The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
by Timothy Snyder.
Tim Duggan Books, 2018.
Hardcover, 368 pages, $27.

Reviewed by Sumantra Maitra

How did we end up here? Yale scholar and historian, Professor Timothy Snyder’s latest book attempts to explore the issues behind Russian revanchism, the rise of “illiberalism,” and Western weakness. Snyder worries that the United States may be sliding to autocracy, and has joined the “resistance.” He is not the only one. Since Britain voted to raise the drawbridge across the grey moat a cottage industry has emerged of such polemical texts, books, and op-eds, from sources including Frum, Goldberg, Ioffe, Applebaum, Boot, Mounk, and the entire editorial boards of The Economist, Washington Post, and the Financial Times. Even Francis Fukuyama has waded into the conversation, securing a book deal to explain on why his last thesis about the End of History in the Hegelian sense was proved wrong.

These varied commentators offer explanations that tend to be unsurprisingly similar. The post WWII “liberal order” is collapsing, Russia is a revisionist power determined to wreck Western unity by interfering in Europe, electing Trump, and waging wars over territory; and any nation-state that believes in a Christian, conservative, nationalist democracy, or opposes open borders, NGO activism, mass migration, and transgender rights, is by definition illiberal, and therefore evil. These accusations stand independent of society, history, cultural background, or even public opinion. “This book is an attempt to win back the present for historical time, and thus to win back historical time for politics,” thunders Snyder. He clarifies that the way forward is thus to understand the set of interconnected events, from Russia to the United States, at a time when “factuality” itself is put into question. This is, in fact, one of the predominant themes of Snyder’s sparsely sourced polemic: that facts are being abandoned for nostalgia and romanticized notions of the past.

Snyder argues that the great adventure of European integration which started in the 2000s, including the expansion of the liberal institutions, and by virtue of that, EU hegemony in the east, came to an end as Russia elected Donald Trump. “The temptation Russia offered Trump was the presidency. The temptation Trump offered Republicans was that of a one-party state, government by rigged elections rather than by political competition, a racial oligarchy in which the task of leaders was to bring pain rather than prosperity, to emote for a tribe rather than perform for all.” It seems remarkable, that for all his authoritarian tendencies, Trump has managed to gut the all-encompassing Obama-era administrative state, and seems so far either incapable or incompetent to fill up all his government and ambassadorial posts. Authoritarians, especially fascists, are usually more disciplined, adroit, and zealous to capture all the administrative apparatus. Moreover, though there was Russian interference in the election, the evidence that such interference swayed votes and resulted in Trump’s election is at best tenuous.

Snyder traces the roots of Russian revanchism to a relatively obscure philosopher named Ivan Ilyin. According to Snyder, Ilyin is Putin’s favorite philosopher and Putin, along with much of Russian ruling elite, has internalized Ilyin’s dictums. “As Ilyin saw matters, ‘the Russian nation, since its full conversion to Christianity, can count nearly one thousand years of historical suffering.’ Russia does no wrong; wrong can only be done to Russia.” Modern Russia has rehabilitated Ilyin, and Ilyin’s ideas are arguably the guiding light of the Russian political and military class. “If European states were empires, wrote Ilyin, it was natural that Russia was one and should remain one. Empire was the natural state of affairs; fascist empires would be most successful; Russia would be the perfect fascist empire.” Snyder places great emphasis on Ilyin’s role in Russian revanchism, but also discusses the similarly quirky philosophers Lev Gumilev and Alexander Dugin. Naming a specific philosopher as a causal variable behind the foreign policy of a great power is a polemical device that has been done before—far more masterfully—even though individual agency is not now taken seriously as a causal factor in international relations. Snyder also maintains this line of argument. “Like Ilyin, Putin wrote of Russian civilization as eliciting fraternity. “The Great Russian mission,” wrote Putin, “is to unify and bind civilization. In such a state-civilization there are no national minorities, and the principle of recognition of ‘friend or foe’ is defined on the basis of a common culture.” Snyder laments the Orthodox Church’s support for the Russian president’s social policies. According to Snyder, Putin offers “masculinity as an argument against democracy.”

In sum, Snyder’s central thesis is that Russia is a nationalist, hyper-masculine, reactionary great power that wants to return to an age of soft imperium and spread Christian social-conservative ideas across a postmodern, effete, liberal, and secular Europe. This is the cause of Brexit, of European disintegration, the war in Ukraine, the election of Trump, and the overall terrible misfortune of humanity.

This thesis is as simplistic as it sounds and is based purely on conventional wisdom and current liberal narrative. It also suffers from the notable disadvantages of being empirically inaccurate and wrong. It is undoubtedly true that Russia is a revanchist power adversarial to Western interests. But the reason for Russian revanchism is not a single individual leader influenced by a quasi-fascist philosopher from the previous century. The foreign policy of a great power is not determined by individuals but by interests. Russia, as a great power, has a set of interests, some of which clash with rival power centers like the EU and the U.S.

The causes of Russian aggression are also far more structural. Russian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has displayed periods of what international relations theorists call balancing and aligning phases, with a short phase of bandwagoning with the U.S. and NATO followed by a long disillusioned balancing and rivalry. This pattern is influenced by what Russia considers threats to her interest, whether territorial or naval, and is likely to continue, regardless of regime type. The narrative of the Ukraine crisis also has a significant scholarly dispute, unlike the linear story of a heroic struggle that Snyder charts. For all the talk of a Russian imperium, Snyder bafflingly never mentions an EU imperium, one that is taking the character of a true postmodern empire, aspiring to crush growing internal dissent on migration and sexual rights and inviting nationalistic backlash from not just the Christian-conservative center and east, but also increasingly from the comparatively secular north and south.

If Snyder was genuinely interested in exploring the causes of the “great Western unravelling” he would have tried to explain or falsify some alternative explanations. What has gone wrong since the heady days of the early nineties? Was there ever an actual normative liberal world order, or was there simply a hegemonic peace backed by American martial prowess that faltered as relative and aggregate power across the globe, between great powers, continued to equilibrate? In the former case, the order would ideally continue without the current hegemon. In the latter case, the imposed order was unsustainable anyway, as U.S. taxpayers cannot be expected to subsidize European security forever while EU members are permitted to focus on maintaining expansive welfare states.

What if the continuous, imperial, “intervention and invitation” foreign policy stopped resonating with common people on both sides of the Atlantic due to massive war debt, as well as incessant mass-migration from wrecked war zones? What if nationalism is simply one of the strongest social forces in the world, and the nation-state will therefore remain the fundamental actor in global politics despite attempts by imperial elites to carve a postnational world? What about the cumulative effect of crime, deviance, drugs, gang violence, and lax law and order? What if the majority of Europeans and Americans are simply tired of the last quarter century of unhinged, rootless individualism and would prefer a more socially cohesive and conservative future? Several scholars including Legutko, Hazony, and Deneen have attempted to provide alternative explanations. Snyder fails to engage with them and instead treads a well-worn linear causal road. For someone overtly lamenting the loss of facts from contemporary discourse, Snyder has himself randomly cherry-picked data and refused to acknowledge any idea that might complicate his predispositions or skewer his narrative.

This unscholarly polemic fails to offer a compelling or complete history of the forces that have brought us where we are. It is only an unfortunate monetization of hysteria, a soothing balm of conventional wisdom for a specific section of the jaded masses. It explains nothing, says nothing that we have not already heard, and should not be taken too seriously.  

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a writer for Quillette Magazine, The Federalist, NRO, and Claremont Review of Books. You can reach him on Twitter @MrMaitra.