Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans

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“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.

So that’s where we start: with the central myths at the heart of the modern Western project — and the blind spots they have created. But Snyder is also a renowned historian of European great-power conflict who has written six books entirely or partly about Ukraine. So we also discuss the chasm between the radicalness of European integration and the tedium of European governance, why Snyder thinks Putin’s invasion is fundamentally the product of a Russian identity crisis, Ukraine’s unique history as a battleground for a great-power war, how Ukrainian identity transcends ethnicity and language, why Western leaders and analysts consistently fail to decipher Putin’s intentions, the huge difference between a Russian nation premised on myth and a Ukrainian nation forged by collective action, how Ukrainian resistance could inspire a Western vision for the future and more.

Mentioned:

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

"On the History Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” by Vladimir Putin

Book recommendations:

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

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