“Americans and Europeans were guided through the new century by a tale about ‘the end of history,’ by what I will call the politics of inevitability, a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done,” writes the Yale historian Timothy Snyder in his 2018 book, “The Road to Unfreedom.”
The central thesis of “The Road to Unfreedom” is that different understandings of the past, its myths, histories and memories create radically different politics. Snyder wrote the book as a way of understanding Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and the West’s response, but its argument has become only more salient in recent weeks. You can’t understand Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine without understanding his metaphysical attachment to the era of empire, his mythological telling of Russian-Ukrainian history, and his semi-mystical construction of what constitutes the Russian nation.
But Snyder’s more radical argument is that the West is also operating under its own mythological understanding of time — one that is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that it masquerades as common sense. And that understanding the influence of the “politics of inevitability” is essential to make sense of everything from the West’s misreading of Putin’s motivations to the internal fracturing of the European Union to the decline of liberal democracy across the globe.