“Do not obey in advance,” “Defend institutions,” “Beware the one-party state” — these are some of the lessons featured in American historian Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny.
The book, which was released in the US in February 2017, reads like a manifesto, outlining ways citizens can help uphold democracy and deter tyranny in their societies. With support from Hromadske, it has now been published in Ukrainian.
But Snyder, who specializes in Eastern Europe, the Holocaust and World War II, believes that some of the takeaways in the book may be nothing new to some Ukrainians.
“What ‘On Tyranny’ tries to do is to define ways to live, daily ways to live, monthly, yearly, ways of carrying yourself through life, which make it more likely that your society will remain democratic,” he told Hromadske. “I think that's a lesson for Ukrainians, but I think it's also a lesson that many Ukrainians have already figured out for themselves.”
Snyder also has some advice for Ukraine when it comes to state building. He thinks that it’s important Ukraine does not confuse victimhood with powerlessness, otherwise “you can get captured in this cycle, where all you do is you compete with the Russians or with someone else about the past,” he says.
Although Ukraine may be just starting to take note of Snyder’s work, ever since President Trump came to power in the US, Snyder has gained a significant following among young Americans, having even appeared on popular satirical news show The Daily Show.
Snyder sees his ability to reach young people as something positive and even helps inform his work.
“I've tried really hard to learn from younger people, whether they're Americans or Ukrainians, I try to keep what people who are in their twenties think, I try to keep that fresh in my mind, that helps me a lot.”
Hromadske spoke with Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University, via Skype to discuss the book, Ukraine and his new-found popularity.
What is your message? You’ve done a lot of work on this country, a lot of research on Ukrainian history. Reading the book, there is a lot of talk on explaining how fake news works, there is a lot that is intended for the US audience, you explain the history of Europe, the history of Eastern Europe, and in particular, events that took place here, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But there are some things that are extremely valuable for Ukraine because this book is about tyranny and this is a real risk everywhere. So what is your message for the people in this part of the world?
First of all, it's great to talk to you and I'm really glad that we can do this interview and I'm really glad that you were involved with the publication of the book. As you say, but I'll put it more directly, many of the things that are in On Tyranny are lessons that I've learned from Ukrainians, from Ukrainian journalists, from people who work in Hromadske, from my own friends in Kyiv, that what I would say is that, we are all in this together, that the lessons that are lessons for Americans tend also to be lessons for other people. What I thought I was doing was taking things that I knew about Eastern Europe and trying to teach them to Americans, but, then it turned out that the discussion of the book was really just one discussion, that Poles, and Turks, and Malaysians, and Koreans, and Chinese people, in Libya, Egypt, I heard from people all over the world, so I think there is some kind of general resonance to this book. In a way, what this means is that there's a general resonance to the experience of Ukrainians because so much of what's in the book are things that I've learned from Ukrainians. You mention fake news - the people, who understand what was happening in America in 2016, were very often Russians or Ukrainians, or others, who had experience with similar phenomena. I hope that my analysis is useful for Ukrainians.
What I would say, I would make two points. The first is: you should understand that you are helping us, even when events in Europe or the United States don't turn out the way that you expect or, even when it seems like we're letting you down, it's always the case that you are helping us and that we're learning from you, many of us are learning from you. So a couple hundred thousand people, actually more than that, have read On Tyranny in the US, and all those people, in some way, are learning from Ukraine. If there's a message for Ukrainians, I think it's a message that Ukrainians have already understood; it's the difference between the Orange Revolution and Maidan. The lesson is that, building a democracy, or having a democracy, is a constant process. It's a process of self-creation, it's about how you live your life, it's not just about winning or losing at one particular moment. What On Tyranny tries to do is to define ways to live, daily ways to live, monthly, yearly, ways of carrying yourself through life, which make it more likely that your society will remain democratic. I think that's a lesson for Ukrainians, but I think it's also a lesson that many Ukrainians have already figured out for themselves.
Of course, there is an international audience for this book, and that is what they will understand. But there are also 20 points, calling people to action, telling people what they are supposed to do, there is some advice, but what are the most important lessons from history? You refer to Europe in the 30s, when Hitler came to power, you refer to Stalin and also the way the Ukrainian peasants were portrayed, but really, what are the most important points for the Western audience to pick up on and learn from here at this stage?
Going back to your first question, I think even people, who know about the rise of Hitler to power, or who know about Holodomor, don't necessarily think about it in terms of contemporary politics, so I think, again, these are lessons for everyone. But, the most important lessons have to do with defining yourself as being a free person. So lesson number one is don't obey in advance, and that's a lesson which comes from historical scholarship about Germany in 1933. In turns out that, during times of regime change from democracy to something else, to authoritarianism or totalitarianism, that people think that they have a lot more than they think they do. It turns out that in the first weeks and months of regime change, what usually happens is that people, who had rights, give them away voluntarily, they consent by not doing anything, they consent by adjusting themselves internally, or by not reacting to support their neighbors, and it's that quiet consent which makes the regime change possible. So don't obey in advance, having the ability to decide what's around happening me is not normal, I may not be sure what I'm going to do now, but I'm sure that I'm not going to go along with it. That's the most important lesson, it's maybe historically the most important lesson, but it's also psychologically and politically the most important lesson because if you do obey in advance, if you just decide that you're going to adjust, then you become that person who is just adjusted and it's very hard for you to act later on. And then politically, if you don't act at the beginning, it becomes much harder to act later on.
So, number one: don't obey in advance, and then later on in the book: stand out. That freedom means doing things, which are necessarily uncomfortable. If you are doing the things which everyone else is doing, then you're not a free person, you're just a comfortable person. Freedom means doing things that make you a little bit ill at ease because it's not what everyone else is telling you to do and that is, of course, specifically a lesson for Americans because we talk about freedom all the time, we can hardly finish a sentence without using the word "freedom," but to actually be a free person doesn't mean talking about freedom, it means doing things, which are different from everyone else, and thereby setting a different example, or a different standard for other people.
In Kyiv, we are commemorating four years since the Revolution of Dignity, but, at the same time, there are now new challenges. I would say that one of the biggest tragedies in this war, which Russia started against Ukraine after the Maidan revolution, is the fact that, in these circumstances, society is pushed towards opting for security rather than freedom because, immediately after the revolution, the post-Maidan society was more in favour of freedom compared to security, or any other restrictions. Obviously, when you have conflict, there are different ideas about that. That's what is disturbing. You do have some paragraphs about the paramilitary, about the one-party system. We have already lived with this four years, so it's not just about the Russian annexation or Russian aggression, but our internal issues, how to build a state in these circumstances. Do you mention that? When you are looking at Ukraine, what are the things that stand out for you now, during the active conflict?
You're right. Towards the end of the book, there are a couple of lessons about conflict, terrorism and war, and their relationship to domestic politics. It's very easy to use the excuse of terrorism, or the excuse of war, to change the regime in an undesirable direction. It's also pretty easy, and this is more like what's happened in Ukraine, to use war as a reason not to reform the state. Whereas, in fact, the exact opposite is true. What we know from history is that war is the occasion to reform the state. When you lose a war, that's the time when you have to reform the state, that's your chance to reform the state. So, it's very important to see that argument for what it is and to see that the opposite is true. With security and freedom, it's very important to see also that, though those are two good things, you don't have to always sacrifice one for the other. Sometimes you do - I'm not free to walk on to aeroplane without a security check. Sometimes there is a contradiction, but, there isn't always, so it's a little bit of a trap. People say: Well to be more secure you have to be less free. That's not necessarily true, I think the better way to think about it is that it's the government's job both to protect freedom, and to protect security at the same time, and that we should be asking for both of those things, even though sometimes there might be a conflict. Again, from our point of view as citizens, it's not our job to give up on one to get the other, we should be expecting both.
Now, the paramilitaries are a general issue which has to do with the building of a state, and I think most Ukrainians understand this. In order to have a state, you have to have the rule of law, and part of the rule of law is that it's the state that monopolizes the use of violence. And so, paramilitaries have been used, can be used, to overthrow governments or change the way governments work. This was true in the fascist takeovers of the twenties and thirties. This is a problem, not just in Ukraine, but in other places - Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic even - there are paramilitary organisations, which have strange, international connections. It's potentially a huge problem in the United States, where so much of the population is already armed. But the basic lesson is that, paramilitaries are dangerous because they're somewhere in between the citizens and the state. It's understandable why they emerge in particular moments, but over the long term, if a state is going to exist, it has to be the state that monopolizes violence, which controls violence. And when paramilitaries start to appear on the streets, that's a classic sign that a regime is about to change.
How else would you define the line, there are the issues about the whole concept of this nostalgia — "Make America Great Again" and what's happening in Europe — this feeling of how good the past was. At the same time, in a country like ours, and you know it better than anyone as a historian, who learned and studied Ukrainian history, the colonial history of the country, where the the Ukrainian culture was oppressed. How would you define this line between nostalgia, which is moving society towards the past instead of looking forward, and this revival of national culture. And it's easy to play with these terms, in particular, in this environment, where nationalism is on the rise, but, at the same time, we have a country, which was colonized and is finally becoming freer.
With Russia and with the United States, I think a kind of trick is being played, where Russian and American leaders talk about going back to the 1940s, but what they really mean is the 1930s. In Russia, the main object of nostalgia is the Great Fatherland War and winning the Great Fatherland War, and the Great Fatherland War was used as a justification, as every Ukrainian knows, for invading Ukraine, which, of course, is absurd. But, in Russia, what's really happening is the rehabilitation of right-wing thinkers from the 1930s. In the US, there is something similar. When President Trump talks about making America great again, people think of the forties, fifties, sixties, they think of a time when wealth in the United States was growing and when wealth was being more evenly distributed. But then, it turns out that what he's really thinking about and what his ideologues are really thinking about is the 1930s - a time when there was great depression, when there wasn't a welfare state yet, when wealth was very unevenly distributed. And the fantasy that Trump and his people seem to have is: let's go back to the 1930s, but this time, let's not build a welfare state, this time let's not go to war. In the US and Russia, I think what is basically happening is the [...] of policy, all for people who are ready for the past. But the bit of the past, that they have in mind is actually different to the one that they are talking about. With Ukraine, I think the really important thing is not to fall into the trap of confusing victimhood with powerlessness. On the one hand, it's extremely important that people in Russia, people in America, people in Europe understand that there was a Holodomor, understand that the famine in Ukraine is essential to the memory of people that live in Ukraine, that has to be respected the way that other people's history and memory are respected. That's extremely important and Ukrainians are right to expect that. On the other hand, it's very important that policy in the present not becomes just about victimhood because if it is, then you can get captured in this cycle, where all you do is you compete with the Russians or with someone else about the past, and doing that is so much easier, or it feels so much easier than actually building a state. I think there should be a history of the Holodomor, a contributed history of the Holodomor. I think it's extremely important, but, at the same time, that's only part of what the state needs to do. What the state needs to do in Ukraine is that it has to prepare us all for a future, and that doesn't just mean fighting memory wars with Russia, it means teaching Ukrainians and others the history - which is different from memory wars - the history of how these things happen, so that on that basis, we can do better the next time around. so it's very important that Ukrainians see history going from the past into the present, into the future, rather than just looping back round to the past again. I think if Ukraine gets trapped arguing with Russia about the past, that's not a contest that Ukraine can really win. Ukrainians should avoid thinking of themselves as being in a memory war and instead try to teach themselves and everyone else history, precisely as a preparation for moving forward. That has to be the emphasis, that the state is going to be better in the future than it is now. The state's job is not only to look back and make a circle to the past, the state's job is to make itself better for the next generation of Ukrainians.
In the book, you prefer to define what patriotism is not - that it's not patriotic not to declare your tax returns, or to welcome interference from another state, with clear reference to Donald Trump. At the same time, it is less explained what patriotism is. And of course, we here are more interested in the fact that, in a time of conflict, patriotism is a word, which can be used in a misleading way. Overall, what is patriotism for you?
What I try to do is make a distinction between nationalism and patriotism, and to explain what patriotism is, let me first just say what I think nationalism is. Nationalism is telling people that they are already the best. That's what nationalism is. Nationalism says: no matter we do, we're the best. And so, nationalism in politics tends to be reactionary because it's very hard to [do] anything with that idea, except maybe to fight a war. Patriotism is different. A patriot is someone who says, I love my country and therefore, I want it to be better. So therefore, a patriot can never just say: we're the best all the time no matter what, because a patriot has some kind of standards, a patriot has thought enough about his country and his place in the world. But he's holding it to some standards because, if you want something to be better, you have to have some standard to judge what's better and what's worse. A nationalist will always say, everything is fine, we're not doing anything wrong, it's always someone else's fault. Whereas, a patriot will say something like: my nation needs to improve in ways A, B and C, we all need to take responsibility for those improvements happening. So, I tend to think that patriotism is a much more serious form of love of a country than nationalism. Nationalism is easy, it’s easy for everybody. Whereas patriotism is hard but patriotism is much more important.
You’re a historian, but in this particular book On Tyranny there is a lot said about modern television and social media. So you encourage people to read books rather than staying in their bubbles, on their computers or watching television. This is the age we live in, of course. There is sometimes excitement about new technology. But being very serious, to what extent is your concern about big tech, even about new phenomena of new media entering political life. What are the concerns relating to this?
Yes, yes. I mean, if you’re a historian then you know that new forms of media will have unpredictable consequences. So, the printing press today is harmless but when it was invented it wasn’t. It played a big role in a 150 years of religious war. Radio today [is a] fairly calm technology, but in the 1930s it had a good deal to do with the rise of fascism. So technologies tend to be massively disruptive. And then, after decades or maybe after a century or two, they calm down. I think the same is true for the internet. Internet is surrounded by a lot of happy talk about how more communication has to be more enlightening, more democratizing. But there’s no particular reason to think that that’s true. Enlightenment, democracy don’t depend on just random transmission of everything. Enlightenment depends upon people being able to have the chance to learn what’s true and reason on that. Whereas democracy depends on people becoming citizens, them knowing the rules on their political society. So, there’s really no reason to think that the Internet was going to be democratizing and I don't think it has been.
Now I’m going to give some reasons why I’m worried about it. The first reason is that the Internet has a way of specializing itself to what people want to hear. And whereas if you’re going to live in a democracy you have to be aware that what’s true is not the same as what you want to hear. Authoritarianism works by convincing people that what they want to hear is the same thing as the truth. And we see this in the United States unfortunately. More and more people think that the truth is the stuff that they already believe. And what the internet can do is supply them over and over again with what they already believe. A second thing that I’m worried is the shortening of attention spans. That the internet, at least over here, works to flash you from one thing to the next and divides up your attention into very small pieces. And that means that when we’re off the internet it’s harder for us to think in the ways that we sometimes need to think. The third thing that worries me is the way that the Internet keeps us all in the same cliches all the times. So it’s a little bit like the news cycle but more so. Everybody is talking about the same topics every day and using the same words to talk about those topics. And that makes it very hard to think about what’s actually going on. If everybody’s using the same words to talk about the same things then we lose the words and the concepts that we need to actually make sense of the reality. We lose the sense of perspective or context. And it’s for that reason that I think that reading pretty much anything is useful in trying to build back that vocabulary, in trying to build back that ability to concentrate, in trying to build back that ability to see things from a point of view that’s not your own. Now obviously I don’t think that the internet should be banned or is always bad. The twenty lessons that are in On Tyranny I first published as a Facebook post. I think the real question is whether what we do on the internet leads us to do something in the real world. I think that’s the critical task. Does the internet make us do more stuff on the internet or does the internet lead us to do things in the real world? It’s like Mustafa Nayyem’s post in November, speaking of four years ago. At the end of it he said the lesson of the post is that likes don’t count. In other words, you can’t just stay on the internet, you actually have to go back out into the world. So, as long the internet directs us back into the real world, I think it’s ok. What worries me is the tendency of people to get drawn in and in and in.. Certainly some things have changed in America by 2016. Americans now spend an average of 11 hours in front of the television or the internet every day, which makes Americans much like Russians actually or much like people in Donbas. And that’s just too much time. I think if it were not 11 hours, you know, but five hours or six hours, we’d be living in a very different country and we’d have different political outcomes.
In the end, you are a historian, a historian of Eastern Europe, and not just that, but a historian of modern history. However, this book is more like a manifesto and a call for action. You give lectures, I've seen a lot of [your] books in the US, this book in particular is a bestseller. How do you explain that? In a way, it’s not very common that a historian writes about something you need to do and does not just refer to the history. How do you feel about that? How would you explain that? And also, you're popular in the US media and very popular among young audiences, like that of the Daily Show. How do you live with that? How do you explain that yourself? What is your personal lesson with this experience?
Let me start with the young people. First of all, I'm really glad when I can talk to young people, whether its on TV or directly, because whether my country is going to be republic or not, depends on what young people do, I think, in the next ten or twenty years. And I think what happened last year was a surprise to American young people, or a lot of them, they weren't prepared for things to change, and then, when things did change, there was a temptation to say: well, it doesn't really matter. And it does matter. It matters, it matters a lot. So, for me, that's been really important and the other side of that is that I've tried really hard to learn from younger people, whether they're Americans or Ukrainians, I try to keep what people who are in their twenties think, I try to keep that fresh in my mind, that helps me a lot. The second thing is what lesson there is in this for me. The thing is, I don't take it as strange to be both a historian and, occasionally, an activist because that's what all of my teachers did, or that's what all of my East European teachers did. That's what the people I studied do. If you are in an East European setting, it's not so strange to be, for example,I'm not comparing myself to Hrushevsky, but if you're Hrushevsky, then sometimes you're a historian and sometimes you are in politics. This is totally normal for East European scholars. The people who trained me were Polish scholar who, at some time, were also activists. So, I take it for granted that's normal. The important thing is that it is two different things. Being a historian is one form of activity, being a public activist is another form of activity. They have different rules. It helps to be a historian, but it's not the same thing. It's a little bit like if you're a doctor and there's some kind of emergency, you might react to the emergency and it helps that you're a doctor, even though it's not exactly your line of work, still, you see a problem and you do it, which leads me to how do I feel about it. Well, I feel much better for doing something. I mean, one of the lessons, one of the things that I try to get across in On Tyranny, is that it's very important to do something, even something small, because if you do something, especially if you do something with other people, then you feel better and then you can keep on doing other things. If you don't do anything and if you withdraw back into yourself, it's very easy to be overwhelmed. So personally, I feel good about it because I think I'm doing the thing that I know how to do, which might be helpful. So I feel fine about it, I feel like I'm behaving like a citizen and that's what people ought to do.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko