In The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder attempts to explain the
state of Western democracy in 2018 with an analysis of Russia, Ukraine, the
European Union, and the US. Although he casts a wide net (reaching back 1,000
years to the Viking King Volodymyr/Valdemar), he gets a surprising amount of
mileage by focusing on “just” the last decade or so.
But it’s easy to fool a historically-challenged computer programmer like me. As
logical as Snyder’s take sounded to my ear, I couldn’t help but wonder about
how much he simplified in order to tell a general audience a coherent story in
300 pages. The thought troubled me most when it came to Vladimir Putin. While
Snyder’s investigation of fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin seems apropos to my
untrained eye, I still wonder whether the president’s worldview can really be
summarized so neatly. Maybe I ought to give Snyder more credit. Or maybe this
is just an accurate depiction of a shallow man.
Whatever the case, many aspects of The Road to Unfreedom will be familiar to
readers of Snyder’s earlier work, On
Tyranny. Both really
bring the pathos, though there are a few moments in Unfreedom where Snyder
suspends his somberness to mock some fascist. Despite its denser prose, The
Road to Unfreedom also has its share of pithy statements–not unlike the ones
that made On Tyranny so compelling 1. Thematically, both books examine the
importance of independent investigative journalism, the meaning of “corporeal
politic,” why/how truth can be subverted, and the effect that subversion has on
civil society. Most memorably, Snyder effortlessly applies his concepts of “the
politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity.”
It’s impressive how well those concepts explain modern history and current
events; Snyder convincingly applies them to topics ranging from Brexit to
America’s opioid crisis. I’ll be interested to see if/how/when the framing
applies here in 2022 and beyond.
Snyder sets his attention squarely on the US in the final chapter. Though it
may reflect a failure of empathy on the part of this American, I found
“Equality or Oligarchy” to be the most compelling chapter of the book. Snyder
references so much of the Russia/Ukraine unrest to explain Trump’s success.
This includes a lucid narrative of Russia’s manipulation of American public
opinion during the 2016 US presidential election (rivaling similar efforts by
The 2008 film Burn After
Reading isn’t aging so
This all makes for a compelling relief to 2016’s The Fractured
where author Yuval Levin ascribed the country’s division to “nostalgia”–a
concept which maps nicely to Snyder’s “politics of eternity.”
Plausibility, coherence, and style are all useful measures for a book like
this, but it’s maybe even more important to consider how well it describes
events that followed its publication. By explaining Trump’s ascension to the
presidency, Snyder anticipated the harrowing 2020 election 2. By explaining
the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, he anticipated the 2022 invasion 3. A
lot has happened in the three years since The Road to Unfreedom was
published, but it’s no less relevant today.
From Chapter 6, “Equality or Oligarchy” (pp. 249):
Authoritarianism arrives not because people say that they want it, but
because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.
From Chapter 6, “Equality or Oligarchy” (pp. 274-5):
The dark scenario for American democracy was the possible combination of some
shocking act, perhaps one of domestic terrorism, with an election that was
then held under a state of emergency, further limiting the right to vote.
More than once Trump mused about such a “major event.”
Ukraine, as one Izborsk Club expert wrote, “is all ours, and
eventually it will all come back to us.” According to Dugin, the annexation
of Ukrainian territory by Russia was the “necessary condition” of the
Eurasian imperial project.