The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

I wanted to like The Road to Unfreedom a lot more than I did. The book is billed as a “chronicle of the rise of authoritarianism from Russia to Europe and America.” Snyder is a well-regarded historian with big works of synthesis to his credit — Bloodlands and Black Earth — plus a volume On Tyranny that caught the zeitgeist in 2017. Certainly the topics that Snyder addressed in The Road to Unfreedom are crucial: Russian aggression and willingness to upend the European security order; European governments willing to turn back toward one-party rule; new paths to manipulation that the internet and social media have opened up; links among far-right groups across Europe; how less than 100,000 votes delivered the most powerful political office on the planet to an ignorant buffoon who is a probably unwitting asset of Russian secret services. Trying to tie these threads together is an admirable project.

Snyder brings some more virtues: the book is timely, a reasonable length at fewer than 300 pages of main text, detailed, and clearly written. I found it strongest in the middle, where he devotes considerable attention to citizen protests in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014. So much has happened since then, and the events in Ukraine changed so rapidly even at the time that it would be tempting, at a geographic and temporal remove to say, “Well, it was complicated, who can tell?” Which is precisely what the drivers on the road to unfreedom want engaged citizens in the West to say, it is why they have thrown so much chaff into the air and concocted so many cockamamie stories.

In November 2013, Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich was poised to sign an association agreement with the European Union. This agreement had been several years in the making, as fine points were hashed out between Ukrainian negotiators and representatives of Brussels. It would define relations between Ukraine and the EU’s member states, setting up a path toward membership but without providing guarantees in that regard. Under pressure from Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich abruptly decided not to sign the agreement. As Snyder recounts:

Writing on his Facebook page, [Mustafa] Nayyem [an investigative reporter] urged his friends to go out to protest. ‘Likes don’t count,’ he wrote. People would have to take their bodies to the streets. And so they did: in the beginning, students and young people, thousands of them from Kyiv and around the country, the citizens with the most to lose from a frozen future.
They came to the Maidan, and they stayed: And in doing so they took part in the creation of a new thing: a nation. (p. 124)

Riot police attempted to clear the square in central Kyiv on November 30. “News that ‘our children’ had been beaten spread throughout Kyiv. The spilling of ‘the first drop of blood’ stirred people to action.

Ukrainian citizens came to Kyiv to help the students because they were troubled by violence. … The reflex of protecting the future, triggered in the minds of students by the fear of losing Europe, was triggered in others by the fear of losing the one generation raised in an independent Ukraine. … The protests of December 2013 were less about Europe and more about the proper form of politics in Ukraine, about ‘decency’ or ‘dignity.’ (pp. 124–25)

Already the first turn has taken place, from protest about an agreement with much of the rest of Europe to protest about the nature of Ukraine, whether it will be a place where peaceful protest proceeds, or whether it will be one where police crack heads.

On December 10, 2013, riot police attempted to clear the square again. Snyder describes people from many different walks of life — a young businesswoman, a middle-aged literary historian, a publisher, a physician — who came to put their persons on the line and keep the protest going. The people prevailed over police power.

[On January 22, 2014], two protestors were shot dead. … The mass killings by sniper fire four weeks later would overshadow these first two deaths. The Russian invasion that began five weeks later brought so much more bloodshed that it can be impossible to recall how the killing began. And yet to the society actually concerned, there were specific moments that seemed intolerable breaches of common decency. In the final week of January, Ukrainian citizens who had not previously supported the Maidan protests began to arrive, in large numbers, from all over the country. Because it seemed that Yanukovych had now bloodied his hands, his further rule was inconceivable to many Ukrainians.
Protestors experienced this moment as the warping of their own political society. A demonstration that had begun in defense of a European future had become a defense of the few tenuous gains in the Ukrainian present. By February the Maidan was a desperate stand against Eurasia. … [P]rotestors did not want what they saw on offer [from Russia]: violence leading to a futureless life amid wisps of what might have been. (p. 126)

Everything else in Ukraine fell out from there. Putin’s Russia could not stand the idea of a Ukraine that was taking steps to become more like western Europe and less corrupt, less oligarchic. Part of that is the Russian president’s apparent personal view that Ukraine is not really a nation, not one separate from Russia at any rate. (Here’s S. Plokhy on the history of that idea, and on the history of Ukraine as a whole.) With Russian backing, Yanukovych first escalated the violence, then fled to Moscow. Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing the Crimea. When that didn’t topple the state, Russia invaded southeastern Ukraine. Russia tried to incite rebellions across northeastern and southern Ukraine. Russian weapons shot down a civilian airliner en route from the Netherlands to Malaysia. Much as fellow travelers and useful idiots would have both the general public and informed observers believe otherwise, this is a simple story of a large state’s aggression against its neighbor.

Snyder not only lays out the facts, he depicts the hopes of the people who put themselves on the line in the middle of a Ukrainian winter for a better future. Michael McFaul, a former American ambassador to Russia has put it succinctly: Democracy is when you don’t know the outcome of elections in advance. Russia hasn’t had that at the presidential level since 1996, if ever. Ukraine had another democratic presidential election this past week.

The part of The Road to Unfreedom that discusses Ukraine is the strongest because it is the most immediate and most concrete. Snyder reaches for more, and I don’t think he quite gets there. He posits a conflict between “politics of eternity” and “politics of inevitability” that shape global, but particularly European, politics in the 2st century. The politics of inevitability are not described in overly much detail, but they are something between Fukuyama-lite and a continuation of the supposed Washington consensus of the 1990s. The idea is that European leaders see integration as inevitable and trust to momentum to keep it going. Snyder also writes several time that European integration was never seriously opposed or resisted. Lady Thatcher’s handbag would like a word. (He also writes at one point that resistance to German occupation during the Second World War was “usually communist.” The Free French and the Polish Home Army provide counterexamples significant enough to make “usually” inappropriate. Snyder generally marshals his facts carefully, but occasionally assessments get away from him.)

The politics of eternity, by contrast, consider time “a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. … [W]ithin eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. … In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. … Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.” (p. 8)

Snyder’s answer to both of these false paths — eternity and inevitability — is for both leaders and citizens to think historically. It’s an admirable call, but it’s also both unsurprising and a little simple for a professional historian to say the answer is more history. I also did not fully buy Snyder’s categories of inevitability and eternity, not least because I remember how much hard work and how much compromise among competing interests went into the actions that Snyder describes as inevitability in action.

His account of Trump’s interactions with Russia is thorough, and points out how very likely it is that the current American president is regarded as an asset by a hostile foreign government. However, I found myself reading that part of the book less than carefully because so much of it was familiar to me already, and that made me wonder what Snyder was aiming for with the book. As a framework, it’s interesting; inevitability versus eternity is an opposition that might be a useful way of framing current conflicts, even if it’s often vague and if I think Snyder probably overstates how much Putin pays attention to his ideologists. Several times he argues that European countries have never truly been nation-states, that they proceeded directly from empire to integration; that’s an intriguing notion, and one I would have enjoyed seeing more of, if indeed it can be supported.

Snyder also gets in some choice phrases: “Trump was called a ‘populist.’ A populist, however, is someone who proposes policies to increase opportunities for the masses, as opposed to the financial elites. Trump was something else: a sado-populist, whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate.” (p. 272) Sado-populist, that’s a good coinage.

In the end, though, I was not sure who Snyder was writing for. The last sections, which focus more on Trump, felt like a grab bag of deplorableness, uneasily paired with a fairly careful documentation of his ties to Russian actors and Russian money. The affinities among far-right leaders are too tenuous for a real movement, and their competing nationalisms are anyway incompatible. When he’s concrete, as in the discussion of Ukraine, Snyder is at his best; his framing device seemed shaky to me, and he winds up going in several directions at once. I wanted to like this book a lot, but I found myself arguing with it at least as much as cheering it on.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.