Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Timothy Synder's Quotations

Below are a few quotations from Timothy Synder's book, The Road to Unfreedom:  Russia, Europe, America.

"The adviser of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate had been the advisor of the last Russian Ukrainian president."

"The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas."

"Life becomes a sleepwalk to a premarked grave in a prepurchased plot.

"Russia would be a centralized state as the fascist regimes of the 1930s had been.  There was one party too many.  Russia should be a zero-party state, redeemed only by a man.  Parties should exist, according to Ilyin, only to ritualize elections."

"Allowing Russians to vote in free elections, thought Ilyin, was like allowing embryos to choose their species."

"Rather than governing, the leader produces crisis and spectacle."

"Totalitarianism is its own true enemy, and that is the secret it keeps from itself by attacking others."

"Putin and his friends and allies accumulated vast wealth beyond the law, and then remade the state to preserve their own gains.  Having achieved this, Russian leaders had to define politics as being rather than doing."

"Hegel's was an appealing way of seeing our fractious world, since it suggested that catastrophe was an indication of progress."

"Nikolai Berdyaev found in Ilyin's work 'the nightmare of evil good.'"

"In the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet leaders agreed not to kill one another, which removed dynamism from politics."

"The Soviet Union that expelled Ilyin and educated Putin had a troubled relationship with time.  It lacked a succession principle and lasted only sixty-nine years."

"Workers were represented by the party, the party by the central committee, the central committee by its politburo, and the politburo usually by a single leading man."

"It was Brezhnev who proved to be Stalin's most important successor, because he redefined the Soviet attitude to time:  he buried Marxist politics of inevitability, and replaced it with a Soviet politics of eternity."

"The Bolshevik Revolution had been about youth, about a new start to be made after capitalism.  This image depended, at home and especially abroad, on the blood purges that allowed new men and women to rise through the party ranks."

"Once Soviet citizens expected no improvements from the future, nostalgia had to fill the vacuum left by utopia."

"The myth of the October Revolution promised everything; the myth of the Great Fatherland War promised nothing."

"What was, was normal.  To say otherwise in Brezhnev's Soviet Union was to be condemned to an insane asylum."

"Wild privatization was not at all the same things as a market economy, at least as conventionally understood.  Markets require the rule of law..."

"'Operation Successor,' as the challenge was known in the Kremlin, had two stages:  finding a new man who was not a known associate of Yeltsin, and then inventing a fake problem that he could then appear to solve."

"The ink of political fiction is blood."

"Democracy is a procedure to change rulers.  To qualify democracy with an adjective--'people's democracy' during communism, 'sovereign democracy' thereafter--means eliminating that procedure."

"The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional."

"Human sexuality is an inexhaustible raw material for the manufacture of anxiety."

"That year it became a criminal offense to portray Putin as a gay clown."

"Russia's real geopolitical problem was China.  But precisely because Chinese power was real and proximate, consider Russia's actual geopolitics might lead to depressing conclusions."

"The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.  Unlike China, the EU had no army and no longer border with Russia."

"Having transformed the future into an abyss, Putin had to make flailing at its edge look like judo."

"In 2012, Putin made it clear that he understood democracy as ritualized support for his person."

"Russia's own past became a foreign threat."

"In 2013, the Russian Federation proposed an alternative to integration under the name 'Eurasia:' empire for Russia, nation-states for everyone else."

"Rather than monopolizing law, the Russian state under Putin monopolized corruption."

"Because failure had to be presented as success, Russia had to present itself as a model for Europe, rather than the other way around."

"What the EU might describe as failures of governance were to be experienced as the flowering of Russian innocence."

"Using the odd word 'passionarity,' Putin evoked a special Russian ability to thrive amidst global chaos."

"Gumilev was born to an extraordinary family, and lived one of the most tragically and garishly Soviet lives imaginable."

"Joseph Stalin understood the Soviet project as self-colonization.  Since the Soviet Union had no overseas possessions, it had to exploit its hinterlands."

"One can record that these people [Ukrainian protesters] were fascists or Nazis or members of a gay international conspiracy or Jewish international conspiracy or a gay Nazi Jewish international conspiracy, as Russian propaganda suggested to various target audiences."

"Must any attempt at novelty be met with the cliche of force and the force of cliche?"

"Putin's direct assault on factuality might be called implausible deniability."

"In the Russian invasion, the strong used the weapons of the weak--partisan and terrorists tactics--in order to pretend to be the weak."

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom

Timothy Synder's The Road to Unfreedom offers a powerful critique of Russia's authoritarian regime.  Set against the backdrop of many of the events depicted in his earlier book, The Bloodlands:  Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Synder's current book suggests that Putin's regime is the heir to at least some of the insidious political traditions established by its predecessor states, the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.  Synder's critique of Putin's Russia is unremitting.  In many ways, the book resembles Hannah Arendt's classic, Origins of Totalitarianism, only Synder is content to direct his fire at antidemocratic--as opposed to fully totalitarian--tendencies in the modern world.

According to Synder, Russia isn't merely a Great Power seeking to exert its geopolitical influence over its neighbors.  Rather, Synder's Russia is actively seeking to destroy democratic politics both at home and abroad.  Synder's analysis of Russia and its allegedly nefarious influence over international relations stems in part from his belief that Russian politics are a cover for oligarchy and cronyism.  However, Synder doesn't merely argue that Russia is a corrupt, unequal, and belligerent society.  For Synder actually argues that modern Russian leaders are increasingly attracted to many of the fascist ideals outlined by Arendt and other political theorists.

Thus, Synder spends considerable amounts of time exploring the thinkers who have inspired at least some of the principle figures in Putin's government.  The common denominator among such thinkers is a belief in Russia's essential innocence and victimization at the hands of the United States, Europe, and so-called "international Jewry." The result of Russia's belief in its own innocence has been the military invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine, and the social media attacks against America and varied European countries.

While Cohen and others have argued that Russia has merely been reacting to the expansion of NATO and the European Union, Synder vigorously disputes this claim, arguing that Russia only recently turned against the West, and did so in response to no obvious new or rising geopolitical or military threat.  Synder believes that Russia turned against Europe only when it became clear that it was clearly losing the race to make its population safe, well, free, or prosperous.  With high mortality rates, and even higher rates of corruption and inequality, Russian oligarchs needed to discredit successful Western political and economic forms by mounting vigorously propaganda campaigns.

I myself remember being shocked by Russian Times' television coverage only a few years ago.  Although I expected a country to promote a positive image of itself, I couldn't imagine why Russia was investing so much time and energy to attack American and European policies and practises.
I was also shocked by the extent the Russian media service had begun to actively gloat about any and all problems European or American governments faced. Further, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union often tried to divide Europeans from their American allies.  However, the Russian Times editorial bias seemed to be geared toward treated America and its European allies as if they were all part of the same colonial conspiracy to undermine the peace and prosperity of Russia and the rest of the world.  My Tunisian-born wife reminded me that it was very normal for non-Western countries to resent America and all of the former colonial powers.  I understood this, but still wondered why Russia thought it a good idea to brazenly attack such a powerful group of countries.  It was one thing to deprecate American and Europe to its a domestic audience, but quite another to export negative propaganda to American and European audiences.  Fora time, I watched Russian Times, and subscribed to its Facebook page, in order to gain a critical perspective on American foreign policy.  Over time, however, I learned that Russian Times had no particular editorial viewpoint.  Rather, its reporters and writers tended to celebrate any American or European setback, whether that setback was experienced by governments or whole peoples. 

To be sure, Cohen has his own biases.  He certainly does believe in European-style democratic politics and social welfare policies.  But his biases seem to be based on objective economic and political facts. After all, European peoples are, relatively speaking, extremely wealthy, and, in contrast to the modern Russian experience, European governments succeed one another from time to time.  As an historian of middle Europe in the first part of the twentieth century, Synder is also somewhat biased in favor of the long-suffering Ukrainian people.  But again, his bias is rooted in the historical experience of Ukraine, which was brutalized by Nazi invasion, and Stalinist terror, and has now experienced Russian political interference, the Russian seizure of the Crimea, and the surreptitious but very real Russian invasion of Russian-speaking portions of Ukraine. 

The boldest aspect of Synder's new book its ability to set contemporary politics into a global framework.  According to Synder, Russia is actively working to support the domestic enemies of American and European democracy.  Synder repeatedly highlights the tangible connections between the Russian government and oligarchy on the one hand, and European separatists and European far-right parties--to say nothing of the Trump Administration--on the other.  It is possible that Synder overstates this case, since Russia qua Great Power may be motivated by traditional geopolitical instincts as much as it is motivated by ideological conspiracy.  Even so, Synder makes a good case that Russia's sense of victimization is overblown, and Russia is actively attempting to undermine democratic institutions in neighboring countries as well as the West.