Mike's Reviews > The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder
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bookshelves: why-trump-won

I admit that at first I was a bit skeptical about the idea that the ghost of an esoteric Russian fascist (fascistic Russian esotericist?) of the Silver Age is influencing events in our world from beyond the grave. Ivan Ilyin was born in 1883, about ten years after Lenin, and in his ideological maturity- the last 30 or so years of his life, while he was living in exile from the Soviet Union, which he regarded as a ‘Judeobolshevik’ imposition upon Russia- he wrote things like “the world of empirical existence cannot be theoretically justified”, and “the empirical fragmentation of human existence is an incorrect, a transitory, and a metaphysically untrue condition of the world.” But strip away the didactic tone, and these sentiments really aren’t so unfamiliar to anyone who has ever studied philosophy, seen the film The Matrix, or just wondered if there is something 'more' than our physical reality.

But Ilyin didn’t always hold these views. Snyder points out that Ilyin developed his metaphysics in an era similar in certain ways to our own- a belief in globalism and the inevitability of progress, a sense of inevitability brought to an abrupt end. As a young student, Ilyin believed in the inevitability of Russia becoming an enlightened, rule-of-law state. After World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, this belief collapsed- for Ilyin and for countless other Russians. What does a sense of inevitability give way to? Snyder calls it the politics of eternity. Ilyin began to write of a “missing totality” that had been fractured by God’s creation, and which could only be restored by a leader who would emerge from “outside history.” Elections, Ilyin came to believe, should be held only as rituals of submission to this dominant leader. Psychologically, he wanted to disappear into some big…thing. Only one nation, one people, had a “special arrangement of the soul” that would allow them to restore this “missing totality.” Hint: it’s not Saint Vincent and Grenadines.

In Ilyin’s conception (which Snyder refers to as the politics of eternity), history and the facts of the empirical world are repurposed to construct a myth of national innocence. You can’t go anywhere in Moscow without seeing a reference to 1941 or 1945, for example, but you’d be ill-advised to post anything on social media about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or the war in Ukraine. And since Russia in Ilyin’s conception is a civilization, not a mere nation bound by international rules and norms, Ukrainians (whom Ilyin referred to in quotation marks) were Russians as well. To speak of Ukraine was to be a mortal enemy of Russia.

This all might sound interesting, but is it anything more than a coincidence that Ilyin’s ideas seem to influence modern Russia? It is. Putin quotes Ilyin frequently, apparently. Snyder reports that Russian officers were given copies of Ilyin’s Our Tasks before taking Crimea. And in 2005, Putin had Ilyin exhumed and reburied.

“The Russian innocence [Ilyin] proclaimed”, Snyder writes, “was not observable anywhere in the world.” But “since the facts of the world are just the corrupt detritus of God’s failed creation, true seeing was the contemplation of the invisible…it really was no more than that: he saw his own nation as righteous, and the purity of that vision was more important than anything Russians actually did.”

There was a contradiction in Ilyin’s reburial. Ilyin considered himself an enemy of the Soviet Union, while Putin was an officer of the KGB in the Soviet Union. Here’s another potentially complicated subject: Russians marked the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution last November and still visit Lenin’s tomb, but Lenin was a revolutionary who brought down the state, while Putin very much believes in state power. In a historical society, these issues would provoke discussion and debate. But in modern Russia, through the politics of eternity, all contradictions are resolved. Facts are not really banned, as in the old days, but instead the signal is drowned out by noise (an elegant solution, when you think about it- really just a slight exacerbation of the world we already live in). All contradictions are resolved to serve the myth of national innocence. Snyder explains how this is done:
As a former KGB officer, Putin was a Chekist, as Russians still say, who wished to rule Russia through the Russian Orthodox Church. He wanted a reconciliation of what he called the traditions of Red and White, communist and Orthodox, terror and God. A sense of history would have required some confrontation with both aspects of Russian history. The politics of eternity allowed Putin the freedom to accept both Red and White as innocent Russian responses to external threats.

…At the moment of Ilyin’s reburial, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was a man who had been a KGB agent in Soviet times. At the ceremony, a military band struck up the Russian national anthem, which has the same melody as the Soviet national anthem…when Putin laid flowers on Ilyin’s grave in 2009, he was in the company of his favorite Orthodox monk, Tikhon Shevkunov, who was willing to see the Soviet executioners as Russian patriots. A number of Ilyin’s contemporaries had called him a “Chekist for God.” He was reburied as such, with honors conferred by the Chekists and the men of God, and by the men of God who were Chekists, and by the Chekists who were men of God.

Ilyin was returned, body and soul, to the Russia he had been forced to leave. And that very return, in its endorsement of contradiction and disregard for fact, was the purest expression of respect for Ilyin’s tradition. To be sure, Ilyin opposed the Soviet system. But once it no longer existed it was history; and for Ilyin the facts of the past were nothing but raw material for the construction of a myth of innocence. Modifying Ilyin’s views ever so slightly, it was possible to see the Soviet Union not as an external imposition upon Russia, as Ilyin had seen it, but as Russia, and therefore immaculate. And so Russians could recall the Soviet system as an innocent Russian reaction to the hostility of the world.
There’s a lot more to this book that makes it worth reading- particularly the chapters about how Ilyin’s ideas influenced both the war in Ukraine and Russian interference in the US election. But it’s the distinction between the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity that has stayed with me and given me a lot to think about for the past couple of months.

Ilyin at different times embodied both of these, let’s call them, orientations towards life. But the really interesting point is that the first yields to the second. After the US election in 2016, I saw Snyder talk about fielding questions from anxious people. Is he Hitler? Is he Hitler? The implication of the question, Snyder pointed out, is that if he’s not Hitler, we can relax- nothing needs to be done. If he is Hitler, we can relax- nothing can be done. Inevitability and eternity, two sides of the same coin.

I’ve realized that there are parts of me that can understand the appeal of Ilyin’s dismissal of the empirical world. I don’t want to deteriorate, after all, get sick, get old and die. I don’t like not having health insurance; I don’t like being sued because I can’t pay my college debt; I don't like that I'm no longer in my twenties; and while I’m thinking about it, I don’t like that I don't own a house in Butte, Montana. What if there were a way to strike back somehow? What if there were a leader who could fashion an alternate reality in which whatever I wanted to believe was true? Would it be correct then to say, as I see suggested so often on TV news, that the people who voted for this leader only accept his lies because, let's say, the economy is doing well? Or is the pleasure in the lie?
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August, 2018 – Finished Reading
August 29, 2018 – Shelved
January 26, 2019 – Shelved as: why-trump-won

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Ilse (new) - added it

Ilse Poignant questions and insightful write-up, Mike - what a fascinating illustration of the old bleeding into the new by absorbing what seems contradictory elements into a seamless blending and distorting of history into new ideology. I look for a moment to read this as well, I like Snyder's style.

message 2: by Mike (last edited Nov 19, 2018 04:15PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Thanks, Ilse. He's a bit of a philosopher as well as a historian. This book is difficult to classify, but I guess I would call it an interpretation of very recent history. He's given me a lot to think about- I hope it will be the same for you.

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