Everything Old Is New Again

If I had to recommend a historian on the twentieth century terrors to someone who was coming new to it, I would probably choose Timothy Snyder. His Bloodlands is a masterful study of how the Nazis and Communists half destroyed Europe. The follow up, Black Earth, was derided on publication, but I think in time it will get its due as an evocation of how scarcity of food and other resources brings about the preconditions for fascism. Of course there are many other historians who write about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. But none have the compelling urgency of Snyder’s prose. He writes beautifully, even lyrically – as lyrical as anyone can write of such dark periods. In The Road to Unfreedom Snyder turns his fire on our own time.

It’s customary to look back with a rueful chuckle to 1989 and the declaration of the end of history and the years before the market crash. How naive we all were. Conventional wisdom held that people would be happy with their smartphones and their credit cards and their cheap mortgages. We forgot that there are darker passions in human history that don’t go away: disregarded, also, that the Long Boom wasn’t a boom for everyone and that millions suffered in poverty during those years. Snyder calls this complacency the fable of the wise nation: the idea that we had learned our lesson from history and that nothing more could go wrong. Another phrase of his is the politics of inevitability: ‘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.’

The Road to Unfreedom is a very macro, international book, but you can see, with hindsight of course, how its ideas work on smaller scales. Let’s look at my own country, the UK, and how it did in the book’s timeframe of the 2010s. In May 2010 a Conservative-led coalition took power here. David Cameron and George Osborne were classic inevitability politicians with a catchy narrative: ‘there is no money left’. Previous social democrat governments had run up a huge deficit with welfare programmes, and it was the job of the Tories to sort out the nation’s finances. The Conservatives went to town with a slash-and-burn programme.

Within years, the effects were visible. When I left the city of Manchester in 2013 it was a thriving metropolis with few social problems. By the middle 2010s it had food banks, tent cities and drug epidemics. Cameron and Osborne talked like liberals, but people starved. Then Cameron made his final blunder. He had been harried for years by the far right UKIP party, which sold a competing narrative of grievance and victimhood tied to Britain’s membership of the EU. By calling a referendum on Europe, Cameron believed he could call the opposition’s bluff and end the argument about identity and migration forever. Look how well it worked.

The optics would be familiar to anyone living in Putin’s Russia in the 2010s. As Karen Dawisha explains in her startling book Putin’s Kleptocracy, he rose to become Russia’s president against a background of oligarchs ripping off the country’s wealth and resources in the messy post communist years. By the time the former KGB colonel reached power, the EU had expanded eastwards. Countries that once lived under the Soviet Union acceded to a democratic bloc. For the reactionary traditionalist Putin, Russia was a pure and changeless country menaced by decadent godless Europe, with the American superpower right behind it. Putin spoke the language of traditions and values under ceaseless attack. Victimhood is essential to the authoritarian philosophy. George Orwell recognised it. On reviewing Hitler’s Mein Kampf he wrote that ‘The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.’

In Bloodlands and Black Earth, Snyder showed how totalitarian forces destroy populations. In the twentieth century they did it by dismantling the state apparatus and civil society that kept citizens safe from harm. In countries that had sovereign infrastructure, persecuted individuals had a chance to escape. In places like Poland or Ukraine, that didn’t, far more people ended up in the concentration camp or the mass grave. To defeat Europe, Snyder explains, Putin had to make it more like Russia: not an alliance of sovereign democracies but an empire ruled by strong leaders. Russia did this by encouraging puppet leaders to rise in fragile democracies, and encouraging far right nativist elements in European countries. Ukraine was the first main battleground. It was in talks to sign an association agreement with the EU as a first step towards full membership.

Russia’s preferred leader in Ukraine was President Yanukovych, a kleptocrat crass even by Putin’s standards. Reporter Shaun Walker, in The Long Hangover, describes that after the revolution, ‘There was both marvel and anger as people discovered how their leader had lived: the overwrought palatial interiors of the main residence, the garage packed with vintage automobiles, the petting zoo with ostriches and llamas in residence, and the ersatz Spanish galleon moored on the president’s private lake.’ Yanukovych vacillated over the association agreement, and his heavy-handed bumbling led to spiralling protest. Here Snyder touches on the human element of the Maidan protests: people building barricades out of snow and wooden pilings, the makeshift civil society that sprang up on the square (there were even Maidan weddings) the elderly protestors who donned their best suits before going to the demonstrations, in case government snipers killed them that night. It was a forgotten populist revolution where ordinary people risked their lives for democracy.

Putin’s circle still thought of Russia as a colony, but that doesn’t entirely explain the invasion. The Maidan was the threat of a good example in practice. The philosophy of the Russian state in the 2010s wasn’t about the rule of law or sovereignty or human rights. It was about faith and flag and the weak being enslaved by the strong. Crank ideologues of the twentieth century – Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Julius Evola – were resurrected and their ideas became surprisingly influential. (It took hard work to adapt these ideas for a modern audience. Gumilev claimed that some nations became more powerful than others because they could absorb patriotism in the form of cosmic rays. A French thinker, Jean Parvulesco, argued that everything depended on how close you were to the sea: ‘the Americans and British yield to abstract Jewish ideas because their maritime economies separate them from the earthy truths of human experience.’)

The intellectual patina of such authors was not inherited by modern Russian state propaganda, which operates like a clickbait factory. Oliver Kamm reports that ‘On March 6, two days after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the [Russian] Embassy felt so little horror at the attack or sympathy for its victims that it issued a press release condemning ‘a new phase of the anti-Russian campaign’ and called for an end to ‘the demonisation of Russia’.’ Of course you’re not supposed to believe that MI6 organised the Douma chemical attack, that the EU is run by gay Nazis, or any of the other stuff RT puts out. The point is the knowing smirk, the manufacture of liberal outrage, and the display of raw power. Crime writer Sophie Hannah defined a scary adversary as someone who will lie to you, knowing you know it’s a lie, and daring you to contradict them. Putin’s Russia is that adversary on state level.

Snyder has a blistering chapter on Donald Trump, an incompetent real estate tycoon who went to the Russian banks when he finally ran out of credit in his own country. You can debate the extent of Trump’s ties to Russia and Putin. (My edition of Red Mafiya, Robert Friedman’s 2000 book on Russian mob activity in the US, claims that the fearsome coke kingpin Vyacheslav Ivankov was eventually run to ground in a Trump condo: ‘A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organisation’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organisation office fax machine.’) Putin’s appeal to Trump was obvious anyway: a fellow authoritarian strongman who shared a love of power, and an aversion to people of colour, assertive women, free expression, and critical media. The Trump model has unlikely imitators. The Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a kindly socialist but with its antisemitism, its love of strong leaders and its dislike of uppity women and journalists, his movement is basically Trumpism with sandals.

For all that The Road to Unfreedom is a macro book, Snyder has great sympathy with ordinary Americans struggling with low incomes and economic anxiety, and highlights the inequality and oligarchism in America as much as Russia. The question is implicit: if Trump, Farage, Putin are populists, why are they so bad at delivering results for the common man? The average Trump or Brexit voter has a raw deal. Instead of a better future, they get only a lament for lost countries. They see meaningful work replaced with the gig economy and meaningful arguments replaced with culture-war spectacle. The conclusion of Snyder’s exceptional book is: people deserve better.

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