On a Rocky ‘Road to Unfreedom’

April 4, 2018

Holocaust Remembrance Day dares us to consider the most agonizing question of all — what have we learned from history, and how can we prevent history from repeating itself?

One answer comes from Timothy Snyder, the Yale University history professor who reframed the conventional wisdom about the Holocaust in “Bloodlands” and contributed significantly to Holocaust studies in “Black Earth.” Now Snyder turns his attention to the profoundly dangerous world in which we find ourselves today, an era that began when the promise of emerging democracy in Eastern Europe was betrayed by a resurgent Russia under its steely strong man, Vladimir Putin.

“The twentieth century was well and truly over, its lessons unlearned,” Snyder announces in the opening pages of “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” (Tim Duggan Books). “A new form of politics was emerging in Russia, Europe, and America, a new unfreedom to suit a new time.”

Snyder first sounded the alarm about the advent of “unfreedom” in “On Tyranny,” a chapbook that collected his postings to Facebook in the days and months after the 2016 presidential election. “The Road to Unfreedom” is a book that drills down deeply into the distant past and argues that an understanding of the hard facts of Russian, Ukrainian, European and American history are “necessary to define the essential political problems of the present.”

The bitter irony at the core of Snyder’s book is that the current regime in Russia has borrowed from the very enemy that the Red Army defeated in the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is known in Russian usage. Among these borrowings, Snyder explains, was “the adaptation of fascist ideas of the 1920s and 1930s for the use of oligarchs of the 2000s and 2010s.” And it is precisely these ideas that have been put in service of Putin’s project to rebuild a greater Russia on the rubble of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the best example is Putin’s ongoing campaign against Ukraine, a country that Snyder knows well. “Rather than speaking of the Ukrainian state, whose sovereignty, territorial integrity, and borders Russia officially recognized, Putin preferred to imagine the Ukrainians as a folk scattered across the broad expanse of what he imagined as Russian territory,” Snyder explains. “If Ukrainians were simply one more Russian group (like ‘Tatars, Jews, and Belarusians’), then Ukrainian statehood was irrelevant.” Thus did Russia disregard the sovereignty of Ukraine — and its formal treaty obligations — by occupying and annexing Crimea in 2014.

When Ukrainians took to the public square in Kiev, known as the Maidan, to defend their democracy, they were smeared and slandered by Russian operatives. Snyder insists on confronting the fake news with sly humor: “One can record that these people were not fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or a Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences,” he writes.

Snyder points out that the grand scheme to weaken the Western democracies and strengthen the Russian dominance of Eurasia began first in the European Union (EU) but quickly turned to the American presidential election of 2016. “The Russian policy to destroy the EU took several corresponding forms: the recruitment of European leaders and parties to represent the Russian interest in European disintegration; the digital and televisual penetration of public discourse to sow distrust of the EU; the recruitment of extreme nationalists and fascists for public promotion of Eurasia; and the endorsement of separatism of all kinds.”

Snyder makes the case for dealings between Donald Trump and Russia that are queasy at best and probably much worse than that. “Russian gangsters began to launder money by buying and selling apartment units in Trump Tower in the 1990s,” Snyder writes. “A Russian oligarch bought a house from Trump for $55 million more than Trump had paid for it.” And Snyder insists that Trump’s Russian friends were the more calculating and successful deal-makers: “Although Americans might dream otherwise, no one who mattered in Moscow believed that Trump was a powerful tycoon. Russian money had saved him from the fate that would normally await someone with his outstanding record of failure.” The real motive of Putin and his gang, Snyder explains, was to use Trump as “the payload of a cyberweapon, meant to create chaos and weakness, as he has done.”

As he did in “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder argues that we are facing a challenge of potentially catastrophic proportions, but he refuses to despair.

Snyder urges us to heed what history teaches. “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,” he explains. Indeed, Snyder allows us to see that it is already happening: “The advisor of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last pro-Russian Ukrainian president,” he writes. “Russian tactics that failed in Ukraine succeeded in the United States.” Trump, after all, has dared to entertain the idea that, like Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China, he might serve as president for life.

As he did in “On Tyranny,” Snyder argues that we are facing a challenge of potentially catastrophic proportions, but he refuses to despair. “To break the spell of inevitability, we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others.” That’s exactly why he draws an unbroken line between the darkest events and personalities of the past and the ones that confront us in the here and now.

Timothy Snyder will discuss “The Road to Unfreedom” with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch in a program sponsored by Writers Bloc at Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, at 7:30 p.m. April 30. For tickets and information, visit writersblocpresents.com

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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