Putin, Trump, Ukraine: how Timothy Snyder became the leading interpreter of our dark times

From The Guardian:

Last September, seven months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder took a 16-hour train ride from Poland to Kyiv. Snyder knew the city well: he’d been visiting since the early 1990s, when he was a graduate student and the newly post-Soviet Ukrainian capital was dark and provincial. In the decades that followed, Kyiv had grown bigger and more interesting, and Snyder, who is now 53, had become an eminent historian of eastern Europe. On disembarking at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station, he found the city transformed by war. There were sandbags everywhere, concrete roadblocks and steel “hedgehogs” designed to stop Russian tanks. Air raid warnings blared from phones in pockets and handbags.

Not everything was unfamiliar. The first months of the war had gone relatively well for the Ukrainians – a fact that surprised many observers, but not Snyder – and by September, Kyiv was no longer in imminent danger of occupation. Life, while not normal, was regaining some of its prewar rhythms. You could get a haircut at a barbershop, or hear standup at a comedy club, or sunbathe on the shores of the Dnieper River.

Snyder had come to speak at an annual conference, Yalta European Strategy (YES), which was founded in 2004 to promote ties with Europe. Funded by a Ukrainian oligarch, the conference had become an occasional stopover for the gladhanding global elite. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Elton John and Richard Branson had all participated in previous years, and the roster for the 2022 meeting included the American national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.

Though he is not a natural gladhander, Snyder had attended the conference before. His first visit came in 2014, a few years after he published Bloodlands, a provocative and emotionally devastating account of Nazi and Soviet atrocities, which established him, in the words of one reviewer, as “perhaps the most talented younger historian of modern Europe working today”. The book was a crossover success, and in the years that followed Snyder began to write more about contemporary issues, including the climate crisis, healthcare and Ukrainian politics. But it was his writing about two figures, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that turned him into one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the past decade.

Snyder’s mainstream breakthrough, in 2017, was On Tyranny, a bestselling little book that helped make him the house intellectual of the centre-left anti-Trump movement sometimes known as #resistance liberalism. The book earned him regular invitations to appear on television. (“Whether or not you talked to your friends about it, everybody you know has been reading and re-reading On Tyranny,” Rachel Maddow said on her show.) The news Snyder brought his audience was almost unremittingly bleak, yet it also offered a strange kind of reassurance. You are not wrong to feel that the situation is grievous, Snyder told them. Take it from an expert in political barbarism: things are exactly as bad as they seem.

Snyder’s dire warnings were easy to caricature as bourgeois-liberal doomerism, yet Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election allowed him to claim vindication for what his critics had seen as hyperbole. On 9 January 2021, three days after a mob laid siege to the US Capitol, Snyder published an essay in the New York Times that made another prescient prediction. Trump’s failed putsch was more like the beginning than the end of something, Snyder argued. Since Trump’s “big lie” – that he won the election – “was now a sacred cause for which people had sacrificed”, it would remain a potent force in American politics unless a concerted effort was made to stop it.

Snyder’s view of Putin was still more ominous. In Putin’s Russia, Snyder sees a corrupt autocracy that has turned to neo-fascism in an attempt to regain its imperial glory. He was one of the few anglophone commentators to anticipate Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – a prediction that even his friends scoffed at – and warned in his book Black Earth that “a new Russian colonialism” threatened European stability. In his opinion, the full-scale invasion that started last year was not, as some saw it, a minor regional conflict, but rather an atrocity of epochal significance: “It is about the possibility of a democratic future,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.

Over the past year, Snyder has been one of the most eloquent interpreters of the war in Ukraine. He writes and speaks frequently about the conflict – including, in mid-March, to the UN security council. He has established a project to document the war, and more controversially, has raised more than $1.2m for an anti-drone defence system. A course on Ukrainian history that he taught at Yale last autumn has had hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and he has become one of the most famous western intellectuals within Ukraine itself. “He used to be a celebrity in historical circles and among intellectuals,” his friend, the Ukrainian rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, told me recently, “but now even ordinary people know a lot about him.”

. . . .

It was a sign of Snyder’s standing that the YES conference was only the second-highest-profile stop on his Kyiv itinerary. The main reason for his trip, Snyder told me, during one of three long conversations we had recently, was a private meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The Ukrainians, Snyder said, “think I’m much more important than I actually am”. Zelenskiy, he went on, “thought of me mainly as somebody who had some kind of voice. I’m not under the illusion that … ” Snyder stopped himself. “Well, no, that’s not true. He said: ‘My wife and I have read On Tyranny.’ That’s the first thing he said when I met him.”

Sitting in green leather wingbacks in Zelenskiy’s presidential office, the men talked for more than two hours. They discussed Shakespeare, the Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel, and the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov. They talked about freedom, too, the subject of a new book Snyder is working on, and particularly about Zelenskiy’s decision to stay in Ukraine once the invasion began. Zelenskiy said that while most western observers had expected him to flee, he had never felt as if he had any real choice. “That’s an argument that he helped me to make,” Snyder told me. “Being free means that you actually end up in situations where you won’t actually feel like you have a whole bunch of options.”

Snyder’s fascination with what he has described as Zelenskiy’s “choiceless choice” is not surprising: he had predicted that, too, on the eve of the war. As an academic and a public intellectual, Snyder has long operated on the belief that “there are moments in the world where your actions are magnified. It may be that you can take things that were going to swerve in a particularly bad direction, and you can push them with relatively little effort.” Zelenskiy’s decision, like the Ukrainian resistance writ large, was for him a vivid demonstration that this belief was well justified.

Link to the rest at The Guardian