Is the Land of the Free on “The Road to Unfreedom”?

This week we talk with the author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” Timothy Snyder, about the current threat coming out of the East. He argues, in “The Road to Unfreedom,” that there’s more than greed behind Russian President Vladimir Putin – there’s also an ideology that directly targets democracy.


Democracy around the world seems under siege. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated power in an election held recently. Earlier this year Russia held its own ritualistic election Vladimir Putin won. Of course in the United States an emboldened president Trump called for an end to due process for illegal immigrants. So what’s happening and what’s the source of this stuff. We’re joined today by Timothy Snyder. Snyder is a professor at Yale and also a permanent fellow at The IWM Viena there. He directs the projects Ukraine in European dialogue and united Europe divided history. His book The Road to Freedom has just hit bookstore shelves. So thanks for joining us. My pleasure. Glad to be with you. Can we start at the very beginning. What do you mean by the road to unfreedom and how do you know that we’re on it. We think the very beginning is an important point that was in your introduction namely that democracy is not a natural state of affairs. Democracy is not like gravity it’s not just with us. There’s nothing about human nature. There’s nothing about even particularly about America or any other country which ensures that it’s going to be a democracy.


[00:02:03] Democracy is something which has to be created. You know in history with knowledge of the historical conditions with knowledge of the tendencies that are working against it which leads me to my answer your question by the road to unfreedom. I mean a particular way that we in the U.S. and also Europeans are moving away from democracy. We have taken it for granted that democracy is a natural result of things that it’s the result of there not being any other alternatives. As we’ve gotten used to saying it’s a result of the end of history after 1989. It’s the result of the free market any of these happiness oris none of which are at all true in any of these happy stories. Allow us to be complacent. They allow us to think that we don’t have to do very much. Democracy is going to be here anyway. It’s not my responsibility. And that itself that complacency that sense that time is on your side that history is working for you. You gotta do it yourself. That itself weakens democracy and that’s part of what’s going on. So in the book I call this the politics of inevitability that kind of sense which has you know a right wing very left wing variant that history is on your side. How that at a certain point gives way a shark becomes maybe it’s an election you don’t expect maybe it’s a financial crisis maybe at a personal level it’s your inability to buy a house or you losing your house.


[00:03:25] But that kind of belief that things are just going to go right fades or crashes and then it gives way to something else which in the book I call the politics of eternity the sense that there is really no future there is only the past and in the past things were better and the reason why that path has gone away is of course not my fault it’s somebody else’s fault. And politics becomes nostalgia. It’s about making America great again it’s about America First which is a 1930s slogan. It’s about cycling back into some more imagined past and it’s about blaming the people who’s. You say it is. And in this in this thing the politics of turned into the future goes away. But policy also goes away. There’s no reason to be talking about policy because of that we’re not really talking about the future and that you know that kind of politics where it’s all about the past and it’s about it’s not about the future. It’s it’s also about spectacle. It’s about crashing into our heads every day with Twitter or the Internet or you know with the news cycle so that we get so outraged that we come to agree that poor weather reporter against the politics is just about emotion it’s just about in or out of them right and wrong. And it’s not about consensus and policy in moving things forward. So that’s the road freedom from inevitability to eternity. That’s the big philosophical description of it and of course what the book does is it tries to explain how this works in Russia in Europe and of course in the UN one of the people who you mention in the book is a guy named Ivan or Yvonne éliane.


[00:04:57] And so who was he and why does Vladimir Putin admire him so much. Well thanks. Thanks for mentioning him. I start the book with Ivana Elene and it’s a riff it’s kind of a risky move because everybody thinks ideas don’t matter and suddenly philosophy doesn’t matter everyone thinks that you know right and left is fake and so on. But it’s not you know there are alternatives and the alternatives are backed by ideologies which are made up by ideologues. And it really does turn out sometimes that ideas that people have even obscure people can have a very important influence on the course of political events. They can help people consolidate things they want to do any way they can provide a source for stories that allow others to go along with them and they can make it they can make a shift of the kind that we were just talking about. So of underlings are very clearly the world’s most important politician of eternity and any of them someone to provide the theoretical basis for fascism. Is a Russian exile and exile from the Bolshevik Revolution and anti Bolshevik professionals who argued that the world that we’re in is completely flawed. Geithner was mistaken in creating it. Nothing’s really true. The only truth is gards lost unity which is can only be found somewhere in Russia. Therefore it’s okay to lie or do anything it doesn’t matter so long as it’s in the service of Russia. You can see that would be helpful for Mr. Putin is also helpful for Mr. Putin that Ulin says that you should have elections before the elections. Dusa would you agree to use me should be rituals of support where you know no competition.


[00:06:35] This but it’s a population stands to show that it understands that a leader is the leader. And thirdly what Elian does is he he turns freedom into Moylan’s it’s its upper 30s that’s freedom basically freedom means knowing your place that the nation is a kind of body which has to be restored to totality that means everybody knows which cell they are which organ they are whatever he actually talks like this. And that’s that’s very useful. That idea of the corporate political system corporate in the sense that the body is very useful in a situation like Russia where you can’t really move around very much. There isn’t the rule of law. There isn’t much social advancement. And so you have to turn politics into something which is not about forward motion but wishes about the constant victimhood. There’s no future. There’s just the constant victimhood of Russia the whole world against Russia. That just proves that Russia isn’t the world only hope and so on and so forth. Now the reason is to begin the book because there’s an important and interesting philosopher although he says it’s because Mr. Putin dug up his body and brought it back to Russia because Mr. Putin found his papers in America and brought him back to Russia. It’s because Mr. Putin cited him to a whole bunch of very important conjuncture as in his own presidency.


[00:07:47] So I tried to bring Mr. Putin back to show that ideas actually do matter and remind us what alternative look like and feel like and to remind us that they can actually be realized in a world by an important country that has an influence on your opened up an influence on us what did you do with the body. So it just gets darker and darker. So I mean did you try to be quite precise about this. You’ve Eileen died in exile in Switzerland and was had a gravestone and had a marker which was paid for by a German American woman who who also helped keep him keep him going during his life. Her name was Charlotte eyes. He was largely forgotten about in his papers were collected and published but no one really read them. But there was never a natural audience so long as the Soviet Union existed. But when the Soviet Union collapsed he was suddenly be read and the things were to be read first were a series of papers that he wrote lead in life in the late 40s early 50s under the table. Our tasks and they were specifically about how you were going to reassemble a kind of rightwing Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. So a lot of people started reading those in Russia in 1990s after the Soviet Union had collapsed in into it gained a big following then all these books were republished in Russian which has been very helpful helpful to me of course. And then he gets some point catches the attention of Mr. Putin. Now what Mr. Goodden does with the body is he is interesting example of Russian foreign policy is run anywhere. He gets an oligarch friend of his Viktor Luxembourg to pay to have body disinter it. And in reinterred in Russia. So he can say well it wasn’t actually Russian policy because you know Viktor Vekselberg did it but that’s how Russian foreign policy works.


[00:09:40] I only stress that because Viktor Hackleburg is also somebody who invested heavily in Michael Cohen in 2016 right. So this is all it’s really kind of it’s it’s it’s uncanny how you know an event like the reincarnation of the body of a Russian fascist philosopher and the padding of the wallets of Mr. comes personal attorney or done by the same person. And the reason why is uncanny is because the fallen story anyway. They brought the body back. They run the agency back because he died they brought the body to Russia and they buried it in a monastery which is which there are two interesting things to say. The first is the monastery were the place where the ashes of the victims of Soviet citizens killed by the end of the day killed by the Soviet secret police during the Great Terror were buried. There’s a great irony of others of course because they link himself with an anti Bolshevik and end and that the same thing which essentially of others monastery is it it them on a series of on a theory of Putin’s favorite Monk someone who who has tried to bring the traditions of Russian nationalism Christianity on the one hand and Soviet communism together into some kind some kind of a hole.


[00:10:50] So they the very end there and Putin goes back and lays flowers and so on and so happens I only laugh because it’s startling it’s startling to see or hear that there’s something more than personal advantage on the line or actually can I turn that into a question mark is really convenient or is éliane something that Putin was looking for and that is Putin’s own narrative or offers Putin a narrative. Yeah no I think that’s a great question because it helps us it helps us to remember what political ideas are all about political ideas are not there because they’re entirely because they just fed our story. They’re often not there entirely because we believe them they’re not there entirely because they’re convenient for us. But they simply do all of the above. And they do all the above at the same time. That’s why we need them because we can’t go through life saying. I mean let’s face it some people can like depressing and states but in general you can’t just go through life saying I’m just here to make a buck and exploit you usually have to have some kind of other story going about what you’re doing not only for other people but ok but also also for yourself. Right. I mean think of the when U.S. works we have this story about how the free market is going to automatically bring democracy which is completely wrong but it’s a good story to have because it makes you feel better about the fact that what you’re what you’re really doing is just pursuing a certain economic system. You can tell yourself the economic system is going to bring democracy to the world then you think well what I’m doing is virtuous. That’s great. So I mean I just keep that as an example. So with Mr. Putin I think your question is a very important one because these things are helpful to him as he tries to make a certain kind of turn that he needs to make in Russian politics in Iran.


[00:12:47] You know after 2010 2011 2012 he comes back to power as president again. He’s going to run Russia in the 2010s differently than in 2000 2002 had a story about efficiency even a story about law and he does intend. He knows he nothing in the crush Fisher and he knows he’s not going to govern according to law. He knows that he’s got his 40 million or whatever it is then that’s not going to change. He knows that he’s going to govern through the secret police and through his oligarch friends that’s not going to change. And so he needs to govern in a different way and to do that you know to to present a story to Russians about how you know it’s not about success it’s not about Europe it’s not about laws about prosperity it’s about virtue it’s about how Russia is good it helps to have other thinkers. It really helps not have to make that up by yourself and as you read Elian if you’re in Putin’s position if you need change Russian politics you probably find you believe it because you believe the things which are useful which are useful to you which make the world make sense both to you and the people you need to persuade. And I go slightly beyond that. I mean for Putin material convenience is not the same thing as for you and me you know. I mean if you already have all the money in the world it’s no longer about making more money right. It’s about this explaining why the world has to be the way that it is. You and I don’t have that problem.


[00:14:09] We don’t have to explain why we have our bank accounts or our mortgages or whatever. But Mr. Putin has to explain why he has all the money and nobody else does. Basically Russia has the greatest wealth inequality in the world. So he has something to explain which is different. And so what you have to explain why things are just the way they are and why they can’t change and for that you know a big dose of mysticism and of national on the side is really really comes in handy and I think I think that’s how it’s worked. And this is a story that like you say is much broader than just what’s occurring in Russia. Correct. Yeah I mean the reason why I bring Russia the reason why it starts with Russia is because they think Russia gets a certain phenomena before we do we get this politics of eternity before we do it gets to a politics of spectacle. Before we do. And then it tries to make the rest of the world a little bit more like itself. And you know the surprising thing for us is just how well that works and for the Europeans to know Russia is not attacking us with conventional weapons. Russia is not even really attacking us with some kind of ideology like it did during the Soviet Union or Russia’s doing is using tools and technologies which we invented to try to mess with our minds. Then I think five years ago I know five years ago nobody would think that could work.


[00:15:27] I mean I know this because I was trying to persuade people that it could it five years ago you know we’re America you know our brains are invulnerable and then Magrath democratic and how how could Russia stealing e-mails or or you know how could Russia using Twitter or whatever make any kind of a difference. But now we’ve wised up a little bit. Now we see that it has. But yeah I mean this story is one that begins in Russia because Russia gets to certain places first Russia. Russia has realized certain tendencies that are still incipient in Europe the United States and so the point is that you know it’s not that Russia is so alien. The point is that Russia is all that like us and that Russia is trying to make us still more like them. MARK COLVIN So how far down the road to unfreedom is the United States at this point do you think. Well I mean just to give it a little bit of perspective I think if you asked people in 2016 let’s say let’s say well let’s say you know February 2016 before Russia hacked the Democratic Party. We asked people then are we going to be separating children from their mothers. Are we going to have a president who is going to call for the end of due process. So we have a president who’s going to call and we have a presidential candidate and call for his opponent to be assassinated. Are we going to have we have an upsurge of public racism and racial violence in our country and the aim to set aside in a few examples of things that have happened in the last the last two years I think most Americans would have said no or even more strongly what they would have said it’s not possible.


[00:17:04] So a lot of things have happened with a lot of people lot weren’t passable. I mean even the election of Mr. Trump itself I think it’s fair to say most Republicans and those Democrats as of February 2016 probably thought that wasn’t possible. So a lot of things have happened that we didn’t expect to happen which means that more things can happen which we which we didn’t expect to happen. So the thing is you know that’s largely then up to us. And the reason why I wrote the book is I did as a kind of history book with all kinds of facts but also with a moralistic tone is what I wanted to get people to realize that this is our history you know not in the that Washington and Lincoln or our history that we could be proud of the way but that this is our history in the sense that it’s real. It’s really happening and we’re in it and the things that we do now are going to there are very likely to determine what comes what comes next. So we’re much farther down the road to unfreedom than I think we realize we’re much further down it than people would expect is possible. But we’re not so far down in there things can be repaired or I should really say visibility improved because if the US gets through this it’s going to get through it as a different country. We’re not going to go back you know nobody can go back to 2016. Get rid of a different country which is going to have new and unexpected virtues and new and unexpected ways of doing politics and new and unexpected forms of solidarity and so on and so forth.


[00:18:28] It can’t all be defense is going to let the people who are trained to protect American democracy also have the people who are rethinking it. So how do we get to the end of the pleasant road and not the sad and creepy road. Well I mean I think a little bit about this in the end of Rue de unfreedom and my little pamphlet Ontarians is all about us at the at the end of Rudan freedom I talk about the politics of responsibility as the antidote to both inevitability and eternity or the thing which keeps you from going from inevitability to return to be the thing that wakes you up the next you realize oh yes I’m in history I can’t control everything but I can control something and I can learn from history including the history that’s happening around me right now. What are some of those things that that I can that I can do. So I sincerely think as a story and as a humanist that the humanity that is taught history really matters and really maybe people are able to say this is right and this is wrong. And that’s what you know that’s something new to humanity or religion you need some you need some something that you have to have some way of thinking and reasoning about what’s right and what’s wrong. Is it right or is it wrong you know to be a racist. Is it right or is it wrong to take a baby away from its mother. You have to have some way of thinking about that in some way of talking about that.


[00:19:47] And you need history because we don’t have history you just get blown away by the daily news cycle the daily tweets or the daily turn of phrase the daily stand if you don’t have history and you’re just not grounded anything. And every day seems new and shocking and unexpected. You know maybe it’s for me it’s amazing that either way you have no power because you’re not rooted in anything. You can’t see any patterns. You’re just being pushed you’re being pushed around basically by the media and by the of propaganda. Every day. So I mean I think we need a history in order to have us I think history we need not just see what’s going on but it’s to gain a sense of responsibility for what’s going on and that’s that sense of responsibility we get each to a few little things. And if it’s actually the thing is now going to feel a little bit too easy but it’s not as it sounds. If we each do a few little things. It really is going to be okay. If most of us just do nothing because we think it’s it’s going to be fine or we’re doomed anyway which are the two great American ways to think about the world. You know nothing could possibly happen and that already happened. If we can avoid both of those ways of thinking I think I really do think it’s going to be okay. But it means that most of us have to do something and we’re not. We have to reach that standard yet. TIMOTHY SNYDER Thank you so much for joining us today. Well thanks for reaching out. I’m really glad we had a chance to do it. Thanks for the conversation.

[00:21:13] Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it tell everyone you know and post a review on iTunes or wherever you got this podcast you can always reach us on Twitter. We are at war underscore college and on Facebook we’re Facebook dot com slash war college podcast. We love hearing from your colleges me Jason Fields and Matthew Gault. We’ll be back next week.


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