Freedom from fear

A BBC Reith Lecture

A man rides a bicycle past the debris of Russian military machinery destroyed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in the village of Rusaniv, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Vladyslav Musiienko
Editor's note:

Fiona Hill delivered the fourth and final 2022 Reith Lecture for the BBC on the “Freedom from Fear” on November 15, 2022. Her Reith Lecture aired on December 21, 2022 and may be found on the BBC Radio 4 website.

2022 is the centenary of the BBC. It is also the 100th anniversary of the creation of the USSR from the remnants of the Russian Empire. In 1922, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks cemented power in Russia after five years of revolution and civil war, all against the backdrop of World War I and the Great Influenza. 1922 was the end of one tumultuous period and the beginning of another, an era that saw the rise of the Soviet Union and other authoritarian states, and a second outbreak of world war.

Today, we are in a similar period of turmoil. Our world is disrupted by a multi-year global pandemic, mounting climate disasters, and wracked by the fear of a nuclear conflict sparked by Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reforge the Russian empire. Since February 24, 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, we have found ourselves embroiled in what Russian President Putin has called a “Special Military Operation.” In reality, this is a full-blown war. It is the third major power conflict over territory in Europe in just over a century. And like the others before it, this war has global reverberations, threatening the energy, food, and climate security of populations far away from Europe, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The hundred-year timespan we acknowledge today, is infused with an eerie parallelism. 1914 saw the beginning of World War I when the German army invaded the “Low Countries” of Belgium and Luxembourg and then France. 2014 was the beginning of the current war in Ukraine, initiated by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March that year and the manufacturing of a conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has upended the European and global institutions that underpinned international security after World War II, governed relations among states, and prevented great power conflict during the Cold War. Just as Adolf Hitler seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, annexed Austria and invaded Poland in the late 1930s, overturning the post-World War I order, Vladimir Putin has repudiated and violated international norms and agreements. This includes guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial integrity that Russia itself undertook together with the United States and the United Kingdom in 1994.

To “restore” or establish peace again, we will have to come up with some new security arrangements. But, in the meantime, we are at war.

Modern war is fought by a range of means, not just by military forces. It is fought with economic measures, financial sanctions, cyber-attacks, political influence operations, disinformation, and propaganda. Nonetheless, the trench warfare of World War I has its analogues in trenches on the frontlines in Ukraine. Plenty of heavy weapons, men and ammunition have gone to the front. There are high levels of violence. And like the invading German armies of the two previous world wars, Russia has laid waste to Ukrainian cities, towns, and villages. Its military has committed atrocities against civilians. Both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides have incurred significant casualties. Their political rhetoric is increasingly zero-sum, win or lose, with nothing in between. On September 30, 2022, in a speech announcing Russia’s annexation of still-four contested Ukrainian regions: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly declared war on the West.

Putin’s annexation speech also evoked parallels between 1922 and 2022. Putin has said his invasion of Ukraine was necessary to right a historical wrong, correct a mistake made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks when they created a separate Ukrainian socialist republic as part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Ukraine, Putin claims, is a state that should never have existed. And so, Putin is forcing Europe to go back in time. He will now try to make sure that Ukraine is erased from the map.

In another unsettling echo of those times, the stories of Russian soldiers on the battlefield in Ukraine, captured on their phones by Ukrainian military intercepts as they talked to their families, align with the tales of Russian soldiers talking to each other and terrorizing Ukrainian civilians during the Russian civil war in the 1920s. These earlier discussions and exploits were captured by an astute observer of that period, the celebrated Russian writer, Isaac Babel, who was embedded with the revolutionary troops. He recounted them in his famous collection of short stories, “Red Cavalry.”

In these parallel accounts of the 2020s and 1920s, time loops back on itself. Perhaps it even stands still. Or, more likely, the violent patterns of men simply persist, and the fears they engender. Fear has always been a weapon of war as well as a political commodity.

In waging his war in Ukraine, Putin has raised anew the age-old fear of the end of the world, not just the biblical Apocalypse, but the literal end of the world in a nuclear cataclysm. After more than 70 years of the world renouncing the use of nuclear weapons, Putin has threatened the use of one on the battlefield, citing the precedent of the United States detonating atomic weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Putin says he may resort to a nuclear response if Ukraine retakes territory annexed by Russia since 2014.

“Nuclear Armageddon” is emblazoned in newspaper headlines, discussed in political gatherings, featured in academic reports, and provoking nightmares. Ordinary citizens in Europe are stockpiling iodine tables and scoping out Cold War-era fallout shelters. In one report from Rutgers University in the United States, researchers predicted that 5 billion worldwide could starve in the wake of a nuclear conflict between Russia and America. because of the catastrophic disruption of global food supplies.

Vladimir Putin has transformed himself into the much-feared, biblical “four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” In this instance, he is one pale, bare-chested rider, as he was often photographed by Kremlin propagandists during staged “action” holidays in Siberia, but now he’s carrying the banner of a war of conquest in Ukraine, and of a nuclear holocaust that will bring global famine and death in the wake of the coronavirus pestilence.

Putin’s goals in conjuring the Apocalypse are not biblical. They are base and tactical. Russia is not like the United States in the Second World War, seeking to end a brutal, devastating multi-year war in Asia that Japan began. Nor is Putin even pursuing the Soviet Union’s Cold War aim to uphold deterrence and prevent a ruinous superpower conflict by reviving the fear of mutually assured destruction. Putin is not seeking to maintain great power nuclear parity nor strategic stability with the United States. There has been no change in the nuclear balance. The United States has not threatened Russia, nor has any other nuclear power.

Instead, Putin threatens a pre-emptive, one-sided, use of a nuclear weapon because he is losing the war that he himself started in Ukraine in February 2022. Putin’s Nuclear Armageddon is nothing more than nuclear blackmail. Putin is playing on “the sum of everyone’s fears.” His aim is to end American and European military support to Kyiv, to force the capitulation of Ukraine’s government, and to ensure the surrender of Ukrainian territory to Russia.

Now, of course, this threat of Nuclear Armageddon is not new; dire predictions have been made before. And during the Cold War, the world teetered on the precipice of a superpower nuclear conflict at least twice, first during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and again during the Euromissile War Scare in 1983. Indeed, the 1980s were replete with academic studies and government reports describing how a nuclear conflict would lead to sun-blocking soot and ash killing crops. Then, the already looming threat of climate change faded into the insignificance against the threat of a “nuclear winter.” TV series like “The Day After” in the United States in 1983, and films like “Threads” in the United Kingdom in 1984, horrified and terrified American and British publics with harrowing depictions of the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

Now, I was a teenager in the 1980s, filled with fear at the prospect of imminent nuclear war. My teenage self checked out hiding spots. Under the dining room table, in the cupboard under the stairs, and behind the thick yellow curtains my parents hung in the front room to protect our eyes from the blinding flash of the first explosion. I contemplated cowering in a ditch, if I was caught outside when the missiles struck but nothing seemed much of a defence in those circumstances. Safety was an illusion. Fears crowded my mind and fogged my brain. I had my own frequent nightmares of Nuclear Armageddon, although Vladimir Putin, the pale horseman was still a long way off in the future.

At the suggestion of an elderly relative who had survived the horrors of World War II, I decided to confront the fears head-on. I would study Russian and try to visit the USSR. I would assert my own agency, and fight fear with information and knowledge. I began my studies in 1984 and I ended up as an exchange student in Moscow in 1987 and 1988. The nightmares disappeared as soon as I got there and saw the place and met the people for myself. These nightmares have never returned, despite Vladimir Putin’s best efforts. And after years of studying Russian and Russia, and decades of closely analyzing Putin, I know he is just a man, operating in his own specific context. He has predictable patterns. He can be countered. And resorting to the use of a nuclear weapon would be an enormous gamble, even for someone who can be as reckless and ruthless as Putin.

Nonetheless, Vladimir Putin is a master at manipulating fear. He knows fear’s value as a political commodity. He knows how to deploy fear for maximum effect. Putin has long threatened to play the nuclear card, because he knows the psychological impact it has and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness it engenders. During a bilateral U.S.-Russian meeting at the G20 in Osaka in 2019, where I was present, Putin warned President Donald Trump that he, Putin, would stir up all the old fears of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Euromissile Crisis if the U.S. did not engage in arms control negotiations on his terms. He bragged that Russia had developed sophisticated nuclear weapons systems that the U.S. still did not have. He was ready to press his nuclear advantage even before the war in Ukraine, and to play on our fears.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who we celebrate in this lecture series’ focus on the “Four Freedoms,” outlined in his 1941 State of the Union address all of the fears and the freedoms. He fully understood the political salience of fear. FDR knew that people could be paralyzed by the fear of poorly understood events. They were prone to the manipulation of their fears and thus intimidation and exploitation. If people were filled with fear, they were incapable of taking the necessary individual and collective action to deal with a disaster.

Now fear, of course, is a normal response to a real or perceived threat. All animals exhibit fear, both predators and prey. And a sense of fear is essential to prepare for risk and act in the case of danger ahead but fear is often engendered by something more imagined than real. We fear what we don’t know, not just what we do, like the danger of nuclear weapons.

In the case of real dangers, a healthy dose of fear is critical to living with their ever-present possibility. You can’t have freedom from danger, but you can have freedom from fear. There will always be hidden dangers, but you can do something about them. You can prepare yourself for danger, insure against danger. Freedom from fear is essential for personal and societal resilience in the face of peril.

This takes me back to my studies of Russian. The Russian word for insurance is actually based on this very concept that I’ve just outlined, the idea of protection from fear or strakh. The word “insurance” in Russian is proof or preparation against fear, strakhovaniye. And indeed, having insurance in any form helps to relieve fear through the knowledge that you are prepared for the inevitability of danger and the risk of something happening. You are ready to deal with it.

In contrast to this pleasing synergy between the word and its meaning, the Russian word for security is less satisfying and a lot more troubling. Security is something Vladimir Putin always craves, and states it is his imperative in everything that he does, including invading Ukraine. He’s invaded Ukraine to ensure Russia’s security by taking Ukraine off the map. Now, the Russian word for security is bezopasnost’ or literally, “without danger.” In effect, the Russian word for security is “safety” in absolute terms. This suggests that the Russian idea or concept of security seeks the impossible, the creation of a world without danger, where everyone can be completely safe at all times.

The sense of that kind of security or safety will always be false, as false as the words of leaders who promise it to themselves and their followers. In this conception of security, there can be no freedom from fear. Danger will always be there. It cannot be eliminated. And fear will also always be present because we can never be in complete control. We cannot have absolute safety; we can only have insurance and prepare ourselves to deal with danger.

Just as Vladimir Putin wants his version of security, he also wants control of events. Indeed, most of us would like the same thing. We are afraid of the sudden loss of control in our ever-complex world. At times of conflict, or when major societal changes happen rapidly and in combination, fear predominates. We are plunged into what the insightful scholar of the twentieth century, Fritz Stern, called “cultural despair.” Stern focused on the fears that roiled Germany in the turbulent period between World War I and World War II. He described cultural despair as the sense of loss, grievance, and anxiety that occurs when people feel dislocated from their communities and broader society, as everything and everyone shifts around them.

Cultural despair leads to populism in politics, and from there to authoritarianism, as Stern noted in tracking the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Populism and authoritarianism are rooted in fear; fear of loss, fears from the past and fears of the future, fears of the other, like refugees, migrants, people who are simply different, and people who might think differently from the mainstream. All these fears emerge when societies undergo change. Populism shaped European and U.S. politics in the 1920s and 1930s after World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic and the Great Depression. It arose again in the 1960s and in the 1980s during generational and technological shifts. Vladimir Putin is a populist who came to power after a decade of political turmoil and economic collapse in Russia. Putin promised to provide security and safety, as well as prosperity, as long as Russians acquiesced to his ultimate authority.

And throughout history, fear has been used by more powerful people to prey on the weak during difficult times. Populists today, like Putin in Russia, Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and also Xi Jinping in China, appeal to people who fear they have lost their livelihoods along with their identities and their cultural moorings at times of rapid social change and political and economic uncertainty. They present themselves as strongmen leaders who can restore order from the chaos.

Back in the 1920s, populism spurred the emergence of the Soviet Union, an authoritarian propagandist state whose Bolshevik leaders established power through intimidation and violence and then ruled by fear. The Soviet Union rose alongside fascist Germany, Italy, and Spain. And in these authoritarian states, fear prevented people from achieving self-actualization and deprived them of individual agency. The fear that authoritarianism could also take root in the United Kingdom or the United States, inspired George Orwell’s novel, 1984.

Orwell’s statue stands outside the entrance to the BBC in London’s Portland Place. He worked there in the 1940s, during the Second World War, having fought against fascism in Spain in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. One of Orwell’s quotes, etched on the wall behind his statue, and it reads: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Or perhaps what they fear to hear, which is often the same thing. And perhaps Orwell’s greatest fear was the loss of freedom. In the novel, 1984, fear of the truth leads to the imposition of state control and the loss of the individual.

As I mentioned, 1984 was the year I went to university, right after the Euromissile war scare of 1983. One of first novels I read at university, in my Russian literature class, was from the 1920s, Yevgeniy Zamyatin’s Miy, or “We,” which, it turned out, was the literary precursor of Orwell’s 1984.

The mass societies of the United States, United Kingdom and the USSR all rose and came together in the 1920s. Zamyatin was an astute observer of the rapid societal changes that accompanied the development of heavy industry and large-scale manufacturing in the early 20th Century. He spent time working in the shipyards of Newcastle and Tyne in the North East of England, not far from my hometown, just before the Bolshevik Revolution. The focus of Zamyatin’s book is the creation of an impersonal authoritarian system built on the deprivation of knowledge and manipulation of fear. In “We,” individuals in a mass society are manipulated by “Him,” “The Benefactor,” a strongman on high. They are transformed into a homogenous, cowed collective. And Zamyatin soon found himself in the same situation. He fell victim to Stalin’s repression and purges in the late 1930s, just around the time that George Orwell was beginning his own explorations of working-class life in northern England.

Orwell’s fear of the loss of individual freedom, the degeneration of the state and the rise of tyranny seems as relevant today as it did in the 1940s or in the actual 1984. In this context, it is worth bearing in mind that the BBC was the product of this same emergent mass society that Zamyatin and Orwell observed, but the BBC was ultimately intended to liberate the masses from the deprivation of knowledge and the manipulation of fear.

Because the BBC is framed around the idea of equal access to information. It is rooted in the concept that knowledge and reasoning are the antidote to fear. The importance of having an educated, self-motivated and responsible population was actually at the heart of the BBC’s creation. In 1919, the British government issued its “Final Report on Adult Education in the UK,” which advocated the “permanent national necessity” of establishing a system of adult education to keep up with the unfolding democratic, societal, and industrial challenges of the post-World War I era.

The report concluded that British people should be able to decide what they wanted to learn for themselves. They should think for themselves and make informed judgements. The British educational system should facilitate individual agency and critical thinking and the BBC was intended as an informational instrument, a tool for people to gain useful knowledge.

So, confronting fear involves access to knowledge, reasserting agency. And as I learned through studying Russian, we can dispel and manage fears through education, advance preparation, and training. Dealing with danger requires paying attention and asking questions. And no great achievement by individuals or humanity throughout history has ever been possible without this combination of elements.

So, in concluding, let us consider again the current war in Ukraine. Despite the horrors of the conflict, Ukrainians have confronted their fear and exercised their own agency. They have learned from their mistakes as well as from Russia’s and Vladimir Putin’s. Ukrainians have refused to be cowed or intimidated. They have taken collective action to fight back against tyranny and authoritarianism. The odds are stacked against them, but they have turned fear into courage.