Timothy Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom” – book review

Timothy Snyder’s book “The Road to Unfreedom” is, in many respects, extraordinary. The problem is, it might be so for all the wrong reasons. The central purpose of the book is to sound a warning call to all people in the West, or like the description says: “The past in another country, the old saying goes. The same might be said of the future. But which country? For Europeans and Americans today, the answer is Russia.”

Russia does not generally enjoy a good reputation among European and American intellectuals, but few have gone so far as Mr Snyder. In his book, the American professor accuses Russia of having plotted nothing less that the “destruction of the United States and the European Union”. How did Russia plan and managed to achieve the destruction of the West? Essentially by altering the state of mind of millions of clueless citizens in America and Europe through a campaign of social media influence. This amounted, according to Snyder, to nothing less than an assault. Russia, the author of the book suggests, launched an unprovoked attack on Western civilization and brought Donald Trump to the highest political office in the world.

The book was published prior to the release of the report by the Special Councel investigation Robert Muller that found no collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and alleged efforts by the Russian state to influence the election of 2016. Snyder’s account, one has to point out, does not directly imply that Trump was a Russian asset, but suggests that Trump might have been a Russian agent “unwittingly”.

In this sense, there is little unusual with this book. The story of how Trump is in reality working for Putin has dominated the headlines even before Trump was elected President. “Don’t fall for it”, titled the American magazine TIME, showing a picture of Putin smiling, just before the election. The extraordinary thing about Snyder’s book is that such a simplistic and cartoonishly generalizing account was written by someone who works at the highest levels of global academia. By his admission, Snyder, who like the ancient Greek Thucydides, was striving to write a history of the present era, had to rely heavily on journalistic reports as sources for his account. As a historian, however, Snyder should know perfectly well that journalism does not often make for the best and most objective and balanced of narratives. This is actually what the whole higher purpose of history: not a simple condensation of media collections over a period of time, but the ability to look at events and conflicts with critical distance. Otherwise history does not help us to understand the world as it really is but becomes just another element of propaganda. This is the reason why, good history writing often emerges only when the dust settles down after the storm of daily events has placated.

It would be wrong to deny that there might have been a consistent effort by Russia to influence the American electorate through social media activities. The standard line, endlessly repeated, is that Russia tried to saw discord about the institution of democracy in the West. In the immense parallel reality of the internet, however, Russia’s effort looked a like a drop in the ocean. Facebook posts originated from Saint Petersburg might have reached millions of people but it would be absurd to assume that seeing a single post on Facebook might drive otherwise honourable citizens to go and vote for Trump. The Russians allegedly spent around 100 thousand dollars on Facebook adverts, while Hillary Clinton campaign alone costed more than 1 billion.

America’s problems did not originate because of the Russian “assault” on American democracy. It is often repeated that Russia’s exploited America’s internal divisions, but it was Hillary Clinton, not Russia’s candidate, who called people who were going to vote for Trump “deplorable”. Snyder devotes no little attention to the problem of wealth inequality in the United States and the widely known fact that for the average working person in America there have been no significant improvements in terms of wealth and wages at least since the Reagan era, that is, more than 30 years ago. Globalization, delocalization of many manufacturing and other jobs led to high levels of unemployment. Trump campaigned also for people like that, the people who were left behind by globalization. Nothing can be merciless as the ideal of progress something. These and the other grave problems are entirely of America’s making and Russia has absolutely nothing to do with that. America has become a more unequal society, “more like Russia”, like Snyder says, but to blame Russia for this development would be absurd.

Another theme of the book is what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” versus the “politics of the eternity”. Russia, according to Snyder, practises the politics of eternity, using myths and grand, circular historical narratives, from Volodymyr of the Kievan Rus to Vladimir Putin today, to stage herself as the eternal victim of external aggression: the Poles in the XVII century, the Swedes, Napoleon, Hitler. The West instead lives in the politics of inevitability, Snyder explains. Both the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity are falsehoods and myths that tell us little about the real state of affairs. In this he is right.

All countries in a way, conceiving their national history, practise different degrees of the politics of eternity. The politics of inevitability, however, seems to be a uniquely Western phenomenon. The West, in particularly after the end of the Cold War entered the era of “end of history”. This translated into the unshakable self-assurance that the Western model of societal and economic organization, based on “freedom and democracy”, would eventually triumph and naturally expand on a global scale. The path towards endless progress meant that nothing new was needed, because the recipe towards the best of all possible worlds had already been found. And the recipe was simple: more of the same. As Snyder correctly points out, the core of the politics of inevitability is the “there is no alternative” slogan.

In this light it is surprising that Snyder, having correctly identified the flaws and the pitfalls of the Western self-enamored perception and sense of destiny over the last decades, ends up blaming Russia for all chaos in America and Europe. This does not mean that Snyder is able to raise himself about the politics of inevitability. For example when, with regard to the Ukrainian crisis and the protests of 2013-14, he appears to make the argument that there cannot be a future without integration in the European Union: integration is a “necessity”, as Snyder says somewhere else. But as experience has shown many times since the creation of the EU in 1992, while a united Europe may seem in theory like a good and noble idea, the realpolitik of the dynamics of the European Union have made it unpalatable, even insufferable, for many citizens of many European countries. While for many countries in Central and Eastern Europe integration became associated with joining the prosperous and “civilized” part of the world, many citizens of the Old Europe have seen their living standards stagnate or even decline in spite of a the inevitable and unstoppable integration of the last 30 years.

The greatest flaw of this book, however, is the tendency of the author towards distortion and rhetorical exaggeration. In a way, the book makes for a compelling and interesting read, especially because it delivers a strong and coherent narrative. The only problem is that the real world is a bit more complex than that. For example, Snyder, with regard to Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan, takes us back to the isolationist America of the 1930s and Charles Lindbergh, an aviator who went down into history as one of America’s Nazi apologists. There is not reference to the fact that figures like Woodrow Wilson, to name one, had used the same slogan. To anyone who was paying attention it should have been perfectly clearly what Trump meant when he said “America First”, since he repeated it all over again: “No foreign interventions”. Snyder, however, chose to sacrifice dry and nuanced objectivity to the needs of a strong message. It is striking that in a book which indignantly denounces lies and fake news every second line, the author needs to resort himself to claims built on rather shaky foundations and distortions.

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