Saturday, 17 November 2018
Snyder's recent history: inevitable v eternal + hope
The first of many intriguingly phrased ideas in Yale Professor Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom is the notion that 'the politics of inevitability', the belief in the progress of capitalism and/or history, is collapsing, or has collapsed, in the face of 'the politics of eternity', 'manufacturing crisis' and 'drowning the future in the present': 'eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling' . Perhaps it might better be called 'the politics of neverland', and of course its chief manipulator is Vladimir Putin.
Snyder's orderly chapters positing a series of oppositions offer essential summaries of how we got into this mess, going back beyond the essential turning point - Putin's essential failure in the Russian election of 2012 and how, to deflect, he spread his country's latest breakdown worldwide in an increasingly successful strategy - to roots in Russia, America and Europe.
If you only read one chapter, as a European it would have to be the third. Only a master historian could take us so succinctly to the essence of the EU project. He then points out that 'the EU's vulnerability was the European politics of inevitability: the fable of the wise nation', the fact that not only young east Europeans but others everywhere else on the continent - and above all in Britain - were not educated to see that their countries were doomed 'by structure' 'without a European order...As a result, the fable of the wise nation made it seem possible that nation-states, having chosen to enter Europe, could also choose to leave'.
Revelatory and gobsmacking to me was Putin's manipulation of fascist ideology, starting with a 'philosopher' of whom I knew nothing, Ivan Ilyin. Lest one thinks this overstated, the quotations from Putin and Kremlin pundits show how it became state ideology. State scumbags' laughable running-down of western countries as subject to Satanic gays and Jews, their fantasy of Eurasia with Moscow at its centre appealing to an imagined 'primal Slavic experience', would be funny if it hadn't gone down well with the Russian people. And all this because Ukraine decided to throw in its lot with a properly European future.
The most jaw-dropping example here is of the Izborsk Club, inaugurated in September 2012, chief point of its manifesto 'Russia does not need hasty political reforms. It needs arms factories and altars'. A lunatic fringe? No, a club of heroes according to the Kremlin:
One of Russia's long-range bombers, a Tu-95 built to drop atomic bombs on the United States was renamed 'Izborsk' in honour of the club. In case anyone failed to notice this sign of Kremlin backing, Prokhanov [fascist novelist and Izborsk Club founder] was invited to fly in the cockpit of the aircraft. In the years to come, this and other Tu-95s would regularly approach the airspace of the member states of the European Union, forcing them to activate their air defence systems and to escort the approaching bomber away. The Tu-95 'Izborsk' would be used to bomb Syria in 2015, creating refugees who would flee to Europe.
Snyder doesn't just state and imply, he can get very angry. In the fourth (Ukrainian) chapter, 'Novelty or Eternity', he paints such a moving picture of Ukrainians of all ages flocking to join the citizens of the Kyiv Maidan that I wish I'd gone out to witness this incredible event before the Kremlin triggered the massacre (that it was oddly reported in the UK press is explained later by Snyder). Then he unleashes his ire on the lie machine that would deny the achievement:
Russians, Europeans, and Americans were meant to forget the students who were beaten on a cold November night because they wanted a future. And the mothers and fathers and grandparents and veterans and workers who then came to the streets in defence of 'our children'. And the lawyers and consultants who found themselves throwing Molotov cocktails. The hundreds of thousands of people who broke themselves away from television and internet and who journeyed to Kyiv to put their bodies at risk. The Ukrainian citizens who were not thinking of Russia or geopolitics or ideology but of the next generation. The young historian of the Holocaust, the sole supporter of his family, who went back to the Maidan during the sniper massacre to rescue a wounded man, or the university lecturer who took a sniper's bullet to the skull that day.
Our great chronicler of conscience is also a master of coining the right phrase: 'implausible deniability' for the Kremlin's lies (I remember the first time I realised that Putin was going to break all rules of international diplomacy, when in early 2014 he declared 'we have no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea', then did just that; 'schizo-fascism' ('actual fascists calling their opponents fascists'); 'cruci-fiction' for Alexander Dugin's outrageous lie about a three-year-old boy crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk, which drummed up volunteers to fight for Russia in eastern Ukraine from all over the former empire; 'strategic relativism' for faltering Russian state power trying to hold on by weakening others, the 'winning' of 'a negative-sum game in international politics'; 'sado-populist' ('a populist...is someone who proposes policies to increase opportunities for the masses, as opposed to the financial elites. Trump was something else: a sado-populist, whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate').
Then there's the myth of 'Donald Trump, successful businessman', saved by Russian money from 'the fate that would normally await anyone with his record of failure'. Let's just hope that fate has merely been delayed, and is coming soon, to the Horror Clown, Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and many others.
Labels: EU, Europe, Maidan, Putin, Russia, The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder, Ukraine
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I am not sure that I follow the description of the Kyiv Maidan revolution, and I apologise if the reference was to a later event than the one to which I refer. But if it was the revolt against the decision of the then president to move more towards Moscow rather than the EU, the revolution was pretty disgraceful, though understandable ( since also the president was not the most admirable character in himself). The president had been democratically elected - a violent mob to overthrow him was not something for democratic nations to support or celebrate. And the name " Ukraine" means " the border lands" - the eastern half leans towards Russia, the western half towards Europe. Not an easy country to manage with half looking East and half looking West. It was a matter of balancing the two interests. Plus one of the reasons why Putin has gone on his own ( highly undesirable and menacing ) way is that we in the West did not from the start ( 2000 or so) take any notice of his sensitivities.
This is great David. Thank you.
And just as a way to add on - here's a link to a talk I heard him make at a school heads' conference last year:
"On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century" with Timothy Snyder
Powerful, compelling, urgent.
This is going to be a bit, or maybe quite a lot, to the side of your post, but it makes me think about the situation in the US. As to that, I’ve come to the view that Putin and Russian interference, though certainly an exacerbating factor right now, are not at the root of the current situation over here. What has boiled over today in the US has been brewing beneath the surface for quite a long time, long before Putin, and a whole lot of the problem has to do with white, and specifically white male, anxiety in the face of perceived loss of status.
Just want to add, what I wrote in the earlier comment is not at all meant to downplay the threat Putin poses--and there is certainly no question in my mind but that our Dear Leader is his Useful Idiot. I suppose what it all goes to is that there is never a straight line between cause and effect, and there are, in addition, many "bad actors" like Putin (and also, here, the Kochs and the Mercers, e.g.) who are all too happy to exploit whatever fault lines there are for their own benefit.
David, you seem surprisingly ill informed about the original nature of the Maidan. It is true that it came about when, after talking to Putin, Yanukovych withdrew from signing an association agreement with the EU. Ukrainians saw this as a chance, at least, to favour the rule of law against corruption and chaos. As Snyder writer, 'whatever the flaws of the Ukrainian political system, Ukrainians after 1991 had come to take for granted that political disputes would be settled without violence...Alongside the regularity of elections and the absence of war, the right to peaceful assembly was one way that Ukrainians distinguished their country from Russia. So it came as a shock when riot police attacked the protestors on the Maidan on November 30.' For the rest, I advise you read Snyder's Chapter Four.
Josie: I'll certainly watch that. I've been giving copies of On Tyranny to godchildren and other teenagers/twentysomethings for the past couple of years - bought two more yesterday, in fact, to give at a supper marking 10 years since the death of my dear friend Nell Martin.
Sue: absolutely right. As Snyder says before going on to reason why, 'The Russian effort succeeded because the United States is much more like the Russian Federation than Americans like to think'. He starts by citing the collapse of local newspapers and the power of Facebook: 'the interactivity of the internet creates an impression of mental effort while impediing reflection'. He then moves on to the NRA, inequality, oligarchical consolidation, the opioid nightmare. I do hope you'll read it.
Well I may not be completely accurate but I followed the Kyiv events at the time, having visited Moscow and to a lesser extent Kyiv often.
As for Snyder's book, I entertain grave doubts about the propositions he puts forward because of his prose ( in the extracts you quote). He seems to me to have an embedded view, and to show the false precision of sociological academia. However no doubt a lot of what he writes is correct. Also you remark - " And all this because the Ukrainians decided to throw in its lot with a properly European future" Not proper in Eastern Ukraine, and not proper in the Kremlin. It is outcomes that matter. I would accept that the West had already gone wrong in its handling of Putin. Fancy discussing whether Ukraine should enter NATO.
Well, Snyder has a view, but always backs up every argument with devastating source material. What I object to so strongly in your first statement is the assertion that 'a violent mob to overthrow him was not something for democratic nations to support or celebrate'. It was the opposite of violent. And eastern Ukraine was, is part of a sovereign state, not Putin's right to invade. No use citing history going way back. There was so much misreporting, not least from Seamus Milne, then associate editor of The Guardian. Even now I see that the selection of Maidan photos is dominated by those of a right-wing Ukrainian taking the stage. This aspect was blown up out of all proportion. And the question of Russian-speaking Ukrainians is also lucidly dissected. Read the book, please.
David, I think that in this as in other topics the difference between us is that you make reasonable and moral judgements whereas I believe that to attain reasonable and moral aims one has to take refuge in real-politik
But even then the quiet revolution eventually achieved its aim, though not wihout terrible bloodshed (if you read Snyder you will find that Putin wanted Yanukovych out by then anyway. But he has still not succeed in his aim, even in the ever-turbulent east).
On your recommendation I have reserved this book from Cornwall libraries. To my utter amazement it is available in Launceston library! Public libraries are alive and well in Cornwall - just. I shall report back once read. I am reading your Prokofiev at present. Many thanks for your Shostakovich weekend at Bromsgrove.
That's good news. The book should be in every library, just as Snyder's On Tyranny should be required reading for all teenage students. Good to hear from you - spurring me on to write Vol. 2...
I shall order it from our brand new and unexpectedly wonderful library/community hub/cinema in West Norwood, rapidly becoming South London's most vibrant centre of culture. No live opera screenings yet - still have to bus to Brixton for that - but hopefully they will come too before long!
Splendid, though I certainly intend to use it as a reference book. And copies of On Tyranny are still being dispensed to godchildren and others. Do you think there is a renaissance possible for the library as valued public space? In some north Norwegian towns, they've had spectacular designs so that the library is as much a cultural centrepiece as a concert hall.
Well if our new one is anything to go by, I should hope so. It certainly has exceeded expectations. There is nothing that special about it but it is very welcoming and full of light and air. I've just borrowed Peter Ackroyd's History of England vol.4, The Glorious Revolution, and it's hard not to see parallels with today's European drama at every turn, along with the occasional commentary from Hogarth and Swift to spice it up. (I had wanted vol. 3 on the Civil Wars because Rowan has been in some re-enactments in the Somerset countryside, but they didn't have it). I would certainly buy Snyder's book but I thought it would be good for the library to have it as well.
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