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The road to unfreedom

If we do not wake up, the free world may be gone very soon, says Timothy Snyder.

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With the end of the Cold War, the victory of liberal democracy was thought to be absolute. Observers declared the end of history, confident in a peaceful, globalized future. But we now know this to be premature. Authoritarianism first returned in Russia, as fascist ideas were used to justify rule by the wealthy. Over the last years, it has spread from east to west, aided by Russian warfare in Ukraine and cyberwar in Europe and in the United States. This threat to the West also presents the opportunity to better comprehend fundamental misunderstandings about European and American history, as well as the foundations of our own political order. The following text is an excerpt of the current book The Road to Unfreedom – Russia, Europe, America by historian Timothy Snyder.

Inevitability and eternity translate facts into narratives. Those swayed by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history.

Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realize in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama.

Inevitability and eternity have specific propaganda styles. Inevitability politicians spin facts into a web of well-being. Eternity politicians suppress facts in order to dismiss the reality that people are freer and richer in other countries, and the idea that reforms could be formulated on the basis of knowledge. In the 2010s, much of what was happening was the deliberate creation of political fiction, outsized stories that commanded attention and colonized the space needed for contemplation. Yet whatever impression propaganda makes at the time, it is not history’s final verdict. There is a difference between memory, the impressions we are given; and history, the connections that we work to make – if we wish.

This book is an attempt to win back the present for historical time, and thus to win back historical time for politics. This means trying to understand one set of interconnected events in our own contemporary world history, from Russia to the United States, at a time when factuality itself was put into question. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was a reality test or the European Union and the United States.

Chronicle of the rise of authoritarianism

In this forceful and unsparing work of contemporary history, based on vast research as well as personal reporting, Snyder goes beyond the headlines to expose the true nature of the threat to democracy and law. To understand the challenge is to see, and perhaps renew, the fundamental political virtues offered by tradition and demanded by the future. By revealing the stark choices before us – between equality or oligarchy, individuality or totality, truth and falsehood – Snyder restores our understanding of the basis of our way of life, offering a way forward in a time of terrible uncertainty.

This text is an excerpt of Timothy Snyder: The Road to Unfreedom – Russia, Europe, America. © Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC., New York 2018.

Many Europeans and Americans found it easier to follow Russia’s propaganda phantoms than to defend a legal order. Europeans and Americans wasted time by asking whether an invasion had taken place, whether Ukraine was a country, and whether it had somehow deserved to be invaded. This revealed a capacious vulnerability that Russia soon exploited within the European Union and the United States.

History as a discipline began as a confrontation with war propaganda. In the first history book, The Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides was careful to make a distinction between leaders’ accounts of their actions and the real reasons for their decisions. In our time, as rising inequality elevates political fiction, investigative journalism becomes the more precious. Its renaissance began during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as courageous reporters filed stories from dangerous locations. In Russia and Ukraine, journalistic initiatives clustered around the problems of kleptocracy and corruption, and then reporters trained in these subjects covered the war.

What has already happened in Russia is what might happen in America and Europe; the stabilization of massive inequality, the displacement of policy by propaganda, the shift from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity. Russian leaders could invite Europeans and Americans to eternity because Russia got there first. They understood American and European weaknesses, which they had first seen and exploited at home.

For many Europeans and Americans, events in the 2010s – the rise of antidemocratic politics, the Russian turn against Europe and invasion of Ukraine, the Brexit referendum, the Trump election – came as a surprise. Americans tend to react to surprise in two ways: either by imagining that the unexpected event is not really happening, or by claiming that it is totally new and hence not amenable to historical understanding. Either all will somehow be well, or all is so ill that nothing can be done. The first response is a defense mechanism of the politics of inevitability. The second is the creaking sound that inevitability makes just before it breaks and gives way to eternity. The politics of inevitability first erodes civic responsibility, and then collapses into the politics of eternity when it meets a serious challenge. Americans reacted in these ways when Russia’s candidate became president of the United States.

In the 1990s and in the 2000s, influence flowed from west to east, in the transplant of economic and political models, the spread of the English language, and the enlargement of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Meanwhile, unregulated spaces of American and European capitalism summoned wealthy Russians into a realm without an east-west geography, that of offshore bank accounts, shell companies, and anonymous deals, where wealth stolen from the Russian people was laundered clean. Partly for this reason, in the 2010s influence flowed from east to west, as the offshore exception became the rule, as Russian political fiction penetrated beyond Russia. In The Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides defined “oligarchy” as rule by the few, and opposed it to “democracy.” For Aristotle “oligarchy” meant rule by the wealthy few; the word in this sense was revived in the Russian language in the 1990s, and then, with good reason, in English in the 2010s.

Concepts and practices moved from east to west. An example is the word “fake,” as in “fake news.” This sounds like an American invention, and Donald Trump claimed it as his own; but the term was used in Russia and Ukraine long before it began its career in the United States. It meant creating a fictional text that posed as a piece of journalism, both to spread confusion about a particular event and to discredit journalism as such. Eternity politicians first spread fake news themselves, then claim that all news is fake, and finally that only their spectacles are real. The Russian campaign to fill the international public sphere with fiction began in Ukraine in 2014, and then spread to the United States in 2015, where it helped to elect a president in 2016. The techniques were everywhere the same, although they grew more sophisticated over time.

Russia in the 2010s was a kleptocratic regime that sought to export the politics of eternity: to demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States. This is well seen from Ukraine, where Russia fought a regular war while it amplified campaigns to undo the European Union and the United States. The advisor of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last pro-Russian Ukrainian president. Russian tactics that failed in Ukraine succeeded in the United States. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs hid their money in a way that sustained the career of an American presidential candidate. This is all one history, the history of our moment and our choices.

This text is an excerpt of “Timothy Snyder: The Road to Unfreedom”.

This text is protected by copyright: © Timothy Snyder / Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Russian President Vladimir Putin at the commemoration ceremony on 16 October 2014 in Belgrade on the occasion of the liberation of the city by the Red Army and the Yugoslav partisans in 1944. Photo: © dicus63 / iStock


Vienna Humanities Festival

In his new book The Road to Unfreedom, which has been published in German by C.H. Beck and was the basis of his talk, Timothy ­Snyder, Permanent Fellow at the IWM, went beyond the surprises and shocks to expose the true nature of the threat to the rule of law. Following the lecture, IWM Rector Shalini Randeria joined Snyder for a discussion on ways to move forward in this time of uncertainty. The Wiener Vorlesung, which opened the Vienna Humanities Festival 2018, was moderated by Lisa Nimmervoll (Austrian daily DER STANDARD).

The Vienna Humanities Festival, organised by the IWM, Wien Museum and Time to Talk, is a series of around 40 Events (in German and English) which took place from 27 till 30 September 2018 for the third time at the Wien Museum, TU Wien, Evangelische Volksschule and Stadtkino.

The topic of 2018 “Power and Powerlessness” focused on the vulnerability of democracies in Europe in light of historical events embedding them in the context of contemporary socio-political developments.