Things feel strange at the moment, right?
There’s Trump, and Brexit, and there’s the increase in the popularity of far right political parties across Europe — most notably in Poland, France, Turkey, Germany and the UK; and this is only with a western biased view.
It almost makes you want to go back to a simpler time, maybe the 40s or 50? Maybe a pre-1930s world would be better? Wouldn’t it?
Then there’s the Saudi Arabia stuff, which is a horror unto itself, and Syria, and the increase in migration from the middle-east to Europe. There’s so much going on that it’s impossible to give your attention sufficiently to any single thing without getting overwhelmed.
It feels as though all these things must be related; there must be some connective tissue that makes sense of these apparently isolated situations.
How can the war in Syria, where Russia bombed civilian hospitals, schools and mosques possibly be related to local politics in Germany? Is it possible that the push to the far right in Poland and Turkey is related to the invasion of Ukraine and Crimea?
Well, it turns out they just might be.
In The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder, weaves a narrative telling world history from the perspective of Russia from World War Two to the present day. In the book he pays particular attention to the war in Ukraine and the methods of psychological manipulation used by Russia to create a state of confusion and mistrust of authority both locally and internationally. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because Ukraine was — and still is — the testing bed for the same tactics used by Russia against the 2016 US elections — which lead to Trump — Brexit in the UK, and a variety of other threats across the rest of Europe.
It’s easy to get caught up in conspiracy theory. We’ve all seen Facebook posts and retweets and dubious YouTube videos of which we’re not certain of the source popping up on our newsfeeds. In Unfreedom, Snyder takes all of these things and ties them, using cited sources, nearly together and weaves a narrative thread that is as disturbing for western democracy as it is expansive.
Snyder demonstrates why this state of confusion, built through the manipulation of the media, western politicians, political parties, and the internet, works so successfully, and explains why it’s so difficult to follow and understand what’s happening.
Ever heard of Ivan Ilyin? No? Me neither, but he’s the facist philosopher that Vladimir Putin and the sphere of Russian oligarchs have based their ideology on.
Ilyin’s Russia is Putin’s Russia, where destruction is always easier than creation. Ilyin found it difficult to specify a modern institutional form a redeemed Russian would take and his unsolved problems haunt Russia’s leadership today.
If citizens doubt everything. they cannot see alternative models beyond Russia’s borders, cannot carry out sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organise for policial change. A plausible future requires a factual present.Timothy Snyder — The Road to Unfreedom
Snyder argues that Ilyin’s (and by proxy Putin’s) form of fascism cannot provide the benefits that western democracies have provided for their citizenry, and so, rather than prevent Russians turning to Europe and the US as a template, Russian oligarchs are attempting to turn the US and Europe into Russia. To create a Eurasian super state that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and the tactic used to do this is to destabilise European countries by supporting far-right candidates in those countries. It’s more than ironic that it’s western detractors, such as Nigel Farage, who acuse the European Union of attempting to build it’s own superstate, are instead empowering Russia as a result.
The book weaves a narrative thread through many of the events of the last twenty years which, when looked at alone, seem isolated occurrences, accidents almost, but when put into context create a narrative thread through recent history which gives new understanding to them and clears away the fog.
Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics.Charles Péguy
Events such as the downing of MH17, the civilian plane which was shot down over Ukraine in 2009; the health of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election; crimes apparently caused by Middle Eastern refugees migrating into Europe:
These were all clouded by Russian propaganda and still exist in the minds of much of the population with a lack of clarity, when in fact they are fully understood by experts.
It was no coincidence that Russia began bombing civilian sites in Syria the day after Chancellor Merkell announced that Germany would take a greater number of refugees. The resulting increase in refugees into Germany weaked her political position and emboldened far right parties in the country.
And, you probably remember the scathing news stories which told of “Syrian rapists” which filled the mainstream media for weeks afterwards. But what you may not remember is that almost all of these stories were complete fabrications. Their origin? Russia.
For many these news stories were just tabloid nonsense, but they had a real world affect; in the following German election far-right parties received more votes than any time since the Nazi party.
Farage and Le Pen proposed a return to a non-existent past, when Europeans lived in nation-states without immigrants. They were erternity politicians, urging their fellow citizens to reconsider the 1930s as a golden age….Never in modern history was either country a nation-state separated from the world. Thanks for the fable of the wise nation, their citizens generally did not understand their own history, and so did not appreciate the stakes of the debate about EU membership.
Because Britain and france had no modern history as nation-states, an exit from the European Union would be a step into the unknown rather than the comfortable homecoming promised by nationalism. It would mean joining Russian as the remnant of a European empire beyond the reach of European intergration. Thus Farage and Le Pen were natural partners for a Russia whose approach to history was annihilation.Timothy Snyder — The Road to Unfreedom
Take a look at the key players in the move to the right across Europe: Le Pen in France, Farage and the BNP in the UK, the political changes in Poland and Turkey, the Brexit leave movement. All of these have direct or financial links to Russian oligarchs, government, or institutions.
It’s a terrifying set of circumstances, but the book deftly ties together these events providing historical context without conspiracy theory.
There are so many political books around at the moment, and while some of Unfreedom is hard going at times, it’s the only book I’ve read that clearly outlines current political situation while providing historical context; and, more importantly, it’s the only book I’ve read recently that provides any insight on how to prevent it.
It’s been said many times that today’s international stage has more than a few similarities to the 1930s, and the rise of fascism across Europe and Unfreedom explains why it’s so important that use this historical context — our unique hindsight of history — to prevent what will inevitably come next if we fail to stop it.
The book outlines clearly the folly of sweeping political changes like Trump and Brexit, while at the same time helping us understand why these rifts occurred — not solely because of Russian interference — and why it’s more important than ever that western democracies gather together to support each other, rather than isolating themselves. It also explains how susceptible our populations are to manipulation.
Snyder makes the case that Ukraine is only Russia’s first step on a path across Europe.
In the internet and social media, we have created machines capable of manipulating entire populations of people. In the US, Snyder estimates, almost every voter in Texas saw Russian posts on Facebook, and 44% of Americans now get their news from the uncontrollable, unfiltered news feed of Facebook.
Unfreedom also explains how the damage done by the decimation over decades of the US and UK social safety net only works to support this political unreset. The lack of a public health care option in the US, the deliberate reduction of social services under the auspices of austerity in the UK, and the continued disenfranchisement of huge swathes of voters, has created a population which feels completely out of control. This is the same tactic used in Russia to shift the population to a point where they feel they have no agency, that the future cannot be changed, and as a result this creates a sentiment which causes people to, rather than want to change or cause revolution, feel that change is a hopeless cause resulting in people deciding that if they cannot improve their own situation at least someone else has greater pain than them. This is a situation that anyone in the UK, US, or Russia can empathise with.
After reading The Road to Unfreedom Europe feels much smaller, and Russia much closer.