THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM: RUSSIA, EUROPE, AMERICA. Timothy Snyder is a leading American historian and public intellectual, and enjoys great prominence in Europe, the subject of most of his work. He is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He speaks five and reads ten European languages.

If you prefer to listen to the interview, the podcast is here

The most recent of the many books you have written is ‘The Road To Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America’, available in paperback from April 9.  What is the point of the book?

The point is to make sense of all this hurly-burly around us. We are aware that Russia has taken a turn and has invaded Ukraine. We’re aware that there is Brexit. We’re aware that Mr. Trump has become President of the United States. We’re aware that the Internet has changed something about the way we think and act. I’ve tried to write a contemporary history of the 2010s which makes sense of it all, so that we can understand what’s happening to the rule of law, to pluralism, to the idea of human rights, to democracy, and so that we can then begin to defend the things that we think are important.

Why is it a history book?

Because I’m a historian but also because I think it’s very important for us to realize that we can make sense of things over time. One of the things that’s happening to us is that we live in this kind of eternal present, where we’re constantly bombarded by calls for our attention, or rather calls to our emotions, which makes it hard for us to think about the past and hard for us to plan for the future. I mean the book to be a sober and convincing portrayal of our present political predicament. I also mean for it to be a chance for sobriety amidst all of this chaos which is constantly going on around us.

In the book you talk a lot about Russia and the main character is Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, you say that whatever regime there is in Russia it is a country ruled by fear that has no democracy. The other European countries now have 70 years of democracy and America has always been a democratic country, so there are big differences between these blocs. For example, I don’t believe democracy is in danger in America?

Democracy is not a thing which is either in danger or not in danger the way that a person crossing the street is in danger or not in danger. Democracy is a common project, one which has only been very imperfectly achieved, and which, as the Greeks tell us, is constantly under threat, because it’s difficult. There’s nothing automatic about American democracy and without even speaking about Russia the United States has been moving away from democracy in the last five years. When it comes to Russia, the point is not that Russia stands aside from Europe and America, the point is that the U.S. and Russia and Europe are all experiencing a certain kind of globalization together, and the way to think about Russia is not as an exception or as a failure or as the absence of something, but rather as the presence of an alternative. People are used to saying that there are no alternatives, history is over, which is of course nonsense. Russia is an alternative.


Because Russia has demonstrated how you can govern from a position of extreme economic inequality, and what the technological tools are to make that seem more or less stable at home and attractive to many people abroad. Russia has been able to flip around the normal political reasoning, which says that if you have a weak economy therefore you have weak politics, and taken a weak economy and devoted relatively small resources to using the available technology. At home that’s television; abroad that’s the Internet, influencing political decisions inside other countries. Russia has found a way to govern from a basic position of total lying all the time. It’s found a way to govern from distrust, which is new in the history world as far as I can tell. It’s new to have leaders who admit that they’re lying all of the time and who say that the reason we lie is that everyone lies and that there’s no truth. The success of Russian foreign policy depends on exporting something like that to America and to the European Union. They’re not trying to teach us that they have a positive ideal, they’re trying to encourage us in our worst instincts. In other words they are trying to confirm our suspicion that maybe things aren’t as they seem, that maybe there are conspiracies, that maybe there isn’t a truth, maybe democracy is just a joke. In their interventions to help Donald Trump become President of the US or in to help Brexit pass in 2016, or for that matter in their interventions on the continent of Europe, they’re trying to spread a sense that nothing is really true.

The master story behind the book is Russia allowing itself to become a catspaw for China.”

Timothy Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

What do the Russians want?

Let’s say you had 40 billion dollars and were in charge of a hydrocarbon oligarchy, what would you want? You would probably want things to stay more or less as they are. That’s where it all starts. The elite that governs Russia wants things to be as they are, and therefore they have to explain to Russians somehow that it’s normal for there to be this absolutely catastrophic and unprecedented inequality of wealth; they have to persuade Russians that it’s normal that nobody knows who the next leader of Russia is going to be; and the only way to persuade Russia that these things are normal is to make them normal in the rest of the world, or to push in that general direction. So Russian foreign policy is purely acidic, it’s purely disintegrative, it’s truly destructive. The idea is to make Europe and America look laughable, and they’ve had a certain amount of success one has to admit. Brexit has made the United Kingdom look laughable. Mr Trump does make the United States of America look laughable, and especially with Mr Trump the external reality is actually shifting to look more like Russian reality. Mr Trump is a kind of second or third tier wannabe Russian oligarch who looks and acts and talks and behaves much the way that Russia expects people to behave.

Russia is a country that is terrified of being invaded and always had an oligarchy running the country. This is not the case in Western Europe or in the United States. Russians are not exactly like Europeans or Americans. They have a different tradition.

There’s a certain danger in imagining that we can speak of traditions as predictive or descriptive of political process. I am a historian, I believe in historical context, but I also believe in change, and I think one has to give political and practical credit to the current Russian leadership for recognizing what the new technological environment enables in politics. In 2016 Americans and British citizens found it very strange to imagine that a foreign country was actually using the technology that was familiar to them, what the Internet did, towards their internal debates. But that happened, and Russia did that, and it made a difference in the history of the world. So the point is not that Russia in the U.S. and America are exactly the same. The point is that Russia is different in a way which we hadn’t understood and that difference is calling out to people, it’s calling out to skeptics about the European Union, it’s calling out to white supremacists in the United States, it certainly calls out to Mr Trump. There’s a force at work in the world which we hadn’t understood. Of course there are deep structural differences, not just between Russia and Europe and the U.S. but also among European countries, but that doesn’t mean that Russia is not exerting a force. It’s very easy for me as an American to say, “O well, the United States is different from Russia.” But if they are so different then why is Russia is so important? How were able to exercise so much influence on us? How do we get to a world where an American President travels to an international conference in Helsinki and says, “I trust the Russian president more than I trust my intelligence services.” That’s a strange world to be in. To answer the question how we got there we have to be aware of our weaknesses.

“The whole tradition of human liberty assumes that we are unpredictable.”

What is the position of China and the Chinese empire?  Because Russia has a very big border with China, and it is a big issue in the world of today. Are the Russians playing an edge role between China and the rest of the world?

My book is a study of Russia trying to weaken the rule of law and pluralism in the U.S. and Europe. That entire subject is an element of a larger story, the story of China. What Russia has done in the last six years trying to destabilize the European Union and the United States is to do work for China which China then doesn’t have to do for itself. Russia’s weakness is that Russian leaders really like stratifications, they like dramatic things such as invading Ukraine or annexing Crimea or electing Donald Trump or messing around with Brexit. It makes them feel good about themselves and it’s like a great power, something that you see. Of course this also makes them weak. The Chinese are able to watch this and to watch Russia do what the Chinese don’t have to do, after which the Chinese aren’t blamed. The Chinese, unlike the Russians, are tactful and they think about the long term. They don’t need the gratification. The master story behind the book is Russia allowing itself to become a catspaw for China, and Russia allowing itself basically to become an instrument of China in the world order, which is a terrible mistake from the point of Russia’s own geopolitical interests because Russia is between the West and China. What it makes sense for Russia to do is to be sure to always pivot from one to the other. And Russia has now made it very hard for itself to be able to pivot from one to the other by its essentially senseless attacks on the West in the last few years.

Do you think that Russia is under the hand of China and they want to be allies in order to rule the western world. Is that what’s going to happen?

The current leadership of Russia will be remembered as the geopolitical dupes of China, because the idea that China and Russia will rule the world together doesn’t make any sense. Russia is far too weak, and what it has chosen to do is to make itself weaker with respect to China, relatively speaking, by making it harder to get along with the West. The invasion of Ukraine brings nothing to Russia from a long term strategic perspective. Russian tourists could go to the Crimea before and they can go there now. There’s not a whole lot of difference. All they’ve done in invading Ukraine is break the rules which the Western order is based on since 1945, namely that you don’t invade other countries, you don’t change borders by force. Russia has chosen to break that, which puts Russia much closer to China but gets Russia basically nothing, zilcho. What Russian leaders have done is they’ve basically entertained themselves by convincing themselves that they are a superpower because they can make trouble for the West. That’s a sideshow. The real story is what Russia does with China.

How much longer will Putin last? He’s not going to be there forever.

Not very long. Much of Europe has been Democratic for a very long time, so we forget that the problem with the proper authoritarian regimes is succession. You don’t know who is going to come next, and the leader eventually peaks, which Putin has already done. I doubt his popularity will ever be as high as it was five years ago, it is cratering now, but more to the point he is a human being and can’t live forever and pretty much the entire Russian elite realizes that they’re headed for something new. They just don’t know what it is, which is the sad part, which is the dangerous part. We get captivated by the figures and we forget that the figures are mortal, but the grand advantage of democracy is that democracy as a system doesn’t have to be mortal. An individual leader, charismatic or not, is mortal. But then when he falls we are all very surprised because we’ve just gotten used to it.

Trump won’t be President forever, unless the whole thing changes?

He’d like to be though. Trump, unlike previous American presidents, has hinted on multiple occasions that there should be a coup d’état in his favor if he ever loses a presidential election. I don’t think that will happen, for one reason because the military doesn’t like him, but he does openly say that he admires leaders like Xi and Putin because they don’t have to deal with elections.

What is happening in Europe where we are living through the Gilets Jaunes in France, the amazing story of Brexit in England, populistic movements who took over Italy, right wing leaders in Hungary and Poland? It seems there is a lack of leadership, a weakness.

I share those concerns, and a good way to figure out what’s going wrong in Europe is to ask on which side Russia is intervening, because the Russians look for precisely these weak spots and they push on all of them, and that includes the Gilets Jaunes and Brexit. Europe for a very long time has told itself a fairy tale about the Second World War and about the past, and about how all one needs for peace and prosperity is to think in terms of economic pragmatism, which is just not true. What Europe distinctly lacks is an idea of the future, which is why it’s so absent in the minds of most Europeans most of the time. People associate Europe with the annoying present rather than with the future. The sell by date on its myth of origin, that is that Europe is a result of the Second World War and therefore just make sure that there’s no war again, has passed, and Europe needs another account of itself which very few people have. Macron is an exception, and Donald Tusk is an exception, but very few people are trying to provide that kind of story.  Globally, Europe has the same problems that the U.S. does or that Russia does, just to a smaller extent and they arrived later. The lack of a sense of the future is connected to the lack of social mobility. The Gilets Jaunes are partly about the sense that one can’t advance socially anymore, that one is stuck where one is. Brexit has some similar origins. Britain is one of the countries in the EU which has the greatest economic inequality, so it’s no surprise that the strangest things start to happen. In the post-communist countries, in order to become a member of the European Union you have to show how good you are, but once you’re in the European Union you have this total freedom to do more or less what you want. I wish the Europeans had reacted to Hungary much more quickly than it has, because it allowed a bad precedent to set in.

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America is a 2018 book by Timothy D. Snyder. In it, Snyder explores Russian attempts to influence Western democracies.

In the twentieth century, European democracies collapsed into fascism, Nazism and communism.

Timothy Snyder is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is a multi international award winning 2015 book by historian Timothy D. Snyder

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015) appears in twenty-four foreign editions, has been a bestseller in four countries, and has received multiple distinctions including the award of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee.

Timothy Snyder thinks that our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.

The Internet itself, although it pretends to be the future, has actually stopped the future.”

Isn’t it also due to the fact that we plunge into a completely technological world? We don’t really know where technology will go. Isn’t it also this that creates insecurity? We talk as if the world is the world of yesterday, but we are in the world of today, which is not the world of tomorrow.

It’s not clear there will be a world of tomorrow! I share a kindred concern, which is that thinking about the future requires a kind of rational thought, where you gather a sense of what’s actually happening in the world and then you consider what futures are possible and what futures are desirable. All of that is complicated mental activity which takes place in the frontal lobe of our brains. What happens with technology is, in a word, that it makes us stupid. What the Internet has done in general, and what social platforms have done particular, is drive our cerebral action away from the frontal lobe and back towards the more reptilian parts of our brain, and it does so by design. The way the Internet is supposed to work is to attract our attention by drawing up our most primitive reactions about who we are and what we think we want at that particular moment. The whole thing is driven by a positive/negative reinforcement cycle which has to do with dopamine, some of the simplest pleasure/pain type activity. The Internet itself, although it pretends to be the future, has actually stopped the future. It has stopped us from thinking about the future, it has taken up all the space for the future, and it has provided nothing in exchange for all of that space. We’re all collectively spinning our wheels. We stare at the screen and we spin our wheels and we’re going nowhere.

So what is your prediction?

Because I’m a historian I believe in contingency and we believe that one of the contingencies is unpredictable human action. One of the great concerns is finding ways to make human action more dynamic and less predictable than it currently is. One of the things which is wrong with the Internet is that it’s based on the assumption that we are predictable, or that we could be made predictable, and the more predictable we are the better that is because the easier it is for advertisers to track us and give us the ads that we need. Whereas from my point of view the whole tradition of human liberty assumes that we are in fact unpredictable. As Kant says, we are subject to the laws of physics, but not only. We actually have the ability to act out into the world on the basis of purely human research and purely human values. A lot depends upon whether we find the ways and the means to take ourselves seriously as free agents, because the things that we’ve been talking about, democracy, the rule of law, Europe, depend upon institutions which allow people to be free and to make choices for themselves. If we don’t do anything we’re heading towards some kind of digital oligarchy where people make lots of money basically surveilling our psychology, and will continue to do so, and where the hydrocarbon oligarchy of the Putins or his successors, and the Americans, will continue along with the catastrophe of global warming. That’s one possibility, but another very real possibility, and here I put all my hopes on Europe, is that we can actually get our minds around some of these things, because although the European Union day-to-day looks fragile it is the only entity which is actually dealing in a fairly serious way with the actual problems that are out there, like the technology, digital privacy, monopoly. I am hopeful that the European Union, perhaps also the United States, will find a way to make dealing with the actual problems of our time into a story of how the future could be better. The future is coming whether we want it or not, and what we have lost is our ability to think about how institutions can make it better.

Will there be a new way of doing politics?

It is very striking that the quality of leaders, with of course a few notable exceptions, just seems to go down and down and down. Partly that’s because the incentives to go into politics are so negative. You are worried that you’re going to be slaughtered by the media and that you’re not going to make any money. Underlying that is the fact that so many decisions are now made out of the hands of the human beings, which makes our leaders look weak, even when it is not really their fault. There is also the basic problem that the states are not doing some of the basic things that states are supposed to do, like for example tax. An awful lot of what should be taxed is escaping the boundary of the state, and that make states weak, but then leaders take the blame. If the American government disposed of the tax income, not only of the middle classes but also of the very rich who are not paying taxes, I think American leaders and Congress would look a lot better than they do.

A European leader like Macron has many of the values you espouse, yet the Gilets Jaunes devastate the cities and this is going on for 18 weeks. How do you look at that?

One person is not enough. He leads France and he needs European friends, but Macron is in a situation where the Italians and the Poles attack him all the time, for no particular reason. Beyond that, he needs institutions which are aiming towards the future. From a distance I am a little bit more hopeful. His idea, that you take an exceptional event like this and use it as an opportunity to ask people what they actually want, could transform into policy, and the fact that the weekends have been so horrible in Paris doesn’t mean that was a bad idea. The fact that people turn to violence is extremely regrettable, but it doesn’t mean that it’s all over. The Gilets Jaunes point to things which are problems everywhere, the lack of social mobility and the destructive force of the Internet which tends to radicalize and which tends to keep people out of the real world of compromise and discussion. But those are lessons we can learn from, so I am not hopeless.

Is there anything else you wish to say?  

One theme of the book is that there are plenty of alternatives in the world, that American and European history can turn in various directions, and that the possible futures of Europe are much darker than most Europeans recognize. Things can go much worse much more quickly than people recognize. There are a lot of things that Europeans take for granted from the last 75 years that they shouldn’t take for granted, that they could lose. At the same time, the alternatives also include a lot of positive things which people have a hard time imagining. The interesting thing about the present moment is that we’re at this kind of nexus, where there’s a much broader range of possibilities in both directions than we think, which means that the political choices that we make are much more resoundingly important than we think they are. This is the paradox of our times. Everybody feels so powerless, but in fact decisions made now, in the last couple of years of this decade, will be hugely important for the decades to come.

Do you think England will find a way?

I don’t believe that there will be Brexit. I have been saying that for three years and I’m going to keep saying it until I am proven wrong. If there is Brexit, I think Great Britain will then fall apart. England as a country will be in a very sad position, because there’s been zero thinking and zero planning for what it’s like to be England in a globalized world. England alone will have an extremely hard time, especially given the massively unrealistic expectations that the current leadership of the current ruling party seems to have, and certainly expresses to the population.  It will be one more medium sized country beaten around by forces that it hasn’t had to deal with, ever, because it has been an empire and then part of the European integration project. So I hope England doesn’t end up alone. That will be a very sad way for things to turn out.

March 19th, 2019