This persuasive book looks at Putin’s favourite Russian political philosopher and the template he set for fake news.
Even presidents who don’t believe in history need a historian to rely on. When asked, in 2014, by a delegation of students and history teachers for his chosen chronicler of Russia’s past, Vladimir Putin came up with a single name: Ivan Ilyin.
Ilyin is a figure who might have been easily lost to history were it not for the posthumous patronage of Russia’s leader. Putin first drew attention to him – Ilyin was a philosopher, not a historian, a Russian who died in exile in Switzerland in 1954 – when he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. Ilyin’s personal papers, held in a library in Michigan, were also brought “home” at the president’s request. New editions of Ilyin’s dense books of political philosophy became popular in Kremlin circles – and all of Russia’s civil servants reportedly received a collection of his essays in 2014. And when Putin explained Russia’s need to combat the expansion of the European Union, and laid out the argument to invade Ukraine, it was Ilyin’s arguments on which the president relied.
Timothy Snyder begins his pattern-making deconstruction of recent Russian history – which by design, he argues, is indistinguishable from recent British and American history – with a comprehensive account of Putin’s reverence for the work of Ilyin. Like much of Snyder’s analysis in this unignorable book, the framing offers both a disturbing and persuasive insight.
Ilyin, an early critic of Bolshevism, had been expelled by the Soviets in 1922. In Germany, where he wrote favourably of the rise of Hitler and the example of Mussolini, he developed ideas for a Russian fascism, which could counter the effects of the 1917 revolution. As a thread through his nationalist rhetoric, he proposed a lost “Russian spirit”, which in its essence reflected a Christian God’s original creation before the fall and drew on a strongly masculine “pure” sexual energy (he had been psychoanalysed by Freud). A new Russian nation should be established, Ilyin argued, to defend and promote that ineffable spirit against all external threats – not only communism but also individualism. To achieve that end, Ilyin outlined a “simulacrum” of democracy in which the Russian people would speak “naturally” with one voice, dependent on a leader who was cast as “redeemer” for returning true Russian culture to its people. Elections would be “rituals” designed to endorse that power, periodically “uniting the nation in a gesture of subjugation”.
To establish that dystopian state, Snyder argues, Putin’s regime has deliberately pursued two of Ilyin’s central concepts. The first demanded the identification and destruction of the enemies of that Russian spirit to establish unity; alien influences – Muslim or Jewish, fundamentalist or cosmopolitan – were intent on “sodomising” Russian virtue (sexual imagery is never far away in the Kremlin’s lurid calls to arms). If those enemies did not exist they would have to be invented or exaggerated. After the terror attacks on Russian institutions – the Moscow theatre siege and the Beslan school massacre – Chechen separatism was used as a reason to bring first television and then regional governorships under state control. Those policies were led, Snyder documents, by Vladislav Surkov, the former postmodernist theatre director who was Boris Yeltsin’s deputy chief of staff and then Putin’s lead strategist. Surkov directs a policy, borrowed from Ilyin, which he calls “centralisation, personification, idealisation”. With Surkov’s management, “Putin was to offer masculinity as an argument against democracy”, Snyder suggests; he was to associate, specifically, for example, gay rights and equal marriage with an attack on the Russian spirit.
In this culture war, disinformation was critical. Russian TV and social media would create a climate in which news became entertainment, and nothing would quite seem factual. This surreal shift is well documented, but Snyder’s forensic examination of, for example, the news cycle that followed the shooting down of flight MH17 makes essential reading. On the first day official propaganda suggested that the Russian missile attack on the Malaysian plane had in fact been a bodged attempt by Ukrainian forces to assassinate Putin himself; by day two, Russian TV was promoting the idea that the CIA had sent a ghost plane filled with corpses overhead to provoke Russian forces.
The more outrageous the official lie was, the more it allowed people to demonstrate their faith in the Kremlin. Putin made, Snyder argues, his direct assault on “western” factuality a source of national pride. Snyder calls this policy “implausible deniability”; you hear it in the tone of the current “debate” around the Salisbury attack: Russian power is displayed in a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit, as if no truth on earth is really provable.
The second half of Snyder’s book explores how Russia has sought to export this policy to those who threaten it, primarily through a mass disinformation war, a 2.0 update of Sun Tzu’s “confusion to our enemy” principle, with the aim of dividing and polarising pluralist democracies – in particular the EU and the US – against themselves.
Snyder is very astute at joining the dots in how Russian propagandists, human or digital, sought to spread fake news to undermine faith in the democratic process, at the same time giving overt support to European separatists and Russia TV regulars such as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. He details how, for example, Russian “news” sources spread the idea that the Scottish independence vote had been “rigged” by “establishment forces” with the aim of undermining faith in democratic institutions in Britain before the EU referendum. We are still awaiting, of course, the full disentangling of Donald Trump’s complex relations with Putin’s government, and the many links between his campaign organisation and Russian operatives. As with Luke Harding’s book Collusion, however, there is more than enough here to keep Robert Mueller busy for a long while yet.
One unavoidable conclusion of this depressing tale lies in the acknowledgment that Putin’s strategy has been so successful in shaking faith in the sanctity of fact and expert knowledge. A measure of that assault comes when you examine your reaction to this meticulously researched and footnoted book as you read it. Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale. His book Bloodlands, about the fallout of second world war atrocities on the eastern front, won the prestigious Hannah Arendt prize and was described by the late, great Tony Judt as “the most important book to appear on this subject in decades”. And yet as he unfolds this contemporary sequel, you might well hear, as I did from time to time, those sneery voices now lodged in your head that whisper of “liberal elitism” and “fake news” and “MSM” and “tempting conspiracies”, and which refuse ever, quite, to be quieted. How did we get here? Snyder has a good idea.
• The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder is published by Bodley Head (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99