A commentary on Timothy Snyder’s talk entitled “Russia, Ukraine and the Central Significance of Civil Society,” which took place at Charles University, Prague, 27 January 2015.
On 27 January, the renowned historian Professor Timothy Snyder spoke to a packed hall at Charles University on the central role of civil society in understanding the Ukraine conflict and what is at stake in wider tensions between Russia and the West. Snyder compellingly made the case for critically re-examining received wisdoms about what civil society is, what it does and why it matters. He situated his analysis of the need to re-invigorate and actively enact civil society in relation to the complacency of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis. Snyder claimed that following the great upsurge in civil society activity of 1989 we have allowed ourselves to become complacently post-historical in expecting both a vibrant civil society and “progress” (towards liberal market democracy) to occur “automatically.”
Snyder based his argument on discussion of the convergence and divergence of Russian and Ukrainian histories and national myths. He then presented insightful analyses of certain aspects of the Ukraine conflict and their links to civil society, history and collective memory, particularly with regard to the driving forces and goals of Euromaidan and the obstacles to achieving these. Snyder also provided an illuminating contextualization of the Ukrainian conflict with regard to the wider objectives and orientations of the Putin regime’s domestic governance and foreign relations. However, this led into a discussion on propaganda, which, I argue below, became less credible the more it was pursued and actually showed the flaws in Snyder’s own arguments and methods.
This was particularly the case when he linked the fight against Russian propaganda back to the importance of believing in history, which, he had earlier asserted, provided the platform for effective civil society. Snyder also repeatedly contradicted himself – something he accuses Russian propagandists of doing – and was also guilty in some instances of aping their dissembling tactics, while trying to slip through claims that do not stand up to further scrutiny.
Civil society and the malleable communities of history and memory
The presentation began with a very reasonable definition of civil society as occupying the space between the level of the individual and the level of the state and as providing a way to translate private concerns into meaningful collective action. The collective aspect of this necessitates the delineation of communities within and for which with such action can take place. As Snyder argued, an important example of such a community is a nation, although he dismissed related although different ideas of ethnicity and language as “silly.” For Snyder (and many others), the role of history and the nation’s collective memory is a key aspect of community cohesion, which can also help it bond with other communities or create distinctions from them.
This led into a discussion of the contested legacy of the Kyivan Rus, which Snyder pointed out was populated by “Vikings and Jews” yet is nonetheless claimed as a part of both Russian and Ukrainian heritage. He identified the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in 1569, as significant because it meant that the sizable parts of Ukraine that were included in it experienced “normal” European development – “the renaissance, reformation, counter-reformation” – while Russia did not. Despite Snyder’s ostensible rejection of Fukuyama, this analysis points to an acceptance of some aspects of the “historicism” that were smuggled in with “the end of History,” specifically the notions of natural or correct paths of development.
Snyder then jumped to the divergent experiences of Ukraine in the early Soviet period, with particular reference to the industrialization and collectivization of Stalin’s first 5-year plan, which led to the Holodomor, the starvation famine that affected Ukraine to a far greater extent than Russia. However, Snyder then noted that the experience of the Second World War served as a unifying force, with narratives of great patriotism obscuring the activities of Ukrainian nationalists to a significant extent.
Echoing the arguments made by Andrew Wilson in a recent book on the Ukraine crisis, Snyder then claimed that the events of the last 18 months had “overwritten and overwhelmed” memories of the Second World War as the intense experience of (Euro)Maidan and then the conflict with Russia had been such an intense experience that it had created a new socio-political national myth that left Russia and Ukraine “as different as any pair of European countries.”
Crucially, Snyder emphasized the role of civil society in this process and countered claims that EuroMaidan was led or dominated by Ukrainian-nationalists or Ukrainian-speakers by asserting that it’s driving force was Kyiv’s Russian-speaking middle class. Language, had thus gone from “silly” in other analyses to significant in Snyder’s and was about to become even more so. He plausibly identified a confluence of Ukrainians’ desire for “European” governance and disgust at the “oligarchical pluralism” that had characterized governance in independent Ukraine. The failure to sign the Association agreement meant the continuation of the latter at the expense of the former and provoked a spontaneous surge in civic activism, culminating in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government.
Snyder argued that this showed exactly why civil society was so threatening to Putin-type governance, at home and abroad, particularly because the protestors shared a common language (and much else) with Russian citizens, again seeming to contradict some of his previous claims. He then went on to talk about various dimensions of the conflict that ensued, focusing on its military, strategic and propagandistic elements.
Dimensions of conflict: military tactics, strategic worldview, and the propaganda war
With regard to military tactics, Snyder termed the well-described “hybrid” warfare of the Eastern Ukrainian separatists and their Russian allies as “reverse asymmetric warfare.” This label implies that the state (normally the “stronger” party in asymmetric conflict) has in effect adopted the tactics of “the weak,” of guerrillas and irregular combatants. This analysis jarred with Snyder’s assertion, when trying to emphasize the magnitude of the conflict earlier in the talk, that Eastern Ukraine had witnessed the largest tank battles since the Second World War (between Russian and Ukrainian regular forces).
However, the notion of reverse-asymmetric warfare fits Snyder’s overall analysis of Russian strategy, which he describes as “strategic relativism” – an idea that has long been common currency in the discipline of International Relations, but was presented by the Historian as something new. Snyder argued that Russia sees itself as relatively weak compared to the powers supposedly aligned against it: the West (in various configurations) now joined by a corrupted or kidnapped Ukraine. According to Snyder, this is why the seemingly stronger side in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine adopts the tactics of the weak, although there are also plenty of other reasons for doing so.
Snyder also argued that this self-perception of relative weakness, which does fit with narratives of victimization and humiliation in international affairs that have been prominent in much Russian discourse since the end of the Cold War, also lies behind Russia’s propaganda war against the West. In this analysis, a weak Russia can become stronger by weakening other powers, particularly the EU. This weakening has taken two forms. Firstly, Snyder claimed that Russia has sought to undermine European unity by supporting anti-EU parties and groups on both the far-right and far-left, many of whom have bought into the type of propaganda discussed below.
Secondly, Russia has sought to undermine the confidence of Europeans and their political leaders in the EU and in their own societies, branding them as decadent. As Snyder cleverly pointed out, this term not only differentiates the EU from Russia in terms of values – “gay latte drinkers [vs.] true defenders of Christianity” – but also implies the decay of Europe and European societies. If true, this would weaken the basis for political action, by states and by the EU, as well as by civil society actors, which Snyder claims requires a re-assertion of true “history” rather than the nihilistic relativism that he sees as further weakening Europe.
To achieve the goal of a relative re-balancing of power, Snyder claimed that the Kremlin has employed methods of dissembling and confusion, throwing up enough lies (of varying degrees of plausibility) to obscure what Snyder sees as “the truth” in the long run, or even “facts” in the short term. He claimed that this type of propaganda not only effective in Russia, where it falls on favorable ears and eyes, but also in the West where rather than trying to get us to believe something in particular, the propaganda further “corrode[s] our ability to believe anything.” Snyder links this to the West’s embrace of what he sees as a radical postmodern skepticism that has not only undermined our ability to read the present, but has also undermined our “confidence in history.”
Crucially, Snyder sees this undermining of history as having a doubly detrimental effect in that it hinders the action by both civil society and states (and the EU) in the face of situations such as that which has developed in Ukraine, as both interests become obscured and communities fail to bond or to believe they should or even could act.
History, politics, and critique
In responses to questions, which unfortunately were required to be in written form which hindered the level of critical engagement, Snyder discussed how Russian propaganda could be countered, while emphasizing the importance of not resorting to counter-propaganda. Instead, Snyder made a convincing argument for the need for reporters on-the-ground to provide information and for academics and others to point out the contradictions or inconsistencies in propaganda and political messaging. Both measures are attempts to re-assert the value of “truth” and “fact” in opposition to the confusing “postmodern” “cacophony” that Snyder bemoans.
It was unfortunate therefore that when answering a question on the supposed presence of right wing or “fascist” elements in Eastern Ukraine, Snyder resorted to the same tactic. He offered a bewildering list of those that have been alleged combatants, ranging ranged from the Polish army to Blackwater and the (non-existent) NATO foreign legion, in order to cast doubt on the validity of claims that the those such Azov battalion, which has been pictured using fascist symbols, are indicative of a right-wing presence.
This essay has shown some of the inconsistencies in Snyder’s own positions, which do not necessarily undermine the overall thrust of his argument, but do cast doubt upon some of the foundations upon which his scholarship is based. This is particularly the case with regard to the inconsistent treatment of “language” and “ethnicity,” which move from being “silly” constructs to “real” factors in explaining conflict and community as suits the argument.
This is perhaps linked to Snyder’s unwillingness to talk about intersectional identity politics for fear of its proximity to the postmodernism he so abhors, but it is not good scholarship and nor were his quasi-orientalist remarks about Russian and Chinese propensities for skullduggery and cunning respectively. Despite criticizing the complacent assumptions and conclusions of the “end of history” Snyder reproduces many of its aspects, particularly regarding its liberal goals, while somewhat incredulously claiming to be “true left wing.”
More worryingly, Snyder also smuggled in big, political claims under the banner of academic scholarship, such as the questionable assertion (particularly in the EU context) that “you cannot have a foreign policy if you don’t have an army.” Taken together with Snyder’s argument that we need to believe in history rather than fall prey to dangerous critical relativism, this amounts to an attempt to put his own politics beyond the pale of serious critical questioning. This sits uneasily with the first point Snyder made – the need to critically examine received wisdoms or stabilized concepts, such as the notion of civil society.
This inconsistency is the most serious critique of his talk as it undermines his own challenge to the propagandists, who he is more similar to than it would be comfortable for him to admit. There is much to admire in the detail of Timothy Snyder’s scholarship, as the astute observations reported above testify, but we should also hold his work up to the critical standards that he applies to others, rather than allowing it to be off-limits to thoroughgoing critique.
This text was originally published on the Torn Curtain blog.
Benjamin Tallis (@bctallis) is the coordinator of the Centre for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, and editor-in-chief of New Perspectives, Interdisciplinary Journal of CEE Politics & IR. He also writes the blog, Torn Curtain about CEE politics, societies and cultures