What does it mean to live in history?
In a very obvious sense, we’re always living in history. But there are those moments that feel different, where you can sense that the stakes are massive and that the shape of the future depends on how it all turns out.
The war in Ukraine is very much one of these events and, however it turns out, it will send ripple effects across the globe. In Europe, it has already precipitated a major shift in how nations like Germany and France and Finland and Sweden imagine their own defense.
All of this presents an opportunity to step back and think about not just the direction of history, but also about how fragile our world really is — and how quickly the things we take for granted, like democracy, can fall apart.
I reached out to Yale historian Timothy Snyder for a recent episode of Vox Conversations. Snyder is the author of many books on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe. He also wrote the 2017 bestseller On Tyranny, which remains an indispensable reminder that the future is not fixed.
We talk about the state of the war in Ukraine, where the failed Russian attempt to topple Kyiv has given way to a grinding, brutal campaign in Ukraine’s east, why he insists that democracies are always undone from within rather than from without, and how he thinks we can free ourselves from the tyranny of bad Ideas.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, recorded in late May, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
It’s hard to believe, but the war in Ukraine has been raging since February. How would you characterize the current state of play there?
It’s hard to get a bead on what’s happening in Ukraine, partly because the places are very unfamiliar. Suddenly everyone’s a Russia expert and Ukraine expert now. I’ve been thinking about Russia and Ukraine my whole career, and I know the languages and I go to the places, and I’m sometimes shocked by how certain people are about things.
My own sense is that the best way to evaluate it is in terms of what Putin expected and then what hasn’t happened. So what Putin expected was that the whole country would fold up within three days. And that expectation was based upon a political assumption about what Ukraine is or what it isn’t. That obviously didn’t turn out to be true, but, as we know from lots of other historical examples, once you start a war, no matter how dumb your premise is, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to say, “Oh, my premise was dumb. I’m changing my mind.” People double down. And of course, Putin is going to double down. And I think he probably still in some way believes in his own basic premise.
The second part of the story is that obviously the Ukrainian nation does exist, contrary to Putin’s assumption. Ukrainian society is decentralized. It’s a society which is very suspicious of central authority in general, and obviously suspicious of somebody else’s central authority. And Russia is a very centralized type of society.
But this has all proven to have a kind of battlefield efficacy because Ukrainian doctrine was to break into small groups and to allow lower-level officers to have a great deal of autonomy in the field, and that’s proven to work quite well. So it’s interesting because what we have is not just a clash of armies — it is a really a clash of mentalities or a clash of systems. You can say it’s autocracy versus democracy and that would be true enough, but it’s also maybe more interesting to talk about it in terms of this highly vertical Russian way of doing things versus this much more horizontal, Ukrainian way of doing things.
Do you think Putin can somehow “win” in Ukraine, whatever that might mean?
I think somebody wins in the end. I think Putin will win by declaring victory. And I think what a lot of commentators miss is that his power is 100 percent coextensive with his ability to change the story. So he can say he’s won in Russia almost no matter what happens on the battlefield.
Which is why a lot of this hand-wringing that we do in the West about whether we let him save face or give him off-ramps to climb down is just completely beside the point. Because he can decide today that he’s won. He can decide tomorrow he’s won. He could have decided last month that he’s won. He could decide next month that he’s won. And then the Russian people will believe him, or they’ll pretend to believe him, which amounts to the same thing.
The Ukrainians, though, can only win on the battlefield. Zelenskyy is a democratic elected politician. He doesn’t operate in virtual reality. He has to operate in the real reality and he could only win when his people allow him to win, or you can only end the war when his people allow them to end the war. So it’s an asymmetrical situation in that sense, but I think the Ukrainians can win. They know what they’re fighting for. It’s quite literally the existence of their state and of their people that’s at stake. And that’s why they’re fighting the way they are. And that’s why they’ll fight whether we arm them or not.
It’s very easy, maybe even inevitable, to take political order for granted when you’ve lived in relative peace and comfort for a long time. The world starts to feel stable and sound, but it’s incredibly fragile and the veneer of civilization is paper-thin. Do you think we’ve taken democracy for granted? Do you think the world has taken the entire liberal order for granted?
I agree with your premise; these things are contingent. The fact that we have democracies at all is kind of remarkable.
Let’s just go back a century and think of Mussolini marching on Rome, and the rise of the far right in most places in Europe, and the rise of the far right, for that matter, in the United States. These things were barely held off then. FDR was a stroke of good luck. Churchill staying in the war against the Germans — how likely was that, really? You know, if Churchill doesn’t stay in the war against the Germans, do the Americans even join the fight? And if they don’t, how is that war even won? What if Hitler had been a slightly different person and hadn’t invaded the Soviet Union in ’41? It’s hard to see how his hold on the continent would have been broken.
So the revival of democracy after 1945 is highly contingent. And, as you know, because we talked about this before and it’s in some of my books, our big mistake after 1989 was to forget about what you’re quite rightly calling the contingency, or what could also in some way be called the ethical part of democracy. Because after 1989, after the end of communism in Eastern Europe, we jumped on the determinist ship. We decided that larger historical forces were going to bring democracy about.
We’ve forgotten what the word democracy means, which is that the people have to rule. And if the people are going to rule, they have to want to rule. There’s an indispensable ethical component to this, which is going to depend upon individuals. And the moment that individuals make the decision to give up their agency by talking about larger historical forces and how there are no alternatives, if we accept that paradigm, then we’re giving up on democracy.
And this war, if nothing else, is a reminder of all this—
The Ukrainians have definitely bought us some time to think about all this. If Kyiv had really fallen at the end of February of this year, this would have been a very dark spring for democracies. If an extreme right-wing regime in Russia managed to destroy democracy in Ukraine that would have had effects for everyone.
Conversely, if Ukraine, despite people’s expectations, manages to hold this off, that will be a great boon to democracy. Because I think it either goes one way or the other. I don’t think there’s such a thing as stasis. So the Ukrainians have given us a chance to think. We need to realize that what the Ukrainians are doing is a very compressed example of the kind of courage that you actually need to keep a democracy going.
I first met you back in 2017, when I went to Yale to report on a conference about the state of democracy. I believe you were the only historian that spoke and you were talking about time as a political construct.
It’s something I still think about all the time. There’s a huge chunk of this country that wants to return to some lost — and likely imaginary — past, and that’s worrisome because it reveals how little hope they have in the future and the perceived absence of any solutions to our problems today. If you’re right, once we’ve reached this point, the democratic backsliding is already well underway. I suppose what I’m asking is, do you think it’s reversible?
It’s all very difficult. Thanks for bringing that up because in The Road to Unfreedom, which is what I was finishing at the time of that conference, I was trying very hard to try to put time in the forefront of our political thinking. Because it’s often the things we don’t see that are guiding the ways we think. We don’t see that we’re thinking with time, but we are. The story that time has to go forward towards one point, right? The thing that so many people believed in the ’80s and the ’90s, and into the 21st century, that there is no alternative, that history is over; I mean, that’s a view of time.
The idea you’re mentioning now, I call “the politics of eternity.” It’s the notion that things used to be better and we’ve lost our innocence. But we’ve lost it because of other people. And it’s not our fault. Somebody else did this to us. And so therefore, politics is somehow about the past. It’s about making things great — again.
Putin’s war on Ukraine is an extreme example of this. In many ways, it really is being fought in the past. It’s the dominant paradigm in Russia that this is the Second World War, and that once again Russia has been attacked by the Nazis. And as crazy as that sounds, it wouldn’t be possible without Putin’s total control over media and therefore reality. It’s also just a form of politics that works. You give people a moment where things were clear, and we were on the good side, and people will be drawn to that.
What’s the lesson in all this for the US today?
Again, Russia is an extreme case. Putin doesn’t offer his people a future at all. He governs without a future. He basically governs without policy. And so that can be done at least for awhile.
I worry that there are forces in our country that are pushing us in that direction. There’s the idea that democracy is about restricting the vote, the way the vote used to be restricted. There is the ever worsening distribution of wealth, which makes it very hard for people to talk about a future in common, it makes it very hard for a lot of people to see the future.
All of these things, in concert, make it harder for people to think about the future. I think there is a way to break out of this, and I think the first part of it is what I’ve been trying to do, and plenty of other people as well, which is to name the problem. And the problem is the absence of the future. The problem is futurelessness.
And then once you’ve named the problem, then you have to fill the future. We have to say, “Okay, we have to somehow find a way to return the future to politics.” And it has to be a future which isn’t “We’re all going to die because of global warming,” or something like that. It has to be a non-catastrophic future. Because otherwise you get this weird coalition of the old and the young, where the olds don’t care, and the young are depressed.
I think most of us, for understandable reasons, have a fairly limited time horizon. Sure, we live in history, but we exist in our world, in our time, and the past and future are abstractions. And yet we have to think beyond the moment. We still have to remember the past, and what we’ve transcended, to appreciate how good we have it, and also how quickly it can wash away.
I’ll make an ancient philosophical point. There isn’t really a present, right? Insofar as you and I are able to interact in what seems like the present, it’s because we share a language and a set of references that go back into the past. I mean, it’s a banal point, but I think it’s indispensable because the present comes alive before us on the basis of where we’re coming from and what we bring to this moment.
A similar point can be made about the future with respect to the present. The present is meaningful for us insofar as it seems to head out in a number of possible directions, some of which we may find attractive, personally or collectively. If the present is just the present, if it’s just me scrolling through my phone, then it’s nothing. If you’re concentrating completely on the present, in this logical extreme, you’re actually concentrated on nothing. There’s not actually anything there.
So, what does that suggest? It suggests that there’s a limit to the American logic of “living for the moment.” There’s a limit to that. The moment doesn’t really exist except as it’s couched in other moments that extend into the past and future.
I’m not just going to make a case for history here. I mean, I love history and it makes me happy when people tell me that they’ve read history books. I’ll make a point of practice here: A lot of people who I meet, who are doing good things, tell me that they read history books. I think people are really animated by the notion that things could be different. Because every time you read a history book, you realize, “Well, things were different and things might have been different. And there are all kinds of ways that that moment could have connected to this moment.”
Whatever can throw you into the future and get you thinking in that direction is good. Because I agree with you that we only have one life and we’re going to collapse toward the moment. And we’re overwhelmed by our everyday concerns. But the more we can stretch ourselves in both directions, the past and the future, the more those moments can make sense.
To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.