Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I've been doomscrolling even more than usual on Twitter, following updates and consuming a seemingly endless amount of super-long Twitter threads written by pundits, analysts, War Studies professors, military experts, historians and international relations academics. We don't get a lot of coverage of Eastern European current affairs and politics in this part of the world, and I lack a lot of background knowledge about Ukrainian and Russian history and the various events that led us to this unconscionable act of aggression from Vladimir Putin and his state.
I've started reading up, and learnt a lot over this past couple of weeks. Perhaps there are Milo Peng Funders who have a lot more knowledge and expertise, but I figured there might be many others out there who are also looking to learn more as this horrific war drags on.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder
I've been learning the most about Russia and Ukraine, and more besides, from this book, which I'm still in the middle of reading. Snyder is a historian of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, and writes very clearly and thoughtfully on power and history. If you think his name sounds familiar, it could be because you've seen, or maybe even read, his other book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, which he wrote as a guide to resisting the United States' turn towards authoritarianism. (I strongly recommend that book too.)
In The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder lays out and takes apart the philosophy, rhetoric and strategy used by Putin and his buddies to paint Russia as forever innocent and forever under attack, and therefore justified in all their "defensive" actions. He points to how these Russian elites destroy factuality, using fascist philosophy and fascist actions to claim that they are the ones fighting fascism. He touches on the history of Ukraine and Russia after the disintegration of the USSR, and points out the different path that Ukraine has been taking — one that emphasises democracy and rule of law — much to the consternation of Putin and his Russian kleptocracy. He documents how Putin set up the West as the eternal enemy, blaming all the symptoms of weakness and failure in the Russian state on this amorphous Western foe: Russians protesting stolen elections in 2011 and 2012 were accused of being foreign toadies. NGOs branded as working "against Russia's interests" were banned, and those who had ties to entities abroad, even if they were just collaborating on holding a conference, were made to register as "foreign agents".
As Snyder put it:
"The point was to choose the enemy that best suited a leader's needs, not one that actually threatened the country. Indeed, it was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses and suggest the fallibility of aspiring dictators."
What I really appreciate about this book is that Snyder also makes broader arguments that we should all really reflect on. I found his framing of history and historical thinking most powerful, because it really applies to all of us and the way we think about our societies and countries:
"History is and must be political thought, in the sense that it opens an aperture between inevitability and eternity, preventing us from drifting from the one to the other, helping us see the moment when we might make a difference."
Timothy Snyder also has a newsletter; he's been using it to share resources on Ukraine. I found this latest issue about how Russian schools are teaching "history" and talking about the current war really illuminating.
The Kyiv Independent
The Kyiv Independent is an English-language publication that was launched in November last year, and is largely made up of journalists formerly from the Kyiv Post, where there were issues with editorial independence. It's a super young start-up, but they've been tirelessly covering the war. I've been following them on their Telegram channel as well as on Twitter for updates. They need as much support as they can get, so please consider supporting them monthly on Patreon.