I was nearing the end of Timothy Snyder’s new book, “Road to Unfreedom,” when the headline came across my iPhone announcing that someone named Maria Butina had been arrested for being a Russian spy. I had to go back to page 250 and check the spelling. Sure enough, it was the same Maria Butina who appears in Snyder’s book in a story so weird that not even Tom Clancy could make it up.
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Butina is a founder of a group called The Right to Bear Arms, a Russian gun rights advocacy group. Let’s be clear: Russia is not interested in having its citizens bear arms—never was and never will be. Because of this, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had historically taken a tough line against Russia. But that changed after Butina and one of her financiers, Alexander Torshin, convinced the NRA leadership to visit Moscow and won them over. “Russia’s support of the NRA,” writes Snyder, “resembled its support of right-wing paramilitaries in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.”
Welcome to the weird, eerie world of Russia under Vladimir Putin that is described in Snyder’s book. Even before I got to the story of Maria Butina, I knew I was reading something amazing because I kept asking myself “How does he know that?” and looking at the footnotes, a large number of which were from Russian, Ukranian, French or German sources. Snyder is a prize-winning historian of Central and Eastern Europe at Yale University and reads 11 languages.
Snyder’s foray into modern Russia begins with an obscure Russian philosopher named Ivan Ilyin, who died in 1954. Ilyin was no communist; he was a fascist who was impressed by Adolf Hitler. Ilyin would have faded into obscurity except for the fact that he was rediscovered by the post-Soviet oligarchy, led by Vladimir Putin. By the 1990s he was in vogue again for providing a theory fit for a 21st century authoritarianism, Russian-style.
Hence a world that westerners, schooled in concepts like the marketplace of ideas and objective reality, have had a hard time imagining. In that world, there is no such thing as truth. In Putin’s Russia, according to Snyder, “The ink of political fiction is blood.” Politicians instigate terrorist acts in order to stir up “righteous patriotism.”[i] Masculinity and the demonization of gays and women becomes “an argument against democracy;” libel becomes a criminal offense, and the definition of treason is “expanded to include the provision of information to nongovernmental organizations beyond Russia, which made telling the truth over email a high crime.”[ii] Protesters are dealt with violently and then described as “agents of Europe.”[iii] And a war, the annexation of Crimea, is waged and and simulanteously denied. In Putin’s Russia, writes Snyder, “Factuality was not a constraint.” As one of their leading communications operatives explains, “You can just say anything. Create realities.”[iv] And the head of Russia Today (RT) said “There is no such thing as objective reporting.”[v]
By the second decade of the 21st century, Putin’s Russia turned decidedly against the West, culminating in two enormous successes: the campaign in Britain to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump president. The impetus for this renewed war on the west took place in the previous decade when seven former allies and three former Soviet republics joined the European Union.[vi] Russia was losing out to Europe. But for Putin, the final straw was Ukraine, a country traditionally divided between Europe and Russia, taking steps toward joining the EU. This move was more than Putin could stand. In 2011, he announced “the grand project of Eurasia” which entailed the destruction of the European Union. In 2014, he began the war that he claimed wasn’t a war in Ukraine. In 2014, a British banker with close ties to Russia became the biggest contributor to Nigel Farage’s campaign against the EU,[vii] and in 2015 and 2016, Russian intelligence agencies were funding massive internet hacking and disinformation campaigns in the 2016 American presidential election.[viii]
Putin’s Russia has affected Trump’s America in ways that go beyond their involvement in the 2016 campaign. In Trump’s America, there is no such thing as truth. The most amazing thing about Trump is the way he holds on to his lies in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. Whether it is the size of his inaugural crowds or his words about groping women, factual evidence doesn’t matter. Most recently he declassified materials that he says “prove” that law enforcement misled the courts when they obtained permission to investigate an aide suspected of being a Russian agent, but the actual materials point to just the opposite conclusion.[ix] No allegation is too far-fetched for this world. In Putin’s world, Ukrainian soldiers crucified a three-year-old Russian boy.[x] No such thing ever happened. In the world Putin created for Trump, Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. It also, of course, never happened.
Reading “The Road to Unfreedom” after Trump’s humiliating performance in Helsinki made chills run down my spine. Of course, unlike Russia, the United States has institutions that can resist turning us into a version of Putin’s Russia. But what is happening in Trump’s America places us on “the road to unfreedom.” The only way to exit that is to “begin a politics of responsibility.”[xi] We can start by taking in the lessons of this book.
[i] SNYDER, TIMOTHY. Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. S.l.: VINTAGE, 2019, p. 45.
[ii] Ibid. p.56
[iii] Ibid. p.83
[iv] Ibid. p.161
[v] Ibid. p.162
[vi] Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republican, Slovakia and Slovenia. The former Soviet Republics are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
[viii] Mueller indictment July 13, 2018
[x] SNYDER, TIMOTHY. Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. S.l.: VINTAGE, 2019, p. 178.
[xi] Ibid. p. 279
The upshot is an environment in which the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies have to engage with an ever more challenging world, even as they’re on shaky ground at home. This can fuel doubts among our allies and overconfidence among our adversaries, and leave us all more vulnerable as a result.