The Road to Unfreedom

I read widely and I follow news and politics closely, but in recent years I’ve often felt utterly baffled by world events. It’s like I’m trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. I manage to build up a few disconnected fragments here and there, but I just can’t make sense of the whole. Do you ever feel like that?

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder is a history of key events in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and America during the five-year period from 2011 to 2016. Published in 2018, it covers Vladimir Putin engineering his re-election to a third and apparently permanent term as President of Russia in 2012, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Reading it was like seeing the picture on the puzzle box for the first time.

It’s one of the most important books I’ve read so far this year.

Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He’s the author of several books about the history of central and eastern Europe, notably Russia, Ukraine and Poland. You might have read some of his articles or heard him on podcasts recently. Since Russia’s February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine, he’s become a sought-after commentator.

I reviewed his previous book On Tyranny here.

Cover of The Road to Unfreedom

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
By Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2018

The reason I liked this book so much is that Snyder gives us more than just a narrative of events.

The Road to Unfreedom provides a framework, a lens through which to see and understand not just the history of those specific events but also what led up to them, and what’s happening now, today, right in front of us. In this review, I’m going to focus more on the framework than the historical events because I think that’s the most important part of the book.

Snyder builds his framework on two concepts that he calls the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.

The Politics of Inevitability

The politics of inevitability is the belief that we are moving along a clear and predictable path towards a defined and desirable future. There are no real alternatives and therefore no reason to seek change. We’ve reached the “end of history.”

The capitalist version of this story is that markets lead inevitability to democracy and to greater happiness and prosperity. The communist version is that capitalist exploitation leads to a worker’s revolution and the inevitable disappearance of the state.

After the defeat of both communism and fascism in the 20th Century, the capitalist version triumphed. Many in America and Europe were convinced by the narrative of inevitability. I have to admit I fell for it too. I thought, for example, that China’s integration into the global economy would create a rising middle class that would exert pressure for democratic reform. Yeah, doesn’t seem to be working out that way.

Snyder says, “the politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas.” We’re all just passengers on a train heading to a predetermined destination. We as individuals have no responsibility and indeed no agency to make change.

In On Tyranny, Snyder calls the politics of inevitability a “self-induced intellectual coma.” Ouch.

The Politics of Eternity

The politics of eternity are even worse. If inevitability is a straight line to the future, then eternity is a circle, always looping back to a mythologized past, glorious and innocent. Under eternity politics, there is no future. Policy and progress are replaced by manufactured crises and spectacle. Here too, there is no role and no agency for individuals to make change.

The overwhelming darkness of eternity politics lies in its constant references to past wrongs and past threats by external enemies hell-bent on attacking the purity of the nation. 

As Snyder says, eternity politics is another idea that there are no ideas.

Vladimir Putin is the pre-eminent eternity politician of our time.

“It is easy to see the appeal of eternity to wealthy and corrupt men in control of a lawless state. They cannot offer social advance to their population, and so must find some other form of motion in politics. Rather than discuss reforms, eternity politicians designate threats. Rather than presenting a future with possibilities and hopes, they offer an eternal present with defined enemies and artificial crises. For this to work, citizens have to meet eternity politicians halfway.  Demoralized by their inability to change their station in life, they must accept that the meaning of politics lies not in institutional reform but in daily emotion. They must stop thinking about a better future for themselves, their friends, and their families, and prefer the constant invocation of a proud past.”  [pp. 259-260]

Democracies are vulnerable to eternity politics too.

Snyder says that Brexit was the creation of eternity politicians longing for an independent Britain that never existed. Britain, he points out, went from losing its empire to joining the EU. In modern times it has never existed as an independent nation.

Same for the far-right politicians in France who want to return to an imaginary French nation-state.

 “Make America great again” is pure eternity politics.

How Inevitability Leads to Eternity

When the politics of inevitability fails, it is easy for societies to be tempted by the politics of eternity. Snyder describes how globalization and technological change have not led to the predicted bright future for many people in America. Instead, well-paying working-class jobs have gone offshore leading to wage stagnation, growing inequality, and most tragically, an epidemic of opioid addiction and death.

When people don’t see a future for themselves, they will often look nostalgically to the past, even if it’s an imaginary one. They become vulnerable to the politics of eternity.

“Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse,” Snyder writes.

It’s easy to blame external “enemies” like immigrants, and global trade deals. And there are always populists and demagogues ready to exploit people’s despair to farther their own careers.

That’s how the politics of eternity leads to oligarchy and totalitarianism, to unfreedom.

The Antidote

Snyder says the antidote to the politics of both inevitability and eternity is history itself. Understanding history, seeing past events as unique, nuanced moments, not myths, helps us imagine other possible moments, other paths we might create. Understanding history frees us to try new things, new ideas.

History invites novelty.

And novelty is neither eternal nor inevitable. It requires individuals to act.

As an example of historical novelty, of people actually making history, Snyder presents a detailed account of the Maidan revolution in Kyiv that led to the ousting of President Victor Yanukovych in 2014, and of Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. (I hadn’t realized that the annexation of Crimea started on the same day, February 24, as Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Not a coincidence, I’m sure.)

Picture of Maidan Square, Kyiv
Maidan Square, Kyiv. Source: npr.org

I think this is the most moving part of the book. It’s hard not to be horrified and sickened by the relentless propaganda, cyberattacks, and indiscriminate shelling that took place in 2014, precisely foreshadowing Russian tactics in 2022.

As Snyder explains,

“The Russian war against Ukraine was something more profound: a campaign of eternity against novelty. Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliché of force and the force of cliché? Or was it possible, along with the Ukrainians of the Maidan to make something new?” [p. 158]

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and again in 2022, because Ukrainians’ experiment in novelty – simply attempting to create a new future for themselves – was and is a refutation of Putin’s eternity politics right next door for Russians to see.

Puzzle Pieces

Snyder’s framework helped me understand some of the “puzzle pieces” that haven’t made sense to me until now. Here are a few examples.

Why the constant lying coming out of the Kremlin? Why tell lies that are so laughably transparent yet endlessly repeated, like the lie that Russia has not invaded Ukraine, but is instead engaged in a “special military operation?”  Snyder says these lies help unify Russia’s political class: the more they accept the lies, the more they prove their loyalty to Putin. And they create a dilemma for Western media trained to report “both sides” of a story, because these lies are not just distortions of fact, they are a denial of factuality itself.  

Writing about the lies and propaganda used to discredit protesters at the Maidan, Snyder says,

“One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences. One can mark the fictions and contradictions. This is not enough. These utterances were not logical arguments or factual assessments, but a calculated effort to undo logic and factuality.”  [p. 151]

The same is obviously true of both Donald Trump’s constant lying while he was president, and of his lie that the 2022 election was stolen from him.

In Surviving Autocracy, author Masha Gessen calls these “power lies,” lies that cannot be refuted because they are told to assert the power of the liar.  

Has NATO expansion caused or contributed to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Some commentators, including Pope Francis, have made this claim. It’s bullshit. An external enemy is required to justify and sustain an eternity regime like Putin’s. If one does not exist, one will be invented, or dredged up from ancient history. 

What explains Russia’s virulent official homophobia?  Homosexuality is an attack by the West against the ancient purity and innocence of Russia. Sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But so is homophobia.

What happens after Putin?  As Snyder points out, Russia has no succession principle, no defined mechanism to transfer power. It used to. When the Russian Federation was created after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its constitution stipulated democratic elections and a term-limited President. But the constitution was changed to allow Putin to run for a third term in 2012, effectively killing its succession principle. 

This idea of a succession principle appears several times in the book. A succession principle, Snyder notes, specifies how a state outlasts its current leader.

“Functional states produce a sense of continuity for their citizens. If states sustain themselves, citizens can imagine change without fearing catastrophe. The mechanism that ensures that a state outlasts a leader is called the principle of succession. A common one is democracy. The meaning of each election is the promise of the next one. Since each citizen is fallible, democracy transforms cumulative mistakes into a collective belief in the future. History goes on.” [p. 38]

But killing the succession principle also kills the possibility of a different future. It forces everyone to live in an eternal present. And sustaining an eternity of the present requires “endless crisis and permanent threats.”

So what comes after Putin? Violence and bloodshed would be my guess.

America is moving this way too. Trump is an eternity politician who governed “as a producer of outrage rather than as a formulator of policy.” He incited a violent mob to prevent the certification of the 2020 election which he decisively lost. After the election, Republican controlled states across the country have enacted legislation that makes it harder for citizens, especially citizens of color, to vote, and makes it easier for elected officials to interfere with and even overturn election results. And the Supreme Court has systematically eviscerated the Voting Rights Act.

I’m very worried about the future of democracy in America. The Road to Unfreedom gives fresh reasons for concern.

* * *

The Road to Unfreedom is only 281 pages yet it’s packed with ideas and insights. This review is already long, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Highly recommended.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

Russia has a hunger plan.
Twitter thread by Timothy Snyder, June 11, 2022

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4 Responses to The Road to Unfreedom

  1. Well, if you’re recommending this book that strongly, the least I should do is read the Kindle sample. It sounds quite terrifying. But then again, it IS quite terrifying to see the direction that even America is going. Sigh. I’ve come to expect it from certain countries, but I was hoping we would be a shining light. It’s looking darker at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great summary of this book! The framework does seem like a really helpful way of viewing the world and I can think of few topics more relevant to the current global political situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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