlight a couple of recent articles from these.

The first is from the latest edition of Survival, the journal of a prominent British think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The author is Elizabeth Pond, described as ‘a Berlin-based journalist and author’, who worked for 20 years for the Christian Science Monitor and in 1981 published a book about the Soviet Union entitled From the Yaroslavsky Station. Entitled ‘Will Ukraine Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory?’ the article begins with the words: ‘In holding Russia’s military behemoth to a stalemate in President Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war on Ukraine, Kiev has won an improbable victory.’ According to Pond:

Continue reading ‘The alternative reality of propaganda’

Mwg o goffi

My old university friend Bill Szuch, now producer of the UkeTube channel,  has posted online a few snippets of a lecture at Chautauqua by historian Timothy Snyder. I think it is fair to say that Snyder and I have very different views of the conflict in Ukraine. He has acquired a reputation as one of the more outspoken supporters of the Maidan revolution and as a fierce opponent of ‘Russian aggression’. He says a lot of silly things, in my opinion, but in this segment he outdoes himself. For according to Snyder, Ukraine ‘is the one country in Europe which is actually a bilingual political society’, and ‘There is no other bilingual capital in Europe’ other than Kiev.

The first statement will come as something of a surprise to the Swiss, who have a trilingual political society, with German, French, and Italian all having equal status at the level of the federal government (Romansh has a somewhat lower status). It will also surprise the good citizens of Luxembourg who likewise speak three languages (German, French, and Luxembourgish), and those of Malta (where 100% of the population speaks Maltese, 88% of the population speaks English, and 66% speaks Italian), as well as those of Belgium (French, Flemish, and German, although the first two dominate).

As for capital cities, the inhabitants of the City of Luxembourg might be excused for being a little offended by Snyder’s denial of their multilingual status. The same is true for Riga (somewhere between 30 and 50% Russian-speaking depending on which statistics you look at, and with a Russian-speaking mayor), and Tallinn (a little under 40% Russian-speaking). And if you want to bring capital cities of national autonomous regions into the picture, then Barcelona, a city in which almost everybody is fluent in both Catalan and Spanish, surely counts too.

Snyder remarks that in Kiev you can order a coffee in Ukrainian and be answered in Ukrainian, or order it in Russian and be answered in Russian. I’ve never actually tried ordering coffee in Flemish in Brussels (80% French-speaking and 20% Flemish speaking), but I doubt that you would encounter too many problems. Moreover, Brussels is officially bilingual. All signs and public services are in both languages. The same is true of the city of my youth – Cardiff (89% English-speaking, 11% Welsh-speaking). To be fair, if you tried asking for a ‘mwg o goffi’ in Cardiff city centre, the barista would quite probably stare at you in an odd way. But out on the streets you’ll find all the signs are in Welsh. The city is quite energetically bilingual.

Back when we were students, Bill introduced me to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s Politics of Recognition. A lot of political strife is not about material objectives, but about a desire for official recognition of one’s self-perceived identity. Contrary to Snyder’s assertion, bilingual or multilingual political societies are actually quite common in Europe, as indeed they are elsewhere in the world (Canada and Kazakhstan come immediately to mind). Moreover, those countries enjoy a major advantage over Ukraine in that the various languages of political society are officially recognized and protected by law. This is not the case in Ukraine. ‘Multinational societies can break up,’ writes Taylor,’ in large part because of a lack of (perceived) recognition of the equal worth of one group by another.’ Ukraine is a case in point.