The Road to Unfreedom

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Road to Unfreedom

DATE: 1-2pm, 5 November 2018

VENUE: Henry Jackson Society

SPEAKER: Professor Timothy Snyder

EVENT CHAIR: Dr Alan Mendoza



Good afternoon, welcome to the Henry Jackson Society, I’m Alan Mendoza the Director. We are delighted so many of you are here for a very interesting and important discussion, I think, on the Road to Unfreedom by Professor Timothy Snyder. Now, Timothy is no stranger to us, having spoken before; last on his excellent book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, which is of course I think an interesting backdrop to what you are doing in this book, given a lot of your work has been, I suppose, in the foundations of totalitarian states, and how we have succumbed in the past. And although you are not a believer that we necessarily follow the same patterns, there are of course instructive lessons, and clearly with what we’ve seen with President Putin and his activities and how those have played out into our own societies, there are challenging points.

I’m going to let obviously Timothy discuss that and tell you his thesis himself.

He is of course tremendously distinguished. He is a Richard Levin Professor of History at Yale University, a Permanent Fellow at the University of Human Sciences at Vienna.

Seven award winning books, there’s a whole selection there in terms of covering his past research interest. But I think what is particularly noteworthy about you is your willingness to get stuck into contemporary themes, and obviously as a historian, it is about applying history to today.

Please give a warm welcome to our guest who will take us through the Road to Unfreedom.


Do I have to sit down, or?

Can you hear me if I talk like this? I mean an old acquaintance, you disapprove because of the tie? An old acquaintance, from another age, a communist agitator, who once told me that you should always stand up and always speak in the language of the audience. So I’m at least standing up and I’m going to do my best as far as the language of the audience.

It is hard not to apply history to the present when the present is like this. The Untied States of America has been at the forefront of each of the four waves of democratisation, in the modern period, whether it was in the 18th century, whether it was after the First World War, whether it was after the Cold War, the United States has been moving way, admittedly on its own accord, from democracy in a fairly demonstrable way. At the same time the United States has done so, the world has done so as well.

According to Freedom House, democracy has been in decline and authoritarianism has been advancing for each of the last 12 year. I stand before you, what I take to be a historic moment. These midterm elections in the United States, these are the first elections in a very long time about the elections themselves. These elections are about whether America will be a democracy. And I don’t mean that in some kind of metaphysical sense, I mean that in a very technical sense; the United States is moving towards what people use to call with respects to Russia; a managed democracy.

The United States more than is as seen from abroad, from Europe, really is a federal system. Where what happens at the state level is incredibly important. This can move in one direction, this can move in a different direction.

In the last decade, a bit more, several of the American states have served as laboratories of managed democracy and hence, authoritarianism. These midterm elections are tests of how well that can work.

It’s not too much of a shorthand to say that Mr Trumps’ version of what happened, Mr Trump’s version of the campaign is that we run on good luck and economics, white rage and voter suppression. That’s pretty much it. Whether that will be what the Republican Party looks like in the future, and hence what the American political system looks like in the future is precisely what’s on the table.

I don’t want to drown you in the details, but I’m going to mention a few, because they’re telling.

In North Dakota, we have disenfranchised the Native American population on the grounds that they don’t have fixed addresses.

In Ohio, my home state, more than 100,000 fewer African Americans voted in 2016 than in the previous elections. Because of a law which requires you to vote in every election or else you get removed from the lists. Notice if you have a driver’s license you are not required to start your car, if you have a gun license you are not required to fire your gun; but in order to keep voting in the state of Ohio, which is probably the most important state electorally in the country, you have to vote regularly or you are removed from the rolls.

In Texas, where voters have also been purged, if you file a claim trying to get your vote back and make a mistake in it, you can be charged a crime and be sent to prison. In Georgia and Kansas, we are dealing with gubernatorial elections where the Secretary of State, the person in charge of counting the votes, is also the person running for Governor. And where in both cases, the person is chiefly known, or rather notoriously being, a suppressor of votes. In the case of Georgia the Secretary of State in question has removed two million names from the voter rolls, hundreds of names.

We are in times where, at a simple technical level, this thing called democracy is up for grabs.

We are also at a moment where it is very hard not to notice the thing that Russia’s in, to fill the gap, when enlightened discussions of laws and policies are absent.

The President of the United States, both before and after, right wing terrorist attacks against American civilians, I refer of course to the pipe-bombings and the sadly the successful murder of the Pittsburgh synagogue, the President has used tropes of Hitlerian antisemitism to describe what is actually going on. And we should be very clear about this.

The idea that George Soros, a Jewish financier, is responsible for protests, or the idea that George Soros, a Jewish financier, is responsible for people wanting to vote, or is responsible for migrant rights, or in an increasingly common trope in the U.S., is responsible for the civil rights movement, these are not new ideas. The idea that rights are universal, the notion that universalism is Jewish, comes from Mein Kampf. We are in a very strange moment of strange familiarities, where as I say, it is hard not to talk about history. The question is how?

One of my greatest convictions is; if we don’t have history, then we don’t have a future.

One of the most striking things I find about the present political climate, both in the U.S. and then in Britain, and you can correct me in the Q&A, is the futurelessness of it all.

Is it not striking that in these midterm elections, which are historical in so many ways, there is almost no discussion of policy, of any kind? It is almost entirely about identity, what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are going to be.

Or, switching over to the United Kingdom, is it not striking that in the daily depression of reading about Brexit negotiations, or about Brexit in general, there is almost no image of what the future Britain after Brexit is going to look like; or rather there are two sort of menu options; one is worse than you think, and one is not as bad as you think, but both is still really bad.

Neither of those qualify as a vision of a future.

If we think back to the 1990s or the 1980s, or the 1970s, whatever one thinks of the centre-right and the centre-left in those periods, they had visions of what the future of the country was going to look like.

I think one of the striking things about the Anglo-Saxon world, and here I think we are just ahead of everybody else on this, ahead of everybody except Russia, one of the striking things about the Anglo-Saxon world is the futurelessness of it all. And this I think goes deep, and this is where the book starts. Because, in the book…

Okay no, I have to make fun of Britain a little longer. Okay so, the futurelessness of Brexit strikes me as a very good example of what happens when you do away with history.

Because in order for there to be a future for Britain after Brexit, one has to have some notion about what Britain actually is.

And as a historian, what strikes me is a complete absence of an informed notion of what that thing Britain would be. As a historian, one looks at Great Britain and sees two stages.

There are two stages; the imperial stage, there is the European stage from the 60s, European trade becomes greater with continental Europe than with its own empire, somewhat dated from the sixties, there is the sixties forward which is the European stage.

There is no other Britain. There has never been a Britain which was not either imperial or European, it just hasn’t happened. And yet, in the discussion of Brexit, there is this notion that we are somehow going back to something. But there never was a Britain that wasn’t imperial or European. So what on earth are you going back to? And if you are not going back to anything, then where’s the vision for the future? That’s why there isn’t any, and that’s why this is all so depressing, or one of the many reasons.

This is why I begin the book with discussions of time. I am concerned in the Road to Unfreedom with the history of the last ten years or so, but I am concerned above all with making the case that history matters. That we can actually make sense of the last ten years by telling the story based on primary sources that moves through time in a forward direction and generates interpretations.

This seems like a very basic point, but it’s not. What I’m trying to claim is that the thing that comes before politics, we’ve noticed this in the US and Britain, and I will come to Russia, because Russia is the key example of this, the thing that comes before politics is how we think about time. For the last 25 years or so, in the US, UK, Europe, elsewhere, a lot of us have been captured by what I call in the book the politics of inevitability; this comes in various labels, some call it progress, some people refer to it as the end of history (inaudible). But the basic idea is, we know what the future holds, the future is like the present, just kind of more and better than the present. We don’t have to ask what’s good, because the present is good and the future is going to more good stuff that we have in the present.

We don’t have to ask what we need to do for the rule of law or democracy ourselves, because there is some kind of engine out there, let’s call it the economy, which is automatically going to generate political and ethical outcomes. These are the basic illusions of the politics of inevitability. The problem with this kind of thinking, aside from the fact that it’s wrong and it destroys history, and it coincides with the destruction of the teaching of history in the last 25 years, aside from all of that, in addition to the fact that it is wrong, the problem is that it breaks. At some point, for some reason, different reasons for different people at different places, this notion of progress is going to break. And when it breaks, it tends to break into something which in the book I call the book the politics of eternity. In other words, the future goes away entirely, time is no longer aligned to the future, instead, we deal with a series of cycles. Instead of there being a future we are sure of, the future disappears. The future is gone, replaced by cycles of threat. From migrants, from people who are sexually different, whatever it might be.

Some kind of recurring elementary threat, which turns the shape of time into a cycle, where somehow the future just disappears.

Now I’ll start with the Americans. There are a lot of Americans here, I can tell by the way you slouch. No, I can, I can. The tie tends to be a little off to the side. I haven’t even looked at myself in the mirror, I should be looking at me.

So in America, the way this works is we said history ended in 1989, communism the last alternative to liberal democracy, the free market is going to generate democracy, there’s nothing really to worry about, and by the way Silicon Valley is only going to enlighten us.

Now, those ideas were wrong and self-destructive.

Self-destructive because they removed a sense of moral agency and responsibility from democracy. Wrong, because those ideas generate, I will just be Marx for a second, generate their own contradictions.

If you think that the market is going to take care of politics, then you look away when massive inequalities of wealth and income are generated. And massive inequalities of wealth and income take away people’s ability to think about the future. When people can no longer think about the future because they no longer have social advancement, your idea of progress will stop being persuasive.

In the United States this began to happen in a drastic way after 2008. There are some very specific variants of this in the United States, such as, for example, the opioid epidemic, in which people think about time in a very cyclical way. And related to the epidemic, the fact that overall life span in the United States is going down. Which is a striking fact, it is unprecedented in the history of my country but it is also unprecedented in the contemporary sociology of the Western World. Life expectancy is going down. As a result of the deaths of people in my demographic, middle-aged white males are dragging down everybody else, basically by committing suicide and taking drugs. There’s a sign if you need one that something has gone wrong with our sense of time. Oh and by the way, just as a little detail, the strongest predictor of a Trump vote in 2016 was, do you live in a country which is in public health crisis because of opioids. That is the strongest single predictor of a Trump vote in the United States in 2016.

So in the US, that’s what the politics of inevitability looks like, and you can see obviously how it crashes.

Trump is an excellent politician of eternity. He is very good at saying we should make America great again, which of course is a way of not talking at all about the future, which he never does, wisely for him. He is a master of the politics of eternity in a second way, which is that he uses technology, daily, to tweet, but also other media, daily, to crush everyone into emotional reactions (inaudible) policy discussions.

So there is a big loop back into the 1980s or 70s, or I’m afraid often 40s or the 30s. But there is also the small daily loop, the news cycle, which prevents policy discussion by way of technology. He is able to transfer a lot of the emotion associated with the lack of a future into a new cyclical idea. The caravan of migrants, the Mexican rapists, what have you. Some kind of eternal, sexual, or some kind of eternal threat which is going to come again and again and again.

So how then does Russia come in to all of this? It’s easy to say, if you are an American, and lot of my Americans friends on the left will say this, well Russia came in and did this to us. There is truth to that view.

Other American friends, on the left, will say maybe Russia did something but you should ignore that thing that Russia did, because America also has its own problems. There is also merit in that view.

I think the way to understand this is to take both of those as truths and not necessarily in contradiction with one another.

In other words, Russia definitely did something in 2016, but the reason why Russia was able to do something in 2006 was because of the vulnerabilities that America presented.

In other words, Russia is like that friend that you don’t really want to have. Let’s say, you are having a problem, and you talk to your friend, and you confess that you have this problem and that problem and the other problem.

And your friend looks at you and says yes, you have all of those problems, that’s true, and now I’m going to do my best to make them worse.

Russia is like that friend, or Russia is like the bad doctor. The Russian diagnosis of American problems is pretty good; weird electoral system, racism, economic inequality. All of those buttons were pushed. The diagnosis, the sheet paper on the doctor’s clipboard, is very valuable. The doctor is violating a certain code of ethics, but nevertheless, the diagnosis is right.

The reason why Russia is useful about thinking about the US is not that it is so different, the reason why Russia is so useful in thinking about the US is that it represents a possible future of the United States.

In certain respects it is further along a track that we are already progressing along.

I mentioned one which is managed democracy; they are way ahead in managed democracy. But the fundamental thing has to do with the future. Russia is the homeland of futurelessness. The Russians are the main exponents and exporters of the thing that I am calling the politics of eternity. Why? Because they got to the zone of futurelessness first. How? Well, our whole Western idea that economics is going to solve political problems or that the market would automatically create democracy obviously was a farcical failure in Russia in the 1990s. We can go into the details, but Russians have very good reasons for knowing that economics doesn’t lead predictably to politics.

What happened instead was that in three ways Russia consolidated and Mr. Putin and his allies consolidated a political system in which future is impossible.

First way is hydrocarbons; as a general rule if you are a hydrocarbon oligarch, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future because the future is global warning, and you don’t want people thinking about that.  That’s true whether your name is Koch and you’re in Kansas, or whether you’re in Putin and you’re Moscow.

Second, extreme inequality of income.

According to Credit Suisse, which as you know is a radical left wing organisation, Russia is the only country in the world which has greater inequality than the United States of America. The political consequence of inequality of wealth is the lack of a future. In situation of great economic inequality, there is also no social advance, hence you somehow have to run policy, run politics without a vision of the future.

Third way is that Russia doesn’t have a future is the succession problem. Russia is a classic example of the early stages of authoritarianism; the early, sexy stages. Where, you know, the guy comes along and breaks all the rules, right.

The Trump, the Putin, the Erdogan. They come along and they break all the rules.  That’s attractive for a while, until you realise that when you’ve broke all the rules, no one knows what’s going to happen next. Which is the basic truth about Russia, which no one is allowed to say. Hence you can’t talk about the future.

Therefore what Putin was able to do, with the help of Mr. Serkov and other allies, is that you govern from futurelessness. That’s what they do.

The way you govern from futurelessnes  is you take the eternal sense of mistrust and you accept it and you export it. This is the sort of bottom line explanation of Russian foreign policy to the US.

In a situation of no future, in a situation of no trust, what do you say to your population?

What you say is yes, you don’t trust us, that is perfectly reasonable. We don’t ask that you trust us, what you ask is that you distrust everyone else as well.

So, the European Union in nonsense, Great Britain is nonsense, the law is nonsense, everything is nonsense.

That might seem ambitious, you carry out a domestic policy by way of television, you carry out a foreign policy by way of the kinds of operations which the Russians carried out vis a vis Mr Trump vis a vis Brexit and are carrying out vis a vis the European Union right now. That is, you actually try to take those foreign entities where there is the rule of law, where there is democracy, where there is factuality, and you make them into more of a joke.

Which might seem very ambitious, but it turns out to be not that hard, at least if people are in the politics of inevitability and they think everything has to go well, and they think Russia is a regional power, to quote President Obama. If you are in that mode where you think that all that matters is economics and we know what the future is going to be, then you are vulnerable to just this kind of attack. Which is what has actually happened to us. Okay, I say us and I mean the Great Britain and the European Union as well as the United States.

Let me talk briefly now about the European politics of inevitability, because there is one. The European politics of inevitability is what I call in the book the fable of the wise nation.

The European politics of inevitability says, our nations are old, our nations are wise, our nations learned from the Second World War that war is bad.

Hence, we build up a policy of economic cooperation, which has created peace and prosperity and yada yada.

This is a view of the past which the Europeans hold. Americans get to hear a lot of, because it generally ends with, this is why we are better of you. Now the thing about this, and I’m saying this not as an American but as a historian, is that that is nonsense, every word of that is complete nonsense. Your nations are not old, certainly it is very hard to find a European state that is older than the United States of America, your nations are not old, they are not particularly wise, and this whole business of learning from the Second World War is (inaudible).

Europeans learned when they lost colonial wars. Which is something different; the special thing about the Second World War is that it was a German colonial war to conquer Ukraine from the Soviet Union. The Germans were different, not because of the Second World War, but because they were the first major European power to lose a colonial war. They drew the same conclusions that other European powers later did, namely we have to build a European zone as a substitute for Empire. Hence West Germany goes first, but the Netherlands, and France and Italy and later on the United Kingdom and Spain and Portugal came along for exactly the same reason. When you lose the world, Europe is a consolation prize. There was a time where people understood this.

That later myth, that we learn from the Second World War and we like peace and so on, what that later myth has done, is that it has ensconced a view of national history in which you get to think only about Britain, only about the Netherlands, and forget about empire.

Whereas empire, to integration is the only story. There is no other story of empire and integration. That’s the only one. There is no story of Britain as a nation; not yet, maybe after Brexit there will be. I wish you luck; I doubt it. I doubt it’s going to work. I doubt Britain will survive as a nation after Brexit because there is no reason to think so. There never has been a Britain without empire or integration.

But in any event, this is your politics of inevitability. It says, the nation is wise, it has always been there, it will always been there, therefore we can say yes or no to Europe. This is not just your mistake, everybody thinks this. They think, we can just say yes or no to Europe, even though there is no evidence that the European nation state, unless you happen to be Norwegian and have huge amounts of wales or other sources of energy, there is no evidence that the European nation state can make it without either empire or Europe.

Who understands this? The Russians understand this. I don’t know how many of you were following the Russian press during Brexit. But one of the nice arguments of the Russian press was making to Great Britain was oh yes it is true, you have always made it on your own, you have always been standing alone, Great Britain has never been encumbered by your alliances, it has always been outside of everything, which is speaking to a national myth, it is not speaking to the truth.

So when Russia intervenes on the side of Leave, which it does, massively, as I’m sure you know over the internet, 20% of the Twitter conversation about Brexit originated from abroad. 0% of the British population was aware of that at the time.

That alone seems to me a very significant argument for re-running the whole thing. When Russia intervenes on the side of leave, it is doing the same thing as in the United States, playing the same trick as it is on the European continent, namely it is taking advantage of people’s own misunderstandings of their own past and weaponizing them. It is taking the politics of inevitability and pushing it towards the politics of eternity. Because Brexit, as it was run as a campaign, is the politics of eternity. It’s a loop back to a history which never existed, absent a credible future that anyone can describe.

When Russia intervenes after the Front National, with money, or Alternative for Deutschland on the internet, or helps to change Polish governments, or helps to fund Hungarian ones, or creates dozens of bogus news sites in central Europe to foment opposition to the European Union, it’s along the same logic.

It’s all helping to take people who happen to think things should in a certain way, and just nudge them towards something else, something towards the politics of inevitability.

The place where we might have noticed this all was happening, was Ukraine. Ukraine is the test that we failed; we as the West failed the test in Ukraine. Ukraine was like when the teacher tells you what the test is going to be about, and you lose the piece of paper. The analogy comes to mind because I have a 3rd grader, and every week the teacher writes on a piece of paper what the quiz is going to be about, but we don’t always have that piece of paper when we need that piece of paper.

That’s what Ukraine was like; everything that was tried out in Ukraine was then tried out in the United States, tried out in the European Union. And I mean tried out by Russia. During the Ukrainian War, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we got a taste of how the politics of inevitability are exploited, manipulated, used.

What the politics of inevitability says is, oh that’s a regional power. Barack Obama. Or systems are never changed at the margin, only at the centre. Adam (inaudible), New Yorker. Or, this is a faraway conflict of which we know little.

It’s all about somehow language, or it’s about culture, it’s about Russia speakers somehow. Let’s draw lines on a map. The Western media spent sixth months drawing lines on a map. Here are the Russian speakers, here are the Ukrainian speakers.

Now the problem with all of that, the problem with all the references to Kiev and (inaudible), and to the 18th century and the Second World War isn’t just that they were irrelevant, which they were. The problem is that they are accepting the politics of inevitability.

If you really think that the reason why there was a war in Ukraine is that the Second World War was happening again or the 18th century was happening again, or somebody named Vladimir was baptized in Kiev in the 10th century, if you even entertain those notions. Or if you really think that language causes war, if you really think that because somebody speaks Russian that means they are Russia. If you really think like that, you are imbibed in the politics of eternity. You have shown your own vulnerability.  And when I say showing vulnerability, I mean it very seriously. The techniques that Russia applied in the Ukraine are the very same techniques that Russia then applies in the European Union and the United States. In many cases, it is the very same Russian military officers, and it is the very same men and women sitting in the internet research agency in Petersburg, who are running operations in Kiev, who are running operations in Ukraine. The techniques are basically the same, total denial of obvious factual reality is one technique, when Mr Putin in the Spring of 2014 just denies that he is invading another country.

The total denial of reality, which puts journalists on the backfoot, and confuses them. Because journalists then think, the story I am going to cover is this amazing person and this amazing denial of reality. And once you make that move as a journalist, you are no longer covering the guns and the refugees and the artillery, you are accepting your job on a television show, which is to say, Mr Trump I finally got you, you lied. But that doesn’t matter. You are accepting your role.

A second technique which you see in Ukraine, you also see it in Iran, you see in a lot of places, is the targeting of vulnerabilities. So during the Ukrainian War, what you got, thanks to Russia, is that if you are on the British left, there are documented examples of this, including very important examples in the Guardian, what you got on the British left was the story that Ukrainians were all fascists, this was the Second World War etc etc. If you were on the British far right, you were told that the Ukrainian state was part of the Jewish international conspiracy, that the Ukrainian state only existed because of the Jewish oligarchs. So these two points contradict, but it doesn’t matter than they contradict, because the only true point is to rouse up opinion, so that they can crush the middle in between themselves. Which to a large extent, if you look back at your debate, is what happened. It also happened in my country. It was very different for reporters to cover the war, in part because there were very confusing narratives, which crowded out the basic truth.

Now I’m saying that because the very same guys, sitting in the very same offices in St Petersburg, were doing the exact same thing to America in 2016. They said to African Americans, trying to suppress the African American vote, Hillary Clinton is a racist. Trying to mobilise the racist vote they said Hillary Clinton loves black people. That contradicts, but it doesn’t matter, because in both cases you are aiming towards the same goal, which is the same electoral outcome.

There is a lot more to say about Ukraine, there is a reason why Ukraine is in the middle of my book, but I’m just going to cite that here as an example.

I want to make sure that we have time to talk so I’m just going to close with one conclusion, which is that I think there can be a future. I sincerely believe that we have to have history in order to have a future, because history is the thing which allows us to see time as moving in the past, into an unpredictable present that we can affect and a future which is unpredictable which we can affect. If we are trapped in these ways of thinking, which says it is all somehow going to work itself out, because of some kind of determinism. Or if we fall from there into eternity, if we think well, it’s the Muslims or the migrants or some other kind of outsider, if we fall into that, then it’s very hard to see how we have this nice thing called democracy, because democracy has two interesting features. It requires historical time. You have to think about the past to make a decision in the present about the future. And it also produces historical time, because the nice thing about democracy is that we as a collectivity get to make mistakes, blame them on someone else, and then move on and do it again. Right, which is not the most glamourous picture of democracy, I know. But to paraphrase, you know, one of your former Prime Ministers, it’s much better than the alternatives. But the seriously glamorous thing about that though is the production of historical time.

Democracy actually creates the possibility of thinking 2 years, 4 years, 5 years in the future. Which is a very good thing indeed, I’m going to stop there, thanks.



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