Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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. 

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