On April 10th, 2010 a plane filled with the Polish political elite including then president Lech Kaczyński died in a plane crash on Russian soil, en route to memorialize the previous slaughter of the Polish elite at the Katyn forest during World War II. Pilot error or Russian act of war? It’s unclear, but it was coincident with a turn to more militant populism by Vladimir Putin. “The ink of political fiction is blood” (p.45) Timothy Synder writes and the book is replete with it.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America covers events between that plane crash and the election of Donald Trump, seeing an intricately woven Russian strategy to dismember international institutions. You don’t need to be on Putin’s payroll to have a shared interest in chaos, though Synder gives some hints maybe he is. We’re replete with chaos now: Steve Bannon is weighing in on British politics and The UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage is campaigning for US Senate candidates. They couldn’t each stick to their own knitting? Where does this philosophy come from?
The books is exceptionally strong at informing the public on the recent political history of Russia. The first two thirds are a must-read to be informed about Russia today from a leading scholar of Eastern Europe whose Bloodlands (2010) is another sad-but-masterful tale of 20th century woe.
How should one understand the ironies of globalist populism? Synder sees a contest between the Russian-led “politics of eternity” with an internationalist Francis Fukuyaman “politics of inevitability.” The latter is losing.
“Eternity politicians first spread fake news themselves, then claim all news is fake, and finally that only their spectacles are real…Russia in the 2010s was a kleptocratic regime that sought to export the politics of eternity: to demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States.” (p 11)
The thesis of a “politics of eternity” and how it is implemented by practitioners are the strongest points of the book. Synder contends the philosophic base of this comes from an early 20th century Russian, Ivan Ilyin, near forgotten until revived by Putin and promoted by a group called the like-minded Izborsk Club. A globalized world is corrupting and only the ethnic- and religiously-motivated response can purify. So far, pretty solidly in the tradition of Dostoevsky. However like other fascist strands, this sense of the public community is nearly biological in addition to geographical.
“No Russian state could be built on Ilyin’s concepts. But they did help robbers to present themselves as redeemers. They enable new leaders to choose enemies and thus create fictional problems that could not be solved, such as the permanent hostility of a decadent west. The notion that Europe and America were eternal foes because they envied pristine Russian culture was pure fiction that generated real policy: the attempt to destroy the attainments abroad that Russia’s leaders could not manage at home.” (p. 35)
How does one rise to become the leader of spouting this fiction? Having a rationale from fiction for your own power. How to succeed Yeltsin? How about a television hero – or the closest thing to approximate it.
“To find his successor, Yeltsin’s entourage organized a…poll about favorite heroes in popular entertainment. The winner was Max Stierlitz…[TV character] Stierlitz was a Soviet plant…a communist spy in Nazi uniform. Vladimir Putin, who had held a meaningless post in the East German provinces during his career in the KGB, was seen as the closest match to the fictional Stierlitz.” (p. 44)
A likely planted set of bombs that killed hundreds blamed on the Chechens in 1999 enabled Putin to ride to the rescue and captivate the public. He won the following Russian election in 2000. (Following the endnotes — this account is sourced from Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia (London: Atlantic Books, 2015) which may be a very worthwhile followup.) It is tough for an American mind to understand how questions about the status of medieval Kiev could have bearing on modern politics but the lineage is well shown (and refuted.) So too is Donald Trump, “successful businessman” a fictional character supported by a “phantasmagoria, of bots and trolls.” (p. 219)
The parallels with the American experience are chilling – “If citizens can be kept uncertain by the regular manufacture of crisis, their emotions can be managed and directed.” (p. 16o) Quoting a reporter Charles Clover, “…the greater and the more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power.” (p. 163)
Road loses steam in its abstractions. It has a bizarre claim (repeatedly) that the United Kingdom and France are/were never nation-states, and chapter structure of choices like chapter 5: “Truth or Lies.” It falters badly at the end, as if the writer was playing “Telephone” ideologically with himself, by confidently drawing US public policy conclusions unconnected to the dissection of Russian politics. It goes from 21st century Kennan telegram to Democratic party platform. After hundreds of pages of worry about controlled political speech he laments the Citizens United decision and the undergraduate-who-shouldn’t-get-into-Yale worthy “In 2013 the Supreme Court found that racism was no longer a problem in the United States” (p. 253). Even if this were true it has nothing to do with the book’s thesis. Blithe equivocations that the Koch and Mercer families are also threatening oligarchs (p. 235) and the NRA is a “paramilitary” merging with government power (p. 251) is just dumb. I’d bet Synder knows more members of the Polish parliament than NRA members. It’s not worthy of his elegant dissection of the infiltration of a real paramilitary of Russians seeping into the Ukraine. He is too carried away by the political pressures of the moment.
Mitt Romney called this out in 2012, to much mockery from the sitting president who said the eighties called and wanted their foreign policy back. LOL so cool, right? The Russians in 2014 hacked the White House and Department of Defense (p.194)…and not to mention, invaded Ukraine on Obama’s watch. Is this all Trump’s fault? If not Trump, who? What is it about the globalist internationalists that so many people find unappealing? The book’s title evokes (unintentionally?) The Road to Serfdom, but believes strongly in a managed socialist Politics of Inevitability many voters rightly object to. There are many reasons to vote for Brexit that have nothing to do with the Ottoman/Russian battles for Kiev.
A more comprehensive account to explain and remedy global political upheaval is necessary. Road to Unfreedom despite its flaws should be a liberally cited source for it.