Thursday, May 17, 2018

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

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

In his latest work, Timothy Snyder sets a high bar for himself: he compares his project to that of Thucydides in The Peloponnesian Wars. Snyder justifies the comparison by noting that Thucydides, like him, was writing about the events of his lifetime.

Can history be so contemporary? We think of the Peloponnesian Wars as ancient history . . . . Yet their historian Thucydides was describing events that he experienced. He included discussions of the past insofar as this was necessary to clarify the stakes in the present. This work humbly follows that approach. (12)

Snyder also explains his invocation of Thucydides on two additional grounds. First, with Thucydides, "History as a discipline began as a confrontation with war propaganda." Snyder continues,  "Thucydides was careful to make a distinction between leaders' accounts of their actions and the real reasons for their decisions." (10). In the remainder of the book, Snyder endeavors to lift the curtain that seeks to conceal the wizards who are busy pulling levers (or in more contemporary terms, programming content) to beguile their the gullible. Second, Thucydides identified "oligarchy" as "rule by the few," and that term has since found its way into contemporary English via the Russian experience of the 1990s. (I, however, prefer the more old-fashioned American term, "plutocrats," but I concede the point.)

So does Snyder justify his audacious comparison in this book? Yes. I don't know that it will go down into history with the same staying power of Thucydides' classic work, but it certainly meets a similar need in our time.

Snyder provides a crucial scheme to give shape to his tale. He distinguishes three varieties of politics: the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity, and their mutual alternative, which he doesn't label until the end of the book, but that I'll label the politics of action. (He doesn't explicitly reference the political thought of Hannah Arendt (although he does quote her), but I perceive that his political thinking is very much influenced by Arendt, so I propose the label the "politics of action" in her honor. N.B. In the next to last paragraph of the book he uses the term "the politics of responsibility," I believe the two terms interchangeable from this perspective.) 

What Snyder labels as the politics of inevitability arises from the idea that "the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done." (7). He notes that Soviet Communism held these traits before it morphed into the politics of eternity, but he's most concerned that this type of politics marked American and European thinking at the end of the Cold War, at "the end of history." (Snyder, unlike many other writers on this topic, does not stop to slam Francis Fukuyama at this point, which I find refreshing, given that I believe Fukuyama has been at least in some measure unfairly maligned on this topic. Blog post.)

But when the inevitable doesn't arrive as promised, the politics of inevitability will collapse and "like a ghost from a corpse" (15) the politics of eternity will arise. In contrast to the good times promised by the politics of inevitability, 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." (8). Yet despite their competing accounts of the schema of events, these two modes of politics share specific defining characteristics.

Inevitability and eternity translated facts into narratives. Those ways 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. (8-9). 
Each of these two visions has its own style of propaganda and creating a "political fiction" (9). It is at this point (and undoubtedly others) that the politics of action pushes back. As Snyder notes:

[W]hatever impression propaganda makes at the time, it is not history's final verdict. There is a difference between memory, the impressions we are given; and history, the connections that we work to make--if we wish. (9)
One final point about the distinction between Snyder's two models of misleading politics. Each, he claims, has "no ideas." This true in some sense, but it misses the point that these competing visions are both marked by one big idea (inevitability or eternity) that spin off the rest of (what passes for) for thought in these two regimes. Snyder spends most of a chapter on Ivan Ilyin, an early 20th-century  fascist Russian "thinker" whom Putin and his court adopted to provide a model for the politics of eternity (and whose remains were brought back to Russia for re-internment more than 60 years after his death, with great ceremony). It seems that the politics of eternity does have "ideas," but that it does not entertain any novel ideas that are grounded in historical reality. (Again, we're reminded of Arendt, who emphasized plurality and "beginning" in her work.).

Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man's freedom.
--Hannah Arendt (1951) (p.111) 

Snyder chronicles the descent of the Soviet Union into the politics of eternity, the chaos after the fall of Communist rule, the early Putin years, and then Putin's gradual adoption of the politics of eternity. I found Putin's metamorphosis most interesting: in his first years of rule, he didn't promote the politics of eternity nor excessive hostility toward the West. Snyder suggests (and I have no reason to disagree) that Putin's takedown of the oligarchs as a political threat and resulted in access to their wealth that he took advantage of and that converted his regime into a full-blown kleptocracy (rule by thieves, in essence). In such a scheme, Putin and Russia could not compete with the West, and therefore, drawing upon a long-standing Russian inferiority complex (my term, not Snyder's), he turned to the politics of eternity. Putin and the politics of eternity practice what Snyder labels as "strategic relativism;" in short, if you can't reach up to your rival's level, then pull them down to yours. And this became Putin's operating principle viz. Europe and the U.S.

Snyder also untangles the confusion about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and all the surrounding issues. As a seasoned historian of Eastern Europe (and knowledgeable in several of those languages), he watched events unfold in real time. He provides a coherent account of events as well as explaining how those events fit his rubric of the politics of eternity. Snyder realizes how vital the project of getting the facts straight is. As he notes, "To end factuality is to begin eternity" (160) and "The ink of political fiction is blood."  For just a moment, ponder the meaning of that quote in light of the character--or lack thereof--of the current American president.

The final section of the book deals with America. As Putin moved Russia moved more deeply into the politics of eternity, his government began to take what they term "active measures" to weaken and confound the United States. There best weapon? "Donald Trump, successful businessman," a fiction that Snyder describes as "the payload of a cyberweapon." I will not repeat the details here, but suffice it to say that if I'd read this a few years ago, I would have thought someone was trying to update "The Manchurian Candidate" (again, but don't bother with that one). So now when I read the paper, even earlier today, I'm not surprised. Snyder is as honest, forthright, and meticulous as the House Intelligence [sic] Committee was duplicitous in its claim that the Russians didn't favor Trump. (Thank you, Senator Burr, for some refreshing honesty and candor.) Of course, we Americans must take responsibility for the policies and developments that allowed so many Americans to be exploited by this Russian adversary (not the nation, the regime). We set ourselves up; they played us.

As Snyder's prologue was a call to question and understand, his epilogue is a call to action, the politics of action (or "responsibility," as he describes it below). 

To experience its destruction is to see a world for the first time. Inheritors of an order we did not build, we are now witnesses to a decline we did not foresee.  
To see our moment is to step away from the stories supplied for our stupefaction, myths of inevitability and eternity, progress and doom. Life is elsewhere. Inevitability and eternity are not history but ideas within history, ways of experiencing our time that accelerates its trends while slowing our thoughts. To see, we must set aside the dark glass, and see as we are seen, ideas for what they are, history as what we make. 
. . . .
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; ad exit the road to unfreedom. We being a politics of responsibility.  
To take part in its creation is to see a world for a second time. Students of the virtues that history reveals, we become the makers of a renewal that no one can foresee. 

This is a brilliant history, meditation, and call to action. I heartily recommend it.  

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