I say we need this book now, but the truth is we needed it even more a while ago.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder. Penguin Random House, 368 pages, $27.
By Harvey Blume
This is the book we need right now, when, as author Timothy Snyder stresses, geopolitical influence has reversed the direction it was taking post-World War II until, over the last decade, it’s no longer a matter of liberal democracy moving east to challenge despotism, but of twenty-first century tyranny, with updated means, marching east to west, employing the techniques of info and cyber war to corrode elements of a democratic tradition that have been undefended and are vulnerable.
I say we need this book now, but the truth is we needed it even more a while ago. By now almost every source short of Fox News has caught on to the basics of this drastic change in geopolitical weather.
The consensus is that Putin had a hand in Brexit because severing the UK from the EU suits his goal of weakening Europe. And he not only commandeered what became an all out Russian invasion of the Ukraine, but disguised reality so well that many in the West were left wondering if there had indeed been any invasion at all.
Enormous amounts of time were wasted in Britain, the United States, and Europe in 2014 and 2015 on discussions about whether Ukraine existed and whether Russia had invaded it. That triumph of informational warfare was instructive for Russian leaders.
Further: Putin has encouraged and, as far as possible, exacerbated the refugee crisis, knowing its impact would be to eat at the sinews of European unity. Putin has also assisted in the revival and strengthening of despotism in Poland and Hungary. And then of course, though not all the details are known and more are forthcoming, there is no question but that Russia played a significant role in the election of Donald Trump. As Snyder puts it: “From a Russian perspective, Trump was failure who was rescued and an asset to be used to wreak havoc in American reality.”
Though the Soviet Union is gone, Soviet modes of disinformation have, if anything, gained in force and sophistication, aided and abetted by cybernetics and social media. Though not directed at achieving the overthrow of Western democracies in favor of communist utopia, they nevertheless aim at bringing about the disorientation and disintegration of the West. In this regard they have accomplished more than Soviet efforts ever did, and — with exceptions — without force of arms.
Putin does not get his guidance from the Marxist-Leninist canon, though Stalin may come in for praise now and again as a strong Russian leader. Putin’s inspirations are nationalist mystics, the likes of which have always abounded in Russia, a phenomenon that has been too little noted in the West. Snyder’s book is distinctive because it discusses these thinkers and stresses their contemporary influence on Russian policy. These are the thinkers, in short, who took over from the Marxists.
Among them is Lev Gumilev, who Snyder summarizes thus:
According to Gumilev, the genesis of each nation could . . . be traced to a burst of cosmic energy, which began a cycle that lasted for more than a thousand years. The cosmic rays that enlivened Western nations had been emitted in the distant past, and so the West was dead. The Russian nation arose from cosmic emissions on September 13, 1380, and was therefore young and vibrant.
Absurd? Nonsensical? Putin doesn’t think so, and refers to Gumilev often. But Putin’s main influence, the cosmic historian closest to his heart, is Ivan Ilyin.
Ilyin was Lenin’s contemporary but despised the Bolshevik revolution, except for its use of violence and its appreciation of voluntarism — what Lenin called a vanguard. Perhaps these affinities explain why Lenin released Ilyin from a Soviet jail and permitted him to go into exile.
Snyder provides this context:
Ilyin’s person papers had found their way to Michigan State University; Putin sent an emissary to reclaim them in 2006. By then Putin was citing Ilyin in his annual presidential addressed to the general assembly of the Russian parliament. These were important speeches, composed by Putin himself. In the 2010s, Putin relied upon Ilyin’s authority to explain why Russia had to undermine the European Union and invade Ukraine. When asked to name a historian, Putin citied Ilyin as his authority on the past.
Ilyin communicated a grand vision of history, the sort that tends, much like Marxism, to originate in Hegel. He called himself an Hegelian, a right Hegelian, who contended that Marx never got out of the “waiting room” of the dialectic. As Ilyin saw it, the world was torn and tormented not by trivialities like private property but, basically, by God himself, in the very act of creation. “When God created the world,” writes Snyder paraphrasing Ilyin, “he shattered the single and total Truth that was himself.”
Restoring that divine and total truth, as Ilyin expounded on in many books, would have been beyond the reach of fractious, fallen humanity — but for the existence of the innately innocent Russian nation. What the proletariat was to Marx, Russia was to Lenin’s opposite number, Ilyin. Russia was the redeemer nation. For Ilyin, opposition to Russian predominance in Eurasia came down to this: “The flawed world had to oppose Russia because Russia was the only source of divine totality.”
Nonsensical or not, it remains the philosophical underpinning of Putin’s vision, his justification of why Russia fights to liberate a vast landmass from the flawed states that have inhabited and encumbered it.
Snyder brings Putin’s ideological onslaught back to the United States, and to the ways in which it, by exposure to RT (Russian Today, the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel), contaminated the left.
Here is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation, speaking one week after MH17 — Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — had been downed over the Ukraine by what was incontestably a Russian weapons system. She spoke continually about a “civil war during a massive Russian military barrage from Russian territory.”
The Nation was not the only source of left opinion bamboozled by Russian finesse. So many others were duped, and remain so today. The Russian assault calls for a wrenching reassessment no less fundamental than the one we faced after 9/11, when we asked if Islam was the enemy.
The pressing question is how to face this geopolitical reassessment — that Russia is without a doubt a sophisticated enemy — without reverting to outworn, Cold War oppositions.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.