Yale history professor and the author of On Tyranny returns with a look at the rise of fascism told through the lens of Russia's evolution since the end of the Cold War, particularly Vladimir Putin's messianic drive to take down liberal democracy in Europe and the United States.
A master of analysis using multiple sources, Snyder draws on Russian, German, and other European languages as well as a wide spectrum of books and periodicals in English to make the case. His synthesis describes and documents how Putin’s agents worked with Trump’s entourage to steal the election for Trump ... Snyder calls for a politics of responsibility and virtue rather than hubristic trust that America is a predestined model of progress. His book, however, underscores the difficulty in opposing the oligarchical clans who have shaped recent politics—the Mercers (Breitbart News and Steve Bannon), Trump-Kushner, and the Koch brothers (unlimited campaign contributions) ... Snyder’s book is quite readable—its text backed by more than 50 pages of lengthy endnotes, one or two notes in multiple languages for nearly every page of text.
The road to unfreedom, as Snyder sees it, is one that runs right over the Enlightenment faith in reason and the reasonableness of others — the very underpinning, that is, of our institutions and values. Recent examples, found around the world, demonstrate both how important conventions and mutual respect are as a way of maintaining order and civility — and how easily and carelessly they can be smashed ... Snyder makes a valuable distinction between the narratives of inevitability and those of eternity. The former are like Marxism or faith in the triumph of the free market: They say that history is moving inexorably toward a clear end. The latter do not see progress but an endless cycle of humiliation, death and rebirth that repeats itself ... Liberal democracy is being undermined from within, but not only from within. In addition to the general malaise Snyder identifies, The Road to Unfreedom also points to human agency — in particular that of Vladimir Putin ... So what can the concerned citizen do about the decay in our public life? We must, Snyder says, keep digging for the facts and exposing falsehoods.
Snyder structures this wildly erratic book around a contrast between what he calls the 'politics of inevitability' (represented by neoliberal optimists in the United States and the European Union who allegedly find it impossible to imagine alternatives to what already exists) and the 'politics of eternity' practiced by certain authoritarians ... Snyder comes equipped with just the tools — an impressive knowledge of languages and a deep background in European history — that might help us make sense of his story. His description of the pro-Europe, pro-democratic Maidan Revolution in Kiev in 2014, which he witnessed first hand, is quite good. He also traces useful continuities between Kremlin disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness ... Other sections are less successful. Snyder attributes some of Putin’s most cynical acts to the Russian fascist theoretician Ivan Ilyin. I’m not quite convinced, though, that the Russian president really spends his spare time perusing philosophy — and he certainly didn’t need to read a book to come up with a plan for invading Ukraine ... I wish that he’d done a far more straightforward job of making the case.