Robert Zubrin reviews Timothy Snyder’s ‘The Road to Unfreedom’

The Statue of Liberty faces east, shining her light to the world. For many her torch is a beacon of hope. But for Vladimir Putin and his allies, its illumination is a mortal threat. Their plans to snuff it out are exposed by Yale historian Timothy Snyder in his latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Snyder begins by discussing the development of the Kremlin’s current “Eurasianist” antiliberal ideology, from Ivan Ilyin and his fellow White Russian émigrés in the 1920s down to its leading contemporary exponents, such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Glazyev, Alexander Prokhanov, and the others associated with the “Izborsk Club” think tank. “To speak of ‘Eurasia’ in the Russia of the 2010s was to refer to two distinct currents of thought that overlapped at two points: the corruption of the West and the evil of the Jews,” Snyder writes, explaining how Dugin and his cohort brought “Nazi concepts home to Russia.”

Snyder then offers a brisk tour of recent Russian history, starting with the breakdown of the Soviet Union through the post-Soviet chaos, leading to the restoration of tyranny by 2012 with the consolidation of power by Putin and his oligarchical kleptocracy.

Then, in the high point of Snyder’s book, he presents a very dramatic account of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-14, when the government in Kiev—a Kremlin-backed kleptocracy, parallel to Putin’s own—became the target of popular protests that grew into a pro-Western uprising. This revolution presented the Putinites with an existential threat, and Snyder deftly describes what they did to stop it: the annexation of Crimea, which Putin presented to his countrymen as a millenarian duty—“a mystical personal transformation, an exultant passage into eternity,” as Snyder puts it—because an ancient Rus leader supposedly also named Vladimir was baptized there a thousand years earlier.

Snyder notes that many European fascists supported the invastion of Crimea—as did many members of what has come to be called the “alt-right” in the United States: “American white supremacists Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, and David Duke celebrated Putin and defended his war, and Russia repaid them by using an approximation of the Confederate battle flag as the emblem of its occupied territories in southereastern Ukraine.” Snyder explains how the Kremlin came to organize these fascistic supporters, including the American alt-right, mobilizing them to subvert the West—both by balkanizing it and by undermining its commitment to its fundamental Enlightenment ideals. As an important example of the latter, he deals with the Donald Trump phenomenon, presenting a massive dossier of Kremlin-Trump collusion. Here’s just a taste:

Russian leaders openly and exuberantly backed Trump’s candidacy. Throughout 2016, Russian elites said with a smile that “Trump is our president.” Dmitry Kiselev, the leading man of the Russian media, rejoiced that “a new star is rising—Trump.” The Eurasianists felt the same way: Alexander Dugin posted a video entitled “In Trump We Trust” and urged Americans to “vote for Trump!” Alexei Pushkov, the chair of the foreign relations committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, expressed the general hope that “Trump can lead the Western locomotive right off the rails.” . . . The Russian media machine was at work on Trump’s behalf. As a Russian journalist later explained: “we were given very clear instructions: to show Donald Trump in a positive way, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a negative way.” The Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik used the #crookedhillary hashtag on Twitter—a gesture of respect and support for Trump, since the phrase was his—and also associated Clinton with nuclear war. Trump appeared on [Russia’s government-owned international TV station] RT to complain that the U.S. media was untruthful, which for RT was the perfect performance: its entire reason for being was to expose the single truth that everyone lied, and here was an American saying the same thing.

That point about RT’s dishonesty gets to the crux of the Putin’s fundamental dishonesty—less as a character trait than, as Snyder points out, as a tool of PR and geopolitics. The Kremlin’s strategy of simply denying that its forces were involved at all in Ukraine while it obviously had entire armored divisions engaged mystified Western observers. How can they think anyone believes them?, many asked. Snyder provides a deeply insightful answer: Putin does not think that anyone believes them, he explains. On the contrary, he knows that everyone knows he is lying. That is precisely the point. The lie is the sacrament of their faith. It is the shared degradation of lying together that unifies their herd. As Czech dissident Vaclav Havel observed decades ago (in one of the essays collected in Living in Truth), the essential foundation of any tyranny is the united dishonesty of the loyal. For a Czech shopkeeper in 1970s Prague, this might consist of hanging a sign in the window proclaiming “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” For Putin’s allies today it is asserting that the mass protests in Kiev’s Maidan square that brought down the Yanukovych regime were a “fascist coup” or that “there is absolutely not one shred of evidence of Russian support for the Trump campaign.”

The major weakness of Snyder’s book arises from the fact that he is blind to his own tribe’s failings. In his case, the tribe is that of the left. Not the hammer-and-sickle-carrying Communist left, to be sure—he has no sympathy for that movement, which he identifies correctly as being similar in its essentials and consequences to fascism. But his politics appear to be broadly aligned with the American center-left (and its international counterparts in European social democracy and the Greens). Thus, with only one notable exception—calling out Nation writers Katrina vanden Heuvel and her husband Stephen Cohen for relaying Kremlin talking points—he refrains from exposing any part of the Kremlin’s “left”-wing operations.

For example, Snyder fails to mention that Alexander Dugin’s Eurasianism envisions uniting all antiliberal movements, including not only fascism, communism, and traditionalism, but also environmentalism, and that the Kremlin has accordingly backed the European Green movement. This is a nontrivial omission, because many European countries—including Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—have massive shale oil and gas reserves that could make them independent of Russian energy blackmail, but whose development via fracking has been stopped dead in its tracks by the Greens.

And while Snyder rightly denounces Russia for shooting down a civilian airliner (MH17) with nearly 300 souls aboard, he makes no criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to avoid condemnation pending an investigation.

Nor does Snyder call out President Obama for his betrayal of America’s obligations under the Budapest Memorandum which requires the United States and the United Kingdom to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for that country giving up its nuclear arsenal. Despite its lack of Western arms, Ukraine was still winning its war against the Kremlin’s separatist surrogates until a massive surprise Russian armored offensive encircled and defeated its advancing forces. There is no way that American reconnaissance satellites could have missed observing the Russian armored concentrations prior to their attack. Yet no warning was given to Ukraine. I found in Snyder’s book no criticism, or even mention, of this foul betrayal.

Snyder points out that Kremlin intervention could have cost Hillary Clinton the narrow margin separating victory from defeat in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. That is plausible. But why was the election close enough for Kremlin subversion to make a difference? Snyder makes no serious inquiry into what Democratic policies might have opened up that party’s core industrial working-class base to Donald Trump’s entreatments. Apparently for Snyder the Democrats can do no wrong.

This is a serious problem. The Democrats created the Western alliance. If they wish to be in a position to help save it, they will need to offer American voters something affirmative, something other than exposés of Trump. Perhaps Obama’s war on fossil fuels was a bad idea. To paraphrase a famous old book that still has a few readers here and there, “For what profitteth a candidate if she wins the donations of Tom Steyer but loses the votes of the industrial Midwest.” It’s worth thinking about.

If we are going to get off the road to unfreedom, we are going to have to start living in truth.

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