Timothy Snyder’s Bleak Vision

Zombie History

Timothy Snyder’s bleak vision of the past and present. 

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Timothy Snyder is a Yale historian whose scholarly reputation rests on his wide-ranging histories of Central and Eastern Europe. Trained at Oxford, Snyder demonstrated a capacity for research in some 10 languages and a willingness to engage with many different areas of specialization; his colorful prose increased his work’s potential appeal for nonacademic readers, as did his ability to cover large swaths of territory and time. His most important early work, The Reconstruction of Nations, mapped the development of Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian nationhood from 1569 to 1999, and was met with wide acclaim from academic reviewers.

Capitalizing on his credentials as a historian, over the past decade Snyder has positioned himself as a public intellectual, shifting from academic histories to more popular works, writing for magazines like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, and appearing often on the national and international speaking circuits. His first popular success was 2010’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which set out to tell the story of the millions of people—especially Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles—who were killed between 1933 and 1945 in the area between central Poland and western Russia. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Bloodlands offered a conceptual revision, grouping the victims of Hitler and Stalin together and arguing that the Nazi and Soviet governments spurred each other on to increased violence.

Among academics, Bloodlands was met with much praise but also with substantial criticism. The conflation of Stalinist and Nazi crimes seemed morally righteous to some but grossly reductive to others. The somewhat arbitrary temporal and geographical framework omitted important episodes of political violence in the region; by conflating Nazi and Soviet tactics, Snyder elided important differences between them—most notably that the Nazis explicitly planned to exterminate certain ethnic groups, while Soviet violence was more complex in its aims and methods, and more varied in its results. Snyder was also criticized for focusing on the intentions and actions of a select group of political leaders while giving short shrift to the many other historical forces at play, such as the actions of local governments and populations. Some critics bristled at his use of historical juxtapositions that implied connections without making clear arguments to establish them: for example, Bloodlands’ 1933 starting date, which suggested a link between Hitler’s seizure of power and the Ukrainian famine of that year.

But specialist criticism was drowned out by mainstream praise. The jacket of Snyder’s next book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, featured a blurb from Leon Wieseltier describing the author as “our most distinguished historian of evil,” and also featured praise from Henry Kissinger (whose own evils fall, apparently, beyond Snyder’s purview). Building on Bloodlands’ argument that Nazi and Stalinist violence were mutually catalytic, Black Earth offered an eccentric interpretation of the Holocaust as a phenomenon produced largely by Hitler’s ecological anxieties about food scarcity and by the Nazi and Stalinist destruction of states. For Snyder, Hitler “was not a German nationalist…. He was a zoological anarchist.” That Hitler rose to power by capturing state institutions and that the Holocaust was perpetrated with the help of technology and sophisticated organization at the level of the state did not hamper Snyder’s argument: He views the stability afforded by state institutions more as a source of “moral illumination” than as a potential basis for the legitimation of violence and repression. Black Earth went further than Bloodlands in providing a presentist moral primed for the op-ed pages: Given the threats to the global food supply posed by climate change, Snyder warned, there was a grave risk that a Nazi-like regime would rise.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a Russian-backed uprising in Ukraine’s eastern regions the same year, Snyder began to direct a considerable amount of his energy to the present, writing often about the events in Ukraine for The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. As someone with a profound knowledge of the region’s history, culture, and languages, Snyder could have provided a much-needed corrective to the glib, uninformed assessments of many of the Western politicians, pundits, and self-anointed experts who commented on the crisis. But his Manichaean vision of an ideological struggle between Russia and the West, between tyranny and freedom, led him to consistently overemphasize Russia’s “fascism” and its threat to Europe and the United States and to play down the significance of continued corruption in Ukrainian politics as well as the country’s small but forceful faction of ultranationalists.

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, Snyder’s stock as a political commentator skyrocketed. He scored a best seller with his pamphlet On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, which began as a Facebook post. On the crest of panic about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, Snyder unveiled such deathless maxims as “Defend institutions,” “Believe in truth,” “Be a patriot,” and “Make eye contact and small talk.” Though one of his “lessons” was “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does…. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet,” he launched a series of YouTube lectures, “Timothy Snyder Speaks,” on the Russian conspiracy and crisis of American democracy.

Snyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, marks the next phase in his transformation from academic historian to political commentator; it is also the apotheosis of a certain paranoid style that has emerged among liberals in Trump’s wake. The book’s cover comes complete with helpful directional indicators: “Russia > Europe > America”—the road to unfreedom is a one-way street. For Snyder, Russia is to blame for the growth of the “birther” conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, stoking the Scottish independence referendum, Brexit, the rise of the far right in various European countries, and the Syrian refugee crisis. Russia is also in cahoots with the National Rifle Association and has been sowing dissension in the United States by encouraging hostility between the police and African Americans. Putin’s “grandest campaign” of all, though, was his “cyberwar to destroy the United States of America” by “escorting” Trump to the American presidency.

Putin would no doubt love to play puppet master in American and European politics. He is certainly pleased by the international belief in his vast, malevolent power, which is helping him to create the illusion that Russia has regained its status as a global superpower, and that he is personally responsible for this restored prestige. But Snyder’s picture of Putin’s campaign to destroy America is unconvincing. Rather than building an argument based on evidence, he often cherry-picks news items to make a tendentious case, relying heavily on the kinds of leading phrases endemic to conspiratorial thinking—“Interestingly,” “It was no secret,” and “It was also noteworthy”—that serve as substitutes for genuine evidence of a causal relationship between two factors or incidents.

For instance, on refugees and the far right, Snyder tells us: “The German government announced that it planned to take half a million refugees per year. By no coincidence, Russia began bombing Syria three weeks later…. Russia would bomb Syria to generate refugees, then encourage Europeans to panic. This would help the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland, the right-wing German party], and thus make Europe more like Russia.” Snyder offers nothing to prove that Russia began bombing Syria because of the German government’s announcement, and a glance at the international news shows that Russia is far from the only country “generating refugees.” But here and elsewhere, Snyder uses coincidence to establish causation.

This kind of argumentation occurs throughout The Road to Unfreedom. “The first order of business for Russian foreign policy in the United Kingdom,” Snyder tells us at another point, “was actually Scottish separatism.” Again, he supplies no evidence whatsoever that the independence referendum was the product of Russian plotting; nor does he discuss why the Scots themselves may have conceived the idea of splitting from Great Britain. Instead, he details the Russian media’s false reports about the potential ill effects of Scotland remaining in the UK and describes Russia’s post-referendum attempts to promote the idea that the vote had been rigged. It is disturbing, of course, that Russia was trying to spread false information and sow doubt about the legitimacy of Scotland’s democratic processes; but the majority of Scottish voters rejected separatism, and the referendum results stand.

Snyder takes a similar approach to Brexit and Trump, downplaying the role of homegrown political forces and exaggerating the decisiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns. “In 2016,” he writes, “the British voted to leave the European Union, as Moscow had long advocated, and Americans elected Donald Trump as their president, an outcome Russians had worked to achieve.” But just because Russia may have desired or attempted to contribute to these outcomes doesn’t mean Russia caused them. To make that argument, one needs evidence of an organized plan of action, as well as proof that this plan exerted a decisive effect on voting behaviors.

Snyder rails against Russia’s blanket rejection of facts and objectivity and writes that Western journalists, by contrast, are “taught to report various interpretations of the facts.” But despite his many footnotes, he does not seem to follow this practice himself, even when presenting interpretations that are widely disputed by reputable scholars and journalists. This one-sidedness is particularly glaring in his depiction of Russia’s attitude toward the EU, NATO, and the United States. His book’s time frame is curiously short; he makes it sound as if Russia “turned against the European Union” in 2013, in some kind of instant about-face, because “its success might encourage Russians to think that former empires could become prosperous democracies.” But Russia’s relationship with the EU, and especially with the US and NATO, had been deteriorating for some time. Russia certainly uses these “external enemies” as foils in its domestic propaganda, but there were specific geopolitical reasons for its growing hostility, notably the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO after the end of the Cold War, as well as NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, which infuriated Russia. These factors would be clearer with a wider time frame and a fuller consideration of the actions of the West as well as those of Russia. But Snyder is unwilling to make the slightest effort to imagine that Russia might have any strategic concerns that go beyond its plot against freedom.

Snyder devotes an entire section of The Road to Unfreedom to the work of Russian philosopher and theorist Ivan Ilyin, whom he presents as the single most important influence on contemporary Russian policy. Born in 1883, Ilyin advocated at an early age for the rule of law in Russia and then for violent resistance to the Bolsheviks. He left Russia for Germany in 1922 and eventually conceived what Snyder calls a “Christian fascism” as an antidote to Bolshevism. Believing that communism had been inflicted on innocent Russia by the West, Ilyin was convinced that, according to Snyder, his brand of “fascism” would liberate Russia and turn it into the world’s hope for Christian salvation. For a time, this led Ilyin to view Mussolini and Hitler as bulwarks against civilization-destroying communism, but his refusal to disseminate Nazi propaganda caused the Nazis to ban him from employment. In 1938, he left Germany for Switzerland, where he died in obscurity in 1954.

Ilyin does have significance for Putin, who in 2005, at the behest of an Orthodox/monarchist faction of the Russian elite, ordered the transfer of his remains from Switzerland to Moscow and the repatriation of his papers from Michigan State University. Putin has quoted Ilyin in several important speeches, as have Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former deputy prime minister and Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov. In 2014, the Kremlin even sent a collection of Ilyin’s political publications—along with books by two much more famous Russian philosophers, Nikolai Berdiaev and Vladimir Soloviev—to members of the ruling party and to civil servants. But for Snyder, Ilyin is not just one of many Russian thinkers revived by Russia’s current political players; instead, he insists that “no thinker of the twentieth century has been rehabilitated in such grand style in the twenty-first, nor enjoyed such influence on world politics.”

This is an overstatement, to put it mildly. As Marlene Laruelle, a leading expert on Russian nationalism, notes, Putin has cited many other Russian thinkers far more often, and by her count has only quoted Ilyin five times. His Ilyin quotes are, moreover, hardly the radical statements of Christian fascism that Snyder would have us expect—for instance, “our country is still sick, but we did not flee from the bed of our sick mother.” Snyder comments that this remark “suggested that Putin had been reading rather deeply in the Ilyin corpus,” but it might also suggest that some assistant selected this rather generic thought for inclusion in speeches that needed the imprimatur of Russian philosophy, or a dog whistle to nationalists. Likewise, some of the aspects of Putin’s rhetoric that Snyder ascribes to Ilyin’s influence are in fact manifestations of longer-running themes in Russian political thought. In a 2012 article on the national question, Putin quoted Ilyin in reference to Russia’s supposed ability to bring peace and harmony to an ethnically and religiously diverse empire. Though expressed in Ilyin’s words, this idea is much older; it was important, for example, in rhetoric about Catherine the Great’s annexation of Crimea in 1783. (Putin’s relatively tolerant attitude toward Islam within Russia and the power he has allowed leaders like the Chechen Muslim warlord Ramzan Kadyrov do not fit with Snyder’s theory of Russia as a state influenced by “Christian fascism” and are never discussed in The Road to Unfreedom.)

Snyder also tries to attribute to Ilyin’s philosophy practices that have long been standard in authoritarian regimes, including the Soviet Union. Russian election fraud thus becomes not simply a way of keeping power while maintaining a veneer of democracy, or a return to the sham elections of the Soviet era, but rather an enactment of Ilyin’s proposal for ritual elections. Along similar lines, for Snyder, Russia’s claims that the United States—and particularly Hillary Clinton—orchestrated the 2011–12 Moscow protests are not merely a classic Soviet-style tactic of blaming internal dissent on external enemies; they are manifestations of Ilyin’s theory that elections are only an opening for sinister foreign influence. (Did Ilyin teach liberal America that the 2016 election was rigged by Putin?) According to Snyder, Ilyin’s work is “fascism adapted to make oligarchy possible”—and yet, as countless historical examples (and etymology) show, oligarchy is entirely possible without fascism, and long predates it.

This fixation on Ilyin jibes with Snyder’s tendency to focus on the influence of solitary thinkers and politicians while downplaying the power of broader social, economic, and historical forces. The flip side of the “great man” theory of history is conspiratorial thinking: the idea that all malign developments can be traced back to a cabal of bad men, or perhaps just one, pulling the strings behind the scenes. With characteristic hyperbole, Snyder writes, “Ilyin’s thought began with a contemplation of God, sex, and truth in 1916 and ended a century later as the orthodoxy of the Kremlin and the justification for war against Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States.” Leaving aside the fact that it is a gross exaggeration (and an insult to Ukraine, which is suffering terribly from a real war that has now lasted four years) to say that Russia is waging war on the EU and the US, it is laughable to say that it was Ilyin’s ideas that motivated Russian belligerence. The immediate trigger for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of course, was not Ilyin but the ouster of a Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, after months of pro-EU protests, and the imminent possibility that Russia would lose access to its naval base in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Moreover, Russia did not want to cede influence over Ukraine, with its close cultural and economic ties with Russia, to the EU and the United States, which openly sought to bring Ukraine into their orbit. One doesn’t need Ilyin to see the realpolitik at work.

A central theme in The Road to Unfreedom is an opposition between what Snyder calls the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity.” The first, embodied by the United States pre-Trump, is a linear “end of history” idea that the world is moving inexorably toward liberal democratic capitalism, and that there is thus no need to worry about the shortcomings of the existing system (such as mounting economic inequality and a feeling of disenfranchisement among ordinary people). The fatal weakness of the “politics of inevitability” is that it is incapable of taking seriously the many signs that liberal democracy is not inevitable, and that it is in fact becoming increasingly vulnerable. In Snyder’s view, this is the weakness that made Trump’s election, Brexit, and the rise of the anti-EU far right possible, and that Russia exploited.

In “the politics of eternity,” which Snyder identifies with Russia and with “fascism” in general, politics is a cycle of victimhood in which “no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do…progress gives way to doom.” Eternity politics sounds a lot like cable news: “To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present.” The great risk, in Snyder’s eyes, is that the blindness of the politics of inevitability will give way to the nihilism of the politics of eternity. This is a remarkably reductive explanatory framework, especially for a historian who built his career on the study of the intricacies and contingencies that shaped Eastern Europe.

Another kind of peril lies in the prose produced by this theory: “Eternity arises from inevitability like a ghost from a corpse,” Snyder tells us. “The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility. Eternity is another idea that says that there are no ideas.” Snyder is especially fond of inversions (“Perhaps we are slipping from one sense of time to another because we do not see how history makes us, and how we make history”; “Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliché of force and the force of cliché?”) and sentences that consist entirely of rhythmic abstractions that convey very little (“As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair”). One of his favorite images in the book is the abyss: so empty and so frightening. This gives us “Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo,” but also “Under the mistaken impression that they had a history as a nation-state, the British (the English, mainly) voted themselves into an abyss where Russia awaited.” Truly the abyss swallows up all meaning.

In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder’s conspiratorial thinking undermines his own insistence on the importance of individual responsibility. (“Do not obey in advance,” “Take responsibility for the face of the world,” and “Be reflective if you must be armed” were three more of On Tyranny’s “lessons from the twentieth century.”) His belief in a boundlessly cunning Putin, along with his desire to trace many social ills back to a single source, leads him to elide the crucial role played by voters in electing Trump or passing Brexit.

Snyder does not go so far as to say that Russia altered vote counts, but he seems intent on minimizing the role of American voters as free human beings who in some cases chose to believe, for example, that Hillary Clinton was a child-sacrificing bride of Satan. Along similar lines, Snyder discusses the Russian role—which was indeed decisive—in eastern-Ukrainian separatism but, except for a few offhand references, ignores the large numbers of disaffected eastern Ukrainians who participated in it.

Toward the end of his book, Snyder takes on the American opioid crisis, linking it to the “zombification” of Russians and Ukrainians by political propaganda. “Zombification was as pronounced in America as it was in eastern Ukraine,” he writes. “People in Portsmouth with unwashed hair and gray faces could be seen tearing the metal objects from one another’s houses, carrying them through town, and selling them for pills.” He suggests that Trump’s victory can be blamed in part on drug-induced brain changes: “Opioids hinder the development of the frontal cortex of the brain, which is where the capacity to make choices forms in adolescence. Persistent opioid use makes it harder for people to learn from experience, or to take responsibility for their actions…. The correlation between opioid use and Trump voting was spectacular and obvious, notably in the states that Trump had to win.”

This is yet another of Snyder’s abuses of correlation, and the suggestion that people addicted to opioids are brain-damaged zombies is just the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that one might have hoped such a champion of individuality and dignity would have rejected. This vision of a zombified America is also profoundly antidemocratic. Snyder’s insistence on institutions as agents of “moral illumination” makes a new kind of sense as a manifestation of mistrust in popular politics, a Hamiltonian fear of the impressionable rabble.

In a recent interview with Slate about The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder used his favorite rhetorical crutch to outline what he sees as some of the salutary effects of the Cold War:

It’s no coincidence that most of the Cold War—the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s—coincides with two very important developments: giving African Americans the right to vote and the creation of a social welfare state, plus generally the endorsement or at least the tolerance of labor unions, which allowed for wealth inequality to close. In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the gap between the top 1 percent and the bottom 90 percent was actually closing in the United States. That’s actually related to the Cold War. It’s related to the fact that the United States couldn’t allow the Soviet Union to make too much of our racial and class problems.

The Cold War did, of course, play an important role in midcentury American politics. But this notion of American politics as a game between two rival states ignores the essential role played by non-state organizers and activists. (It is especially galling that Snyder made this statement on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.) The right to vote was not given but won, at the cost of many lives and in the face of bitter opposition from much of the American political establishment. The same is true of labor rights—and of course the American labor movement, which has included many episodes of violent repression of striking workers, long predates the Cold War. In On Tyranny, Snyder counseled his readers to “Remember Rosa Parks,” who broke the “spell of the status quo” by refusing to give up her seat on a bus. But how can such acts of courage liberate the zombified public Snyder describes? What happens when conspiracy theorists insist that activists are Russian dupes? The Road to Unfreedom offers a bleak vision of politics for future activists: one in which all change comes from above, and ordinary people cannot be trusted.

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