Timothy Snyder has taken a region that resists understanding and made it irresistibly interesting. The region is Eastern Europe, a boundless area that Snyder bounds as his stories require—for example, in his influential Bloodlands (2010), where the action extends as far as Nazi and Soviet killing operations did. On other occasions, Snyder merges Eastern Europe with the places that have given it shape, usually Germany and Russia, while paying attention to what the region has itself shaped: our time’s sensitivity about human rights.
As widely as Snyder’s work has ranged, it does not prepare us for his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom, which tells how a dead fascist thinker became an inspiration in Putin’s Russia, a country where anti-fascism was supposedly the chief historical legacy; and how Russia has reversed what we arrogantly thought was the proper flow of ideas. Rather than the West taking liberalism eastward, the East is projecting right-wing ideas westward, perhaps distorting the liberal democratic system in the process.
This is a plot few would have thought plausible until very recently. In what follows, Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, discusses this and more with a fellow historian of Eastern Europe, John Connelly, of the University of California at Berkeley.
Inevitability or Eternity?
John Connelly (JC): Tim, I’d first like to ask you to speak a bit in general about The Road to Unfreedom. Describe what it’s about, what your hopes are, what you’d like to communicate to your audience.
Timothy Snyder (TS): The book is a history of the 2010s, a history of the present moment. Though it’s about the present I think of it as a history book. It uses historical methods and makes a case for historical thought. It’s based chiefly on a fair number of primary sources, starting in Russia and then moving into the Ukraine, and then in some other European languages. And, landing in English when I write about the US and the UK, at the end.
It begins from a premise about time, and a premise about place. The terms I use in the book to describe two common modes of experiencing time are the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.” I describe the politics of inevitability as the sense that we’re moving together towards what’s a better future. And that the rules of history are basically known. An example of the politics of inevitability would be the idea that history came to an end in 1989. There were no alternatives. Liberal democracy is inevitable. Despite some bumps in the road, we’re all moving towards some kind of democratic liberal future.
The second concept of time is the politics of eternity. Instead of a progressive or linear version of time, this is a cyclical version of time. It’s what happens when you stop believing in progress, whether because of overwhelming economic inequality—in the sense that progress is not happening for you, or for your children—or because you are hit by some kind of a shock. And I think the period between 2008 and 2016 in the US, for different kinds of people in different kinds of ways, was very often either a shock, or a realization that the future is not coming the way that it was supposed to come.
And so the notion is that we can tilt from a time with a sense of progress towards this other version of time, a cyclical one, which has an entirely different politics. The politics of your country first, of us and them, of the eternal recurrence of the guilty outsider assaulting the innocent community. A politics about how the same things happen over and over again. And it’s really only that one thing, that the outsider is coming for you. The future goes away, and with it the assumption that government might make policy to change the future.
JC: So a movement from one kind of time to another.
I think old fascist ideas are being used to create a racialized oligarchy, not fascism as such, but certainly something kindred or at least genealogically connected.
TS: That’s right. The premise about place is that the arrows of causality can be coming from the East to the West, rather than the other way around. What’s happening in the world is not all about America, or all about Russia, or even all about the relations between the two; it’s rather about Russia getting to the politics of eternity first, and what follows from that. We have the feeling now that what is happening is not just threatening but somehow uncanny; and we have a tendency to export the cause of that feeling to an outside power, Russia.
That’s not quite right. We and the Russians are in something together, in a certain kind of flow together.
It’s related to the business about time. For far too long we assumed that things happening in Russia were just somehow exceptions, or they were just somehow momentary detours from a road that we basically already knew, our politics of inevitability. Capitalism had to create democracy, and so on. That story wears itself out in Russia quickly, in the early 1990s. We weren’t able to see fast enough that what happened in Russia was the consolidation of a perfectly coherent way of governing in the postmodern world: where you are able to justify tremendous and durable economic inequality by way of a politics of spectacle, which diverts your domestic problems out into the world. Russia reaches the politics of eternity first.
JC: Great, thanks. Since Russia seems to be the source of so much of the story of the book, and perhaps also of the political challenges for the West, maybe you could tell us a bit in greater detail about the intellectual origins, if you could call it that, of the approach of the current Russian regime. You talk about a number of philosophers whom people won’t know. Could you explain who these people are, and how they have a direct impact upon Russian politics?
TS: Yeah. So, part of the politics of inevitability—part of the complacency about history being supposedly over—is that we decide that ideas don’t matter.
If you take this basically determinist view that the market creates democracy, and that’s all there is to it, then one of the consequences is you think that ideas don’t matter. If you think there are no alternatives, then you ignore it when people talk about them. And whenever anybody expresses interest in an idea or seems to be guided by an idea, you say something like: Well, that’s just superficial. Really, they’re pragmatists. Really, they’re just guided by material interests and, therefore, everything will be good in the end, because material interests will eventually lead to freedom, et cetera.
And so the move that I make at the beginning of the book is to try to show that this is our mistake. This is our optical error. This is our blindness. We don’t see ideas, even when they’re present, because we’ve taught ourselves to classify them as epiphenomenal. As just being superficial, as being irrelevant.
JC: Let’s talk about the word fascism, which is going to justly alarm a lot of readers, because if ideas matter, then the idea is that these ideas are translated into practice. Would you say that the ideas of Ivan Ilyin and the other people you discuss are going to be translated into practice in the way that Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other fascist writings were translated into practice in the early 20th century, involving eugenics and aggressive foreign policy and paramilitaries and mobilized societies? Is it that kind of relation you are describing, or is this a new kind of fascism? Is fascism, a term coined several generations ago, really adequate for capturing what’s going on?
TS: I think that, even at the time, as you know very well, fascism meant a lot of different things. And that fascist thought was realized unevenly. So, there were various proposals for fascist order, only some of which actually came about. And of course, when they came about, they didn’t necessarily reflect the ideas perfectly.
I’m comfortable with saying that we’re in a moment where fascist thought has returned. Because, as a matter of fact, the current Russian government, which is a very important government, cites figures who are unambiguously fascist and Nazi. This is an extreme example of a general trend: Steve Bannon cites Julius Evola, Donald Trump speaks of “America First,” and so on. There’s been a kind of renaissance of the 1930s which has crept up on us. But there are certainly differences.
My point is not at all that the 1930s are going to repeat themselves because some of these ideas are back. I think the ideas are back in a setting which is different in three ways.
JC: And one of those ways is the emergence of “schizo-fascism”? As far as I can tell this is an original idea.
TS: Yes, fascist ideas have come to Russia at a historical moment, three generations after the Second World War, when it’s impossible for Russians to think of themselves as fascist. The entire meaning of the war in Soviet education was as an anti-fascist struggle, where the Russians are on the side of the good and the fascists are the enemy.
So there’s this odd business, which I call in the book “schizo-fascism,” where people who are themselves unambiguously fascists refer to others as fascists. Which has an interesting consequence, that fascism becomes harder to talk about even as it becomes more important. Amidst all this bad faith, it is easy to say: well, the word is outdated, or it’s just a joke, because look how it’s tossed around. So the very fact that fascists call other people fascists is itself a kind of propaganda, which Jason Stanley calls “undermining propaganda,” which makes it hard for us to talk about fascism as an actual phenomenon.1
The second thing which I think is very different is the technology of communication. So, the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s were an era of newspapers and, to some extent, of radio. We’re now in an era of the internet, which was promised to us, like all new communications technologies are, as a means of communicating our better selves, of enlightening the world, of making this all more rational, et cetera. And while there certainly have been some very positive things associated with the internet, what’s become clear is that the internet has also become a way of getting people indignant, getting people aroused. Social platforms and even search engines confirm belief that we already have. Then we break ourselves into groups, mainly virtually, of people who believe what we do. And because we spend all of our time online, it’s easier to be abstract and cruel about the other. In other words, it turns out the internet is very good at creating a fascist mentality. I’m sorry to put it that way, but that’s the case.
The third thing which I think is different is oligarchs. So, last time around, fascism really wasn’t about big business. To be sure, as Ben Hett shows well in his new book, big business helped bring down German democracy. But there was no direct friendly relationship between National Socialism and the richest of the rich. This time around, I think, it’s different. This time around, figures on the far right in Russia, but also in the US, are using these ideas, and these figures are very closely linked to oligarchs, and oligarchs are sponsoring, not just in Russia, efforts like the Internet Research Agency, to manipulate opinion and make it less open to democracy.
JC: That’s cynical.
TS: I am trying to be open to the new combinations that I think are present. What I see is that old fascist ideas are being used in a contemporary setting of the internet and wealth inequality. I think these ideas are being used to create a racialized oligarchy, not fascism as such, but certainly something kindred or at least genealogically connected.
JC: The book is titled Road to Unfreedom. Let’s leave aside for a moment the Putin regime and its intellectual inspiration, and talk about how extreme ideas have made their way into Russian society. What is the story about Russia? How is it possible that this set of ideas would become so popular, so that people talk about Putin being supported by 80 percent of the population? In few other societies can one think of an entire population being so firmly behind one leader and his policies. How did that happen in Russia? What chances were, perhaps, missed in Russia and, perhaps, by the West to cause Russia to go in a different direction? And then how do those ideas make their way to the West? You talk in the book about a breakthrough in the year 2012, 2013.
TS: So, I’m going to answer in a slightly different way. I think 80 percent popularity is not something to be wished for, right? At least not over the long term.
JC: It’s extraordinary, definitely.
TS: There’s a desperation behind it. You know, you only have 80 percent popularity because nobody can think of an alternative to you. And that’s the deep problem in Russia. And so one of the reasons why you refer to fascist ideologues is that fascism is about banishing the problem of succession. Fascism is about a cult of a leader. It’s about claiming that the problem of succession doesn’t really exist, because somehow the very existence of the leader moots the issue. His timeless charisma makes time stop. That’s the notion.
Somehow the leader just creates eternity by the way he strides through the world, or whatever. And you know, that can be comforting over the short to medium term; but the long-term problem for Russia, as for the Soviet Union before it, is that there isn’t a principle of succession. The principle of succession is the key problem of politics: how do you get from the moment where you just have a leader with money and power to the moment where you have a state with laws and institutions? Democracy is fundamentally a way of handling that question. In the 21st century democracy dies by a thousand cuts, it dies gradually; elections go on but no one believes in them, which means that you have a problem of succession, but also a way not to acknowledge it. No one in Russia today believes in elections as a mechanism of succession. They believe in them as a ritual. They believe they perform some function, but no one believes that there is a fair contest where, you know, parties have an equal chance, and have access to media and so on. Nobody believes that, in 2018, because of the way Putin chose to behave in 2012. That’s what I try to show in chapter two.
So when you win the way that Putin won back then, by ostentatiously discrediting the elections, what you’re doing is you’re saying there is no system, in reality there is no system, just appearances, and I control the appearances. There’s just me. Right? That’s it. And the desperation of that, the great general unspoken, because unspeakable, desperation is that then you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
So that’s one of Russia’s big problems. And the other one is the just absolutely stupefying inequality of wealth. And inequality of wealth is going to be very hard to change, because, absent the rule of law, and absent a functioning welfare state, it’s very hard to see just how people can transform their own status. And so, really the two parts of your question are linked together, because it’s not so much that Russia has these compelling right-wing ideas, and then other people are compelled by them. It’s more that these ideas are used to justify a certain situation in Russia, which is meant to look unchangeable. I mean both politically unchangeable and economically unchangeable. Russians are not supposed to ask what’s going to come after Putin, and they’re not supposed to inquire about why they can’t have social advancement. And so it is ever so much nicer to speak of Russia as a champion of eternal values, of civilization, rather than as a place where law and social advancement failed.
The brilliance of the Russian move is to make domestic failure into foreign policy success. No one in Russia thinks that Russia is a success in conventional terms. What their leaders want them to believe is that everyone else is also a failure. That the Europeans and the Americans are no different. That everything everywhere is hollow and corrupt. And so it’s best to love your own lies rather than someone else’s lies, since everything is a lie. If that is to work, Europe and America have to be made to look more like Russia. Which is easier than it sounds. It’s an odd transfer, because it’s not about exporting some positive vision. It’s rather about exporting your own domestic problems abroad.
The point is not that Russia is great. It’s more that Russian television teaches Russians that, since everything is a joke, the West is a joke. You know, they claim to be better, but it’s just hypocrisy. They’re rotten at the core. They have no values, and we have values, and their democracy and economy don’t really work any differently from ours.
What they do want is for us not to believe in our own stuff. They want us to be cynical. They want us not to vote. They want us to think the rule of law’s a joke, and that elections are a joke, because if we cease to believe in those things, then the rule of law really will become a joke, and elections will become a joke. We will look more like Russia. We’ll be weaker, and we won’t look like an example. That has already happened: literally no one sees us as an exemplar of democracy now.
So that’s the connection. Russia is stopped at home. So its leaders translate stagnation into eternity. Then they try to make other places more like Russia. It’s an entirely disintegrative project, and that’s how it works. That’s how it worked in 2016.
JC: Well, it’s an extraordinary story you are telling—that the ideas of the original fascists have made their way to the US via Russia—and not only that, but that they have been readily accepted by much the population. You’ve mentioned Steve Bannon and his own interest in extreme right-wing thinking, fascist thinking; he has found a pretty broad audience here.
Who would have imagined such a thing possible 15 years ago, in particular with the memory of World War II? If anything brought the US together in the 20th century it was resistance to fascism, resistance to Nazism. And here we see fascist ideas making their way into our territory without there being much evident resistance of that kind.
Can you say something about how that was possible? One of the features of your book is that you dedicate it to reporters. So, to you it’s very important to get the facts out, and there’s a way in which facts are simply not making it to populations, both in the East and in the West these days. Can you say something about those things?
TS: We haven’t paid enough attention to history as such. The premise of your question, which I accept, is that if we know something about the 1930s and 1940s, we should be better able to resist fascism. I think that’s completely true, but I also think we have lost a sense of that period, not just because time has passed, but because of the politics of inevitability. As a teacher of history, I think it’s basically a tragedy that since 1989 we’ve largely given up on the idea that understanding the past matters. One of the features of the politics of inevitability is that the details of the past don’t matter. If you think history is just a machine to produce a future that you already know, then the facts of the past are all just grist for the mill. The detail, the color, is irrelevant. And I’m afraid that’s been the dominant mentality in this country for the last 25 years. And in that situation it’s very hard to hang onto history.
I try to shake off words like “optimism” and “pessimism,” because I think they involve a shaking off of my responsibility.
The one thing that’s stayed above the surface is the memory of the Holocaust. Which is pretty important in this country; but it’s hard to connect the memory of the Holocaust to history, because, for many people at least, it’s been cut off from the larger historical setting, from patterns that we might see, from individuals whose choices we might try to understand. We don’t see the relationship between Treblinka in 1942 and Germans looking away from their neighbors in 1933.
And it’s not just a matter of looking at the Germans. America is, of course, not that innocent. The 1930s in the US were not so different from the 1930s in other places. And the fascist ideas, actually, did have a fair amount of purchase here the first time around. And in some sense we got lucky, I think, with our leadership.
We got lucky with Roosevelt. And it’s that combination of the New Deal plus the American entry into the Second World War which creates a new American consensus where you think progress is possible—thanks, in part, to the state and solidarity. And you think America has a place in the world, and that place in the world has to do with resisting extreme ideas. If you look at America in 1930, you would not at all have been sure how America would turn out in, say, 1970.
Fascist ideas still have purchase here because we have our own very strong traditions of racism. We also have our own tradition of frontier colonialism, which we have not directly confronted and educated ourselves about. And that creates vulnerability. The Trump administration actively degrades the story of America coming together as a country thanks to the welfare state and the war against fascism, something he does by referring back to “America First,” which was a slogan of people who opposed both.
What the slogan “America First” does is that it makes everything about America. But when you make everything about America, it means that the opponent is here at home, or rather the enemy is here at home, and we should be worried about those migrants, those blacks, those Muslims, whatever it might be. And that’s what politics should be all about: us and them, but only internally, with no state policy to help everyone, no attention to the offshoring of wealth, no attention to how oligarchs or states abroad intervene in our country, and so on.
It also relates to inequality, by the way. I mean, the America of America First was a stupefyingly unequal country, much as we are now. We just crossed 1929 levels of wealth inequality.
What Can America Do?
JC: The American story had these dark moments that you mentioned, but then there was almost a self-correcting mechanism, or at least a process of responding to problems and working toward solutions. The result of the chaos of the early 1930s was the coming together of the anti-fascist struggle of World War II.
Later, there was McCarthyism, but then a reaction to McCarthyism; there was the civil rights movement as a reaction to historic inequality, racial inequality. There was Vietnam, but then, of course, there was a protest movement from within the US to deal with Vietnam. But what we have in our recent past is a fiasco in American foreign policy that the Republican Party has not dealt with openly. There’s been no open reckoning or understanding in the American population of just what the second Iraq invasion meant, and the consequences it had. In other words, we’re living with the lie that it didn’t matter, and I think that’s wrong.
You talk about other kinds of challenges that America faces in terms of its own institutions, for instance the Electoral College. You talk even about the role of the Senate, the way elections to the Senate give disproportionate weight to certain populations. Do you have—obviously you don’t offer a roadmap—but do you have optimism about the future in the US? Does it have the ability to deal with the continuing misrepresentation of its own past, and the deep problems with its institutions? What’s your sense? Are you an optimist when you think of the years to come?
TS: I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’ve started to associate those words with my ideas of inevitability and eternity. I’ve started to think that politics has to be about recognizing that there’s a broad range of possibility, especially in a moment like this one, in that individual action matters more than we think it does. So I try to shake off words like “optimism” and “pessimism,” because I think they involve a shaking off of my responsibility.
Let me clarify what I say in the book about these developments in the US, and then let me try to say why there might be some cause for hope, and some reason to act.
The Right to Have Rights
I think what you say about the Iraq war is profoundly true. The Iraq war was a kind of apotheosis of the politics of inevitability. If you really think the rules of history are that capitalism creates democracy and that capitalism means a “free market,” then the prescription follows: you clean everything out. You clear away the rubble of the past, and then democracy just springs from the desert. It sounds like a parody, but that was the political theory behind the second Iraq war. And we, as you say, did not learn from that. And there’s a reason why I say this on page three or four of the book. The fact that we had no reckoning with the Iraq war is a very bad sign, because you can’t self-correct if you don’t notice that there’s a problem. You know, traditionally countries reform after they lose wars. But the problem with the US is that it doesn’t always recognize when it’s lost a war, and that makes it harder.
A second thing which is going on, that you also hinted at, is domestic. I mean, even taking Russia out of the picture entirely for a moment, we ourselves—with nobody’s help—have been drifting away from rule-of-law democracy in the 2010s.
The Citizens United case of 2010, which treats corporations as individual human beings and allows them to contribute money to campaigns is, obviously, ludicrous. Obviously this kind of deregulation of campaign financing is not something that any sane person looking at any tradition of democracy could possibly think makes sense. And yet we did it to ourselves. In 2013 the Supreme Court decides that it’s no longer the case that racism is an evident problem in the United States and, therefore, that the states should be allowed to change their electoral laws without first checking that with the courts. The result is that 22 American states—in time to make a difference for the 2014 midterm, in some cases, but definitely for the 2016 presidentials—adopt voter-suppression laws. We’re doing that to ourselves.
We’re doing that to ourselves, but those things create opportunities for Russia and for others. That is dark globalization. We have these problems which we think are just our problems, like racism, or like gerrymandering, or like the Electoral College. But they’re not just our problems.
I think it’s basically a tragedy that since 1989 we’ve largely given up on the idea that understanding the past matters.
Everybody else can see them now. And if people can see them, that means they can also exploit them. So when Russia tries to hit us with cyber, what they do is they pick on those fault lines like race, and they get people agitated about issues of race. And at the same time, because they’re aware of the Electoral College, they also know that what they have to do is intervene most massively in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, which they did. Right?
TS: So, we end up having an election which might have been decided by the fact that a foreign power can use our own weaknesses, both as a society and as a set of institutions, at the right time.
Am I hopeful about this? Yes, I’m hopeful about this. What I don’t think is that we have any natural capacity to bounce back. I don’t like that you said self-correcting, because self-correcting suggests the kind of mechanism which just happens. We might correct ourselves, but only if we recognize problems for what they are, and indeed weakness for what it is.
There have to be new ideas, which will help us get out of where we are. And yes, having spent much of the last year talking to younger people about politics also gets me to think that we do have a chance. That these things like cyber war, or the internet, which might be deadening to some generation, might be more enlivening to another one.
So no, I don’t think it’s automatic, but yes, I definitely think we have a chance. There are unusual or novel forms of resistance, and new and interesting organizations.
TS: It’s new. The fact that we’ve had massive and regular marches about different kinds of issues. That’s also new in US history. There have been lots of marches in the US, but having several on very different things—guns, Russia, women’s rights, science—is very encouraging. So there’s definitely reason to hope. There are organizations of lawyers and physicians, groups that in the past have not always exhibited the same sense of responsibility.
But the point of the book is that before we get to hope, we have to get certain things straight. The reason I threw myself at this project was to try to get these certain things straight, so we can look at our recent history, see ourselves in it, and then start moving.
JC: I think we have to. Americans need to understand that we have our own mythology of innocence, right? You talk about this idea of innocence that’s invaded Russia’s self-understanding. But it’s also very strong in the US, from right to left. That’s something that has to be at least recognized as a problem, and those who criticize it should not be vilified as somehow un-American. The upshot of the fact that you criticize your country is not that you’re a bad American, but, in fact, precisely the opposite.
One last question: I was curious about how you think of politics in general. You had this idea of the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity. Is it only those two kinds? Is there a third kind of politics? I get a sense in the book of there being a kind of responsible politics, a rational politics.
What would you call it? What is the alternative to inevitability and eternity?
TS: Responsibility. One of the master ideas of the book is that the road to unfreedom is the path from inevitability to eternity. We’re at this juncture, right, where the natural thing to do is just go straight ahead from inevitability to eternity and give up on factuality. Let wealth and inequality continue to accumulate. Fall into a technological spell. Lose the moment when human action matters. Drift into a way of seeing the world where the same thing happens over and over again. You know, where we remain innocent. It’s right that you stressed that.
Inevitability and eternity have certain things in common, and one is the idea that you’re not responsible. In inevitability everything is good, and therefore you’re not responsible. The future is just more of the good of the present, so you don’t need to do anything. In eternity everything is bad, and therefore you’re also not responsible. If the guilty them are always attacking the innocent us, then we are automatically good, and there is no reason to think about ourselves as individual agents with choices. The idea that I mention at the very end of the book is precisely the politics of responsibility. And the way the book is structured is meant to lead to that. It’s about virtues as well as countries, years, and events.
At one level the chapters are about places. They’re about Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, the US. And they’re about events: the Bolotnaya protests, Russia’s succession crisis, the vulnerability of the EU, the Maidan protests, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian information war, the election of Trump. But each chapter is also about virtues: individuality, succession, integration, novelty, truth, and equality. And in the epilogue I try to build up a little idea of how those virtues would work together to build up what I would call the politics of responsibility.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.
- See Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 53. ↩