Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian whose account of the Peloponnesian War marks the beginning of modern historiography, can be considered the patron of Timothy Snyder’s latest book. In recounting the conflict between the Delian and Peloponnesian leagues, Thucydides rejected the lies and propaganda disseminated by the leaders of both sides, seeking instead to discern and describe their real motives. Snyder has the same objectives in mind. Political and media manipulation, he believes, has obscured our understanding of the present time. In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder seeks “patterns and concepts that can help us make sense of our own time,” and to “define the political problems of the present, and to dispel some of the myths that enshroud them.”1

Snyder, an American historian and professor at Yale, has become well-known for his commentary on contemporary politics, striving not only to divine meaning in the complications and chaos of the present, but also to explain the historical roots of current phenomena. This role is, in fact, a relatively recent development. Snyder’s earlier books were concerned with more distant times. First published in 1998, Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe explored the life and work of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, a Polish philosopher and sociologist active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 The Reconstruction of Nations examined the emergence of the Central and Eastern European nations, beginning in the early modern period.3 Bloodlands, Snyder’s work on the Nazi and Soviet genocides of the 1930s and 1940s, was widely acclaimed for the scale and depth of its analysis, the incorporation of new source material in countless languages, and the author’s literary talent.4 Its successor, Black Earth, was a step towards the present day.5 Although primarily concerned with the Holocaust, Black Earth concludes with a warning that competition for food and resources arising from ecological catastrophes could see genocide occur once again.

But, above all else, it was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 that refocused Snyder’s attention on the current era. A year later, he published an essay entitled On Tyranny, in which he diagnosed the threats faced by democratic institutions and described their antecedents in the prior century.6

The Road to Unfreedom is, on the one hand, an erudite and expansive historical account that reaches back to the Kievan Rus’ in the early Middle Ages and brings to light Russian political philosophers from the early twentieth century who remain virtually unknown in the West. But it is also a political treatise, written with passion and infused with the contemporary experiences of its author.

The events described in the book are ascribed to two competing worldviews. Their point of intersection, according to Snyder, is where the most important events of recent decades can be found. Snyder labels these two worldviews the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity. The former encapsulates the outlook of most Western societies throughout the postwar era: the triumph of liberal democracy, capitalism, prosperity, European integration, and transatlantic cooperation. Snyder describes it as

the sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from the war that peace was good, and hence chose cooperation and prosperity.7

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of communism as a viable alternative ideology lent an air of triumphalism to this vision.

Americans reasoned that the failure of the communist story confirmed the truth of the capitalist one. Americans and Europeans kept telling themselves their tales of inevitability for a quarter century after the end of communism, and so raised a millennial generation without history.8

Snyder does not explicitly mention Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis, widely popular around the turn of the eighties and nineties, but these views are symptomatic of the intellectual and political difficulties that have emerged in Western democratic societies.9 Understood as the irrevocable triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, the end of history excluded the possibility of there being any real political and ideological alternatives. As a result, Western Europeans and Americans were left vulnerable when threats to their way of life appeared unexpectedly. It seemed that the lessons of the world wars, genocide, fascism, and communism had been forgotten. Little thought was given to the idea that these scourges might one day return in different guises, making use of the latest media technologies, or harnessing the policy of inevitability’s resulting emptiness, reflection, and confusion.

“The collapse of the politics of inevitability,” writes Snyder, “ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity [emphasis original].”10 Rejecting democratic pluralism and the right to choose, this is an ordered, one-dimensional vision of the world, with an unambiguous view of the enemy. “Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone,” Snyder notes, “eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.”11 The contemporary version was born in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and spread from there to other countries, first in Europe, and then the United States. An analysis of its emergence and expansion is the most important element of The Road to Unfreedom. According to Snyder, rigged parliamentary elections in 2011 and presidential elections in 2012 marked the turning point. Thereafter, Putin made no further efforts to respect democratic rules, albeit even in their flimsy Russian and post-Soviet editions, and authoritarianism gathered pace. At the same time, Putin began attempting to undermine the cohesion of the European Union by offering support for extreme-right, nationalist, and even fascist movements.

A Philosopher Reborn

The question of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US presidential campaign and potential links between Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin has been the subject of widespread coverage, not least by American media outlets and journalists. In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder takes a different approach, charting the origins and development of Putin’s policies and examining his ideological influences. The latter is a topic that is not well understood among the public in Western Europe and the United States. The key figure is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political philosopher.

Ilyin was born in 1883 to an aristocratic family in Moscow. “After the disaster of the First World War,” Snyder writes, “and the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ilyin became a counterrevolutionary, an advocate of violent methods against revolution, and with time the author of a Christian fascism meant to overcome Bolshevism.”12 In 1922, Ilyin was expelled from Russia. He continued working abroad until his death in 1954. During his time in exile, Ilyin became fascinated by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. He believed that Hitler was the savior of Russia and would also spare the world from Bolshevism.

Ilyin subsequently developed a bizarre and idiosyncratic ideology that drew upon threads from not only fascism and Nazism, but also Christianity. “A youthful supporter of the rule of law,” Snyder observes, “[Ilyin] shifted to the extreme Right while admiring tactics he had observed on the extreme Left.”13 Ilyin believed that Russia would ultimately reject and be liberated from communism. Once Bolshevism had been vanquished, he predicted that Russia, drawing upon Christian orthodoxy, would become a source of historical salvation for the rest of Europe, freeing it from decadence, liberalism, individualism, and atheism.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the work of Ilyin, long forgotten in his homeland, was finally published again in Russia. “His ideas had no effect on the end of the Soviet Union,” observes Snyder, “but they did influence how post-Soviet oligarchs consolidated a new kind of authoritarianism in the 2000s and 2010s.”14 Snyder describes how the figure of Ilyin and his ideas were reinvigorated during the early years of the Putin era.

[Ilyin] had died forgotten in Switzerland; Putin organized a reburial in Moscow in 2005. Ilyin’s personal papers had found their way to Michigan State University; Putin sent an emissary to reclaim them in 2006. By then Putin was citing Ilyin in his annual presidential addresses to the general assembly of the Russian parliament. … When asked to name a historian, Putin cited Ilyin as his authority on the past.15

Ilyin quickly became a popular figure among the Kremlin elite and Russia’s oligarchy. For the ruling class, Ilyin came to be seen as something approaching an official patron.

In early 2014, members of Russia’s ruling party and all of Russia’s civil servants received a collection of Ilyin’s political publications from the Kremlin. In 2017, Russian television commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with a film that presented Ilyin as a moral authority.16

It remains unclear just how real this apparent fascination with Ilyin’s fascist thought actually was among Putin and his inner circle, or to what degree it simply became a convenient tool for legitimizing authoritarianism and justifying the adoption of an increasingly anti-Western outlook in international affairs. Snyder does not attempt to answer this question. Instead he offers colorful portraits of the numerous figures in Putin’s orbit that have openly expressed fascist views, such as Alexander Dugin and Sergei Glazyev.

With all this in mind, it becomes much easier to understand Russia’s consistent political, financial, and propaganda support for numerous movements among Western Europe’s extreme right. These include organizations and parties with established roots in neofascism and neo-Nazism: the French Front national, recently renamed the Rassemblement national (National Rally), the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (Austrian Freedom Party). Together they share a common ideological platform that has facilitated cooperation among groups aiming to weaken democratic institutions and break away from the European Union. Snyder provides ample and persuasive evidence of direct support from the Kremlin. In short, Russian money flowed freely and was distributed widely. Leaders from the antiestablishment European right were invited and feted at the Kremlin. The television network Russia Today (RT), funded by the Russian government and broadcasting in English, became an effective means of spreading propaganda. RT, it should be noted, was a vigorous supporter of the Leave campaign during the UK’s Brexit referendum.

In mid-January 2016, state-controlled Russian broadcasters publicized a news story concerning a thirteen-year-old girl of Russian descent living in Berlin, Lisa F., who claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by migrants. The news of Lisa F.’s abduction triggered demonstrations against migrants in Berlin by Russian-Germans, the Russlanddeutsche, and anti-immigrant groups, such as the far-right Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident).

The story spread from [Channel One] across Russian television and print media, told the same way everywhere: the German state welcomed Muslim rapists, failed to protect innocent girls, and lied. On January 24, a protest organized by an anti-immigration group was covered by Russian media under the headline “Lisa, we are with you! Germans rally under Merkel’s window against migrant rapists.”17

The entire story was subsequently proven to be false. The girl had fabricated the details of an abduction to avoid getting in trouble with her family. “[A] fictional wrong was used to generate a sense of Russian victimhood,” Snyder writes, “and an occasion for the display of Russian power.”18

Intervention in Ukraine

Putin’s neo-imperial and anti-Western policies were evident in Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine during 2014. The cover that was created for Russia’s activities demonstrated both the capabilities and limitations of the Kremlin propaganda machine. Its effectiveness can be deduced from public opinion in the west, which is yet to embrace the obvious facts concerning Russian military troops entering Ukraine. Yet the Ukrainians were ultimately able to defend their independence and it was clear that a majority did not wish to become a part of Russian Eurasia, despite appeals to anti-Westernism, authoritarianism, and the fascist ideas of Ilyin.

In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder describes the paradoxes of the Russian war and propaganda machine. Against Ukraine, the Kremlin mobilized politicians and separatist forces known for their fiercely nationalistic, and even fascist views. A breakaway was envisioned for the southern and eastern areas of the country, the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Once separated from Ukraine, these two areas would combine to form Novorossiya (New Russia), which would, in turn, become a part of the Russian Federation. In an effort to discredit Ukrainian resistance, the Russian propaganda machine sought to depict anti-Russian forces as extreme nationalists, fascists, and Nazis committing war crimes on a mass scale.

For many young Russian men, the intervention in Ukraine took place in an imagined 1941, amidst the remembered glory of their great-grandfathers’ defense of the USSR from Nazi Germany. Television enforced this perspective by its constant invocation of terms associated with the Great Fatherland War. … After subsequent interventions in southeastern Ukraine, Russians made their prisoners of war march in public, imitating the humiliation parades of German soldiers Stalin had organized.19

Attempts to replicate history sometimes bordered on the farcical. “Ukrainian citizens who chose to fight on the Russian side,” Snyder recounts, “stole a World War Two–era tank from a monument. (Its engine was in working order because it had been repaired for a parade the previous year.)”20

Despite these efforts, the Russian plan ultimately failed. Thousands of mostly young Ukrainians protestors made the difference. They were prepared to fight and die for their independence, first at the Maidan square in Kiev, where they demonstrated against the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych, and soon after defending their country against the Russian invasion. Snyder’s book is written in their honor and he mentions many who died fighting for their ideals. In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder also expresses disappointment that a similar level of resistance has not been evident in Western Europe and America in response to similar but less clearly recognized challenges.

Putin failed in Ukraine, but the election of Trump as US President is widely seen as a triumph. Snyder has amassed a vast amount of information about connections between Russia and Trump’s team and the scale of Russian involvement in the presidential campaign. A special counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller, is underway and fresh revelations are being reported on an almost daily basis.21 In his book, Snyder draws attention to several connections with events in Ukraine. The first of these is widely known: Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was previously a political consultant and advisor to Yanukovych. The second is much less well known. The flag of Novorossiya bears a striking resemblance to the battle flag of the Confederate States from the US Civil War. White supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis have all been known to coalesce around the Confederate flag. Snyder points out that far-right groups in Europe, among whom the Confederate flag has proven popular, publicly supported Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.22

The Road to Unfreedom also offers clues as to why Russia and the United States have proven so fertile for right-wing extremism. According to Snyder, more attention must be paid to drastically deepening social inequalities and an increasing consolidation of power and influence among oligarchies and financial elites. Democratic institutions have become less and less reflective of the views and concerns of the general public. In relation to the US, Snyder’s analysis is not only suggestive due to the wealth of data and evidence he presents, but also extremely pessimistic.23 In winning the presidency, Trump effectively harnessed the fears of middle and lower-class white Americans, among whom there are common feelings of marginalization and frustration. Deprived of education and knowledge about the world, these groups proved vulnerable to a flood of propaganda and disinformation, which, in large part, originated from Russia.

Meddling in Poland

Poland, the largest country in the European Union, is also a country that Snyder knows very well, having spent considerable time there in the course of his work. In recent years, Poland’s democratic institutions have not only faced stern challenges from right-wing authoritarian movements, but have largely been taken over and subordinated to a single political party.

Snyder begins The Road to Unfreedom with his recollections of hearing the news about the plane crash near Smolensk on April 10, 2010. The crash claimed the lives of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, and a party of officials travelling to a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn massacre. This event marked an important turning point, not only due to the tragedy of the crash itself, but also because it became the focus of widely circulated conspiracy theories that served to diminish public confidence in the Polish ruling class and the country’s democratic institutions. Theories postulating that the president had, in fact, been assassinated on the orders of Putin energized the supporters of the right-wing Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), cofounded by Kaczyński and his brother Jarosław. The 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections were both won by PiS.

The Smolensk assassination theories may have been anti-Russian in character, but Snyder argues that they empowered domestic forces whose actions dovetailed with Putin’s interests. The result was an increasingly isolated Poland within the European Union, its democratic foundations under attack and in crisis. In arriving at this outcome, Snyder sees clear signs of Russian involvement. Although the Russian connections are not as explicit as among Trump’s associates, the available evidence is sufficient to suggest that the notion of Russian interference in Polish politics is plausible.

Antoni Macierewicz, one of the most radical PiS politicians, promoted theories about Russian involvement in the tragedy at Smolensk. During his time as the minister of national defense between 2015 and 2018, Macierewicz carried out a purge among Polish generals, canceled contracts for the supply of modern military equipment, and left the army in a state of chaos. Two new books by investigative journalists, both well documented and thoroughly sourced, describe many threads connecting people close to Macierewicz with Putin’s circle.24 We now know much more about this subject than Snyder did when he was writing The Road to Unfreedom.

Traces of Russian involvement can also be seen in the eavesdropping scandal that engulfed the ruling Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) party in 2014. Illegal recordings emerged of conversations that had taken place between leading PO politicians dining at exclusive Warsaw restaurants. “The problem was not that the tapes revealed scandals, although they did,” Snyder remarks, “but that they allowed Poles to hear how politicians speak in private. It is a rare politician who can survive his constituents knowing how he orders food or tells jokes.”25 Strongly pro-European in outlook, PO was drastically weakened by the disclosure of the tapes. The ensuing scandal was identified as a contributing factor in its defeat at the 2015 elections. As was the case with Macierewicz, the work of investigative journalists has brought to light many new details that Snyder could not have known.26

For all that, Poland does not fit neatly within Snyder’s explanations for the erosion of democratic norms in countries such as Russia and the US. The long period of economic growth that followed the fall of communism, along with an accompanying rise in the standard of living for much of the population, remains unprecedented in the country’s history. Poland has no financial oligarchy comparable to that of Russia or the wealthiest strata of US society, and social inequalities are not any worse in Poland, generally speaking, than they are in other EU member states.

The rise to power of antidemocratic and anti-European forces in Poland cannot be solely attributed to Russian meddling. Instead, it seems that cultural factors have been more important. Fatigued by modernization and unsettled by new patterns of life adopted from the West, it was the conservative majority in Poland, among whom the Catholic church remains influential, that were instrumental. At a time when Europe was experiencing a huge influx of refugees, it proved relatively straightforward to mobilize their fears.27 By contrast, the electorate in favor of liberal democracy and an inclusive civil society exhibited an alarming degree of passivity. Snyder is right to highlight the harmful implications of the policy of inevitability. The comforting belief that the status quo is inviolable and that its benefits are self-evident is a dangerous illusion.

From the arguments and evidence presented by Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom, and from the case of Poland in particular, it is the inherent fragility of democracy and freedom that is most striking. Further grounds for pessimism are the scarcity of public defenders. According to Polish sociologists, there is broad support among their countrymen for authoritarian and xenophobic politics.28 The degree of attachment to democratic values has turned out to be considerably less than it seemed just ten years ago.

Are there any reasons for optimism?

In the absence of truth, according to Snyder, democracy cannot survive. It is for this reason that the book is dedicated to reporters and invokes the work of Thucydides. In practical terms, what is really needed to safeguard the future of democracy and freedom are people ready to accept risks and make sacrifices. It is the Ukrainian protestors who are the real heroes of The Road to Unfreedom.

Translated and adapted from the Polish by the editors.

  1. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 12. 
  2. Timothy Snyder, Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). 
  3. Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). 
  4. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010). 
  5. Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015 
  6. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017) 
  7. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 7. 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3–18; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). 
  10. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 8. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Ibid., 17. 
  13. Ibid., 19. 
  14. Ibid., 42. 
  15. Ibid., 18. 
  16. Ibid. 
  17. Ibid., 200. 
  18. Ibid. 
  19. Ibid., 156. 
  20. Ibid., 156–57. 
  21. See, among others, Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti, “The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unravelling the Russia Story So Far,” The New York Times, September 20, 2018. 
  22. When reading about the Russian connections to the Trump campaign, I was haunted by another historical association. John Frankenheimer’s film The Manchurian Candidate was released in 1962 at a time when fears of communist infiltration were rife in America. The plot is centered on a former American soldier who fought in the Korean War. After returning to the US and embarking upon a political career, he turns out to be a puppet controlled by the Chinese and the Soviets. The film’s popularity proved so enduring that a remake, directed by Jonathan Demme, appeared in 2004. In the updated version, the film’s protagonist was a Gulf War veteran, and faceless corporations were depicted controlling and manipulating American democracy. 
  23. The passages of The Road to Unfreedom that examine the correlation between areas that voted for Trump and the opioid crisis are particularly depressing. During the last decade, opioid abuse has become an entrenched and escalating problem in areas such as West Virginia. The scale of the current problem and the resulting devastation is comparable to the effects of drug abuse on the black and Latin populations of American big cities during previous eras. 
  24. Tomasz Piątek, Antoni Macierewicz i jego tajemnice (Antoni Macierewicz and His Secrets) (Arbitror: Warsaw, 2017); Marcin Dzierżanowski and Anna Gielewska, Antoni Macierewicz. Biografia nieautoryzowana (Antoni Macierewicz: An Unauthorized Biography) (Social Publishing Institute Znak: Kraków, 2018). 
  25. Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan, 2018), 202. 
  26. Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, “Rosyjski ślad na taśmach (Russian Tracks on the Tapes),” Polityka 36, September 5, 2018. 
  27. See, among others analysis of sociologist and political scientist Grzegorz Ekiert, interviewed in Jacek Żakowski, “Jak traciliśmy złudzenia (How We Lost Our Illusions),” Polityka 38, September 19, 2018. 
  28. For a discussion on the sources of support for the policies of the Law and Justice party, see Maciej Gdula, New Authoritarianism (Warsaw: Krytyka Polityczna Publishing House, 2018).