Review: The Road to Unfreedom
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 entire news organizations). The 2008 film Burn After Reading isn’t aging so well.
This all makes for a compelling relief to 2016’s The Fractured Republic, 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.”
From Chapter 3, “Integration or Empire” (pp. 93):
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.