I discovered Timothy Snyder, professor and author, in the spring of 2017. When my heart sank deeper, and my protesting voice felt hoarse, I dove into political books looking for answers. Snyder delivered. I reread that small book, On Tyranny, earlier this year.
Even still, a hardback copy of Snyder’s newer book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America sat on my shelf since soon after it published. That’s how my reading goes, especially with historical and political books. The time needs to feel right for me to start a book I know will challenge me. Recently, I knew the time for this book had come.
Snyder covers plenty of historical and current events ground. The Road to Unfreedom isn’t an easy read, but it helps make sense of the chaos. He explains two key concepts, through the lens of mostly recent history. Please forgive the long quotes. Nothing says it better than the author’s own words.
From the book
“Americans and Europeans were guided through the new century by a tale about ‘the end of history,’ by what I will call the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.” p. 7
“As economic inequality grew, time horizons shrank, and fewer Americans believed that the future held a better version of the present. Lacking a functional state that assured basic social goods taken for granted elsewhere—education, pensions, health care, transport, parental leave, vacations—Americans could be overwhelmed by each day, and lose a sense of the future.
The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the center of a cyclical version of victimhood.” p. 7-8
Snyder weaves these concepts through his discussions of Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, and Vladimir Putin. He uses them to enlighten and explain how that side of the world ties into Europe, America, and Donald Trump.
Snyder delves into Russia’s actions, their leaders, and their flaws. He talks about how this affects their citizens’ lives. And what it means to Ukrainians. Discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine couldn’t be more relevant than it is today.
And then Snyder goes on to tie many of Putin’s actions to the oligarchs he aligns with. Taking it one step closer to home, he ties the Russians back to U.S. politics and Trump. I think, by understanding all of this, we better understand the future of our world.
Everything in this book is complex. I listened to the audiobook, but kept revisiting concepts in print. The combination worked for me. I suspect I’ll read this one again, as I did On Tyranny.
If you want a historian’s perspective on today’s political reality, read this book.