The Road to Unfreedom

Recommendation: I love this guy, I’m biased

Where to read: We’re heading into autumn, so in front of the fire

Read with: The Macallan 12

In brief: This is, for my money, one of the most interesting takes on recent events in Russia and the ways in which a particular style of fascist/populist politics has become so prevalent. It is conceptually dense and somewhat controversial in its conclusions – I am not familiar enough with the subject matter to form a view on the validity of some of those concepts or the underlying history but I think it is well worth becoming familiar with them regardless.

Full disclosure, I adore Timothy Snyder. In all honesty, I am probably something of a fan, an impulse I am wary of in this context because having a critical mind is key to reading, non-fiction in particular. That said, Lord does he write well.

This is a fascinating attempt to write a history of the present, a first draft of history if you like. Snyder is very upfront about it, acknowledging that much of his material comes from investigative journalism rather than archival research or the other typical sources of academic history. The upshot is that it would be wise to take at least some of this with a grain of salt. Snyder is also very open about the conceptual framework he is fitting events into (or the events he is using to explore that framework, depending on your interpretation). One does get the impression this model predated the book which is something to watch for – there is always a tendency to interpret events in the most favourable way for your thesis.

In relation to said conceptual model, Snyder describes two different styles or kinds of politics, or perhaps more accurately, the political use of history and national narrative: the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity. In the politics of inevitability, we are told a story about the end of history (thanks Fukuyama for that one). In this framing, the future will be a continuation of the present, with the laws of progress known and predictable. The American version of this narrative, for example, is that the free market brings democracy which brings freedom which brings happiness. This is obviously deeply demoralising from an individual perspective and profoundly depersonalising, removing the idea of agency and moral responsibility for the world around us – if the future is inevitable, what responsibility do any of us have a citizens to be engaged. When the politics of inevitability inevitably collapses, it gives way to the politics of eternity – a nationalistic narrative of victimhood and perpetual vigilance where the nation is under constant assault from migrants or Jews or foreign invaders or whoever the “other” is at any given moment. Eternity politicians look at history the way hyenas look at the Serengeti, scavenging tasty morsels to support an overarching narrative and discarding the rest. Needless to say, both forms are deeply anti-historical and one could very much interpret Snyder’s work as a reassertion of the importance of good public history to democratic citizenship. It is also an implicit attack on smug assertions about the inevitability of progress.

Perhaps even more interesting is the vehicle Snyder has selected to explore these concepts, the fair Verona where he lays his scene so to speak. He begins by introducing the ideas of Ivan Ilyin, an early 20th century Russian thinker whose philosophy has been promoted by Putin and the post-Soviet oligarchs. He then charts the ascendency of the politics of eternity in Russia through the use of the EU and NATO as Putin’s bogeymen, supporting the idea of historical victimhood and persecution and the danger of invasion through the Ukraine, and the cultural threat of pollution by decadent western homosexuality foisted on the innocent Russian body politic. Snyder also describes the use of history and the resurgence of particular legends to support this mythic version of Russian history and Putin’s role as the archetypal Russian redeemer.

Moving on Russia, Road to Unfreedom tracks the subversion of eastern Europe and the spread of the politics of eternity through the US, most obviously in the politics of Donald “they’re rapists” Trump. It’s a slightly different, and I think valuable, lens on the Trump campaign, the denigration of the press and the assault on the concepts of both truth and historical reality. It is also interesting to think about recent events in terms of political philosophy and theory of knowledge rather than the hard politics of that particular issue.

I should warn that this is quite a dense piece of frequently abstract scholarship which will reward close reading and the frequent use of a pencil. I would also advise reading On Tyranny, which is Snyder’s more approachable list of action items arising from this framework, before embarking on this. Listening to one of his lectures on the subject may also prove useful.

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