Scoop Review of Books

The Politics of Eternity

Book Review
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder (Bodley Head: London, 2018)
Reviewed by Valerie Morse

unfreedom_coverFollowing closely on his international bestseller On Tyranny, Yale professor of history Tim Snyder publishes a stunning account of the mechanisms of contemporary Russian power in US and European politics. In telling this story he presents both startling alarms for our own society and some mechanisms of resistance.

Snyder’s premise is founded in the competing ideas of what he calls the ‘politics of inevitability’ versus the ‘politics of eternity.’ The former is a characterisation of life under Western neo-liberal capitalist democracies where there is a Francis Fukayama-like ‘end of history.’ Underpinning it is a set of assumptions that history is progressing linearly towards a better world, which looks a lot like what currently exists, and that there are no real, radically different alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism.

By contrast, the politics of eternity are the politics of neo-fascism; they are, quite simply, the politics of modern Russia. They seek to glorify a fictional past that can be reclaimed; they invoke myth and leader-worship where succession is impossible; they create culture wars that portray Russia as a victim of external plots and threats – for example claiming that homosexual and queer people in Russia are essentially enemy agents; they promise nothing and normalise massive inequality ensuring there is no mobility and no way out.

What is particularly useful about The Road to Unfreedom is Snyder’s amazing grasp of Russian and Ukrainian source material, and the application of his significant historical knowledge of Russian and Eastern Europe to make sense of the present.

First, he takes us deep into Vladimir Putin’s political mind and illuminates his thinking and the political project that he is creating. Central to that project is the recently redeemed Russian fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin. Putin has adopted much of Ilyin’s thinking, most centrally the idea that Russia is a pure, virginal idea destined to return to its godly state by way of a Christian fascism of blood sacrifice: “To make war against the enemies of God was to express innocence.”

As importantly for Ilyin, that war must be waged by one who can redeem; and herein lies the usefulness of the philosophy to Putin personally—he has cast himself for the role as the manifestation of the Russian nation. He is not a career spy, a vicious thug, nor a thief; instead he is the deliverer of grace.

Putin has so heartily adopted Ilyin’s ideas that he gave a copy of his works to every member of the Russian government, and had the man’s bones exhumed and moved to Russia to receive a hero’s burial.

The extent of Putin’s deployment of Ilyin’s ideas first becomes apparent as Snyder begins to unpack the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in 2014; he proceeds to outline Putin’s wider quest for “Eurasia” which an be understood both as a geographical idea of a broad swathe of territory under Russian influence, and as the twin concepts of the corruption of the West and the evil of the Jews. 

As Snyder describes it, the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a better life and a better world represented a real threat to Putin. The threat was that should ordinary Russians imagine that change was possible, that life could be better, Putin’s power—and the power of his oligarchical friends—would be in jeopardy.

So in the midst of the Ukraine’s ascendancy to the European Union, Putin unleashed a sophisticated propaganda war complemented by a real war in order to destroy any chance that it’s neighbor could change its future.

The propaganda war was not unleashed solely on the Ukraine. Equally important, it was unleashed on the Russian people who had to be made to believe that this war of aggression against a sovereign nation was righteous. In fact, as Snyder describes it, Putin’s campaign portrayed Russian as the victim of Ukrainian aggression at the very time its soldiers were marching into the country.

The propaganda war was also unleashed on Europe and the United States; and it was so effective that governments questioned if Ukraine really was a sovereign nation. Meanwhile, it portrayed the Ukrainian people as the enemies of themselves—essentially suggesting that they were acting as American spies and stooges in fighting the Russian GRU troops (who were dressed as Ukrainian “volunteers”).

What Snyder takes from this episode is that Putin was just warming up his skills for an even more significant undertaking: destabilising the West by way of sophisticated propaganda, cyberwar and by influencing the US election by careful patronage of Trump.

He outlines Russia’s influence in both Germany, where the rise of fascists Alternative for Germany (AfD) has shot to prominence, and the UK Brexit vote where Russian trolls and bots were extensively deployed to frame public opinion.

But it is by way of Ukraine that Snyder comes to more fully examine the Trump presidency and its relationship with President Putin. And that examination, while familiar to some, may surprise many in its publicly known and verified extent. He takes us first to Paul Manafort, who has already confessed to lying about his relationship with Russia to Donald Trump Jr, to Jared Kushner, and then to all manner of the absurd cast of characters whose love affair with Russian money seems boundless.

He presents a compelling case for Russian influence over Trump and his associates, and equally well for Russian interference in the US election, the scale of which was considerable (in the days after the election, Twitter was identifying 1 million suspicious accounts per day, and specifically deleted nearly 3000 accounts linked to Russian political interference.)

In Snyder’s view, Russia exploited weaknesses in the US system, including its electoral system and media landscape, to put its man in the White House.

Simply put, in Snyder’s view it is a convergence of neo-fascists, oligarchical Russians and ultra-rich Americans who have joined forces to steal American democracy for the benefit of transnational elite. Trump’s America begins to look a lot like Putin’s Russia: “white Americans trade the prospect of a better future for the valiant defence of American innocence.” Trump stokes a race war, empowering white supremacist violence against the most marginalised, cultivating imagery of America “under attack” by “vermin” and constantly being “taken advantage of” while promising his “strong” leadership as protection to a proportion of the population that has little left to lose.

Snyder’s book is deeply compelling. It is excellently researched and it is supremely engaging. It is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the place of Russia in today’s geopolitics—including potentially our own.

Yet there is a word of caution, too, to be uttered about this read. It is more than tempting to blame Russia for Trump and more broadly for the situation in the US (in particular the rise of fascists ideas) after reading this. But it is important to balance the extent of Russian influence with the complete failure of the American political class—on both the right and the left—to address inequality and racism in any meaningful way. The working class has been transformed into the underclass, while black men have been murdered by the hundreds of thousands and imprisoned at levels that exceed the days of slavery. The extent of extremely concentrated corporate power in the US has little or nothing to do with Russia.

Snyder concludes on the urgency of change, and while his suggestions are neither well developed nor radical, they are sensible. New Zealanders would do well to reflect deeply on this terrifying tale with its profound implications for the entire world that continues to unfold before our eyes.