‘Into the Mists of Time’ - Words to Untrap Our Minds
Highlights from Timothy Snyder’s interview on Frontline PBS
I am on deadline for three stories, but I can’t focus until I deliver these quotes hot off my mental press and into your hands.
As my mind was fermenting on stories I need to write, I distracted myself with an interview Timothy Snyder did for Frontline PBS titled Putin and the Presidents. The Yale professor who wrote ‘On Tyranny’ - the book I keep by side at all times, of which I wrote ‘break glass in case of emergency’ - was being interviewed by Michael Wiser on September 26, 2022. The full-length interview was released right before the first anniversary of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
As I was listening to Snyder’s calm delivery, I started thinking about how important words are in all of this - how words are actually everything. If you followed my team’s interview this week on RadPod with the creator of VatnikSoup.com, you’ll know that soldiers, politicians, so-called reporters, and grifters are delivering pro-Russian propaganda while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag and holding the bible.
They all lie on purpose. And whether it’s money, ideology, compromat, or ego (MICE), it no longer matters to me. They are destroying the world we share together with their lies.
And people such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jason Stanley, David Pepper, and Timothy Snyder douse the lies of this criminal gang with facts rooted in history and scholarly expertise, delivered calmly and with great conviction.
As Ruth noted today, “authoritarians are all corrupt so they go after journalists, educators, researchers, prosecutors, intelligence agencies, and scientists. They need to go after any institutions that expose their secrets.”
I promised Bette Dangerous would be an anti-fascist fanzine, and I am a fangirl of the great minds I interview.
In order to be of service to this community tonight, I isolated some vital Timothy Snyder quotes for you to share with everyone you know, including those mired in the Unreality being constantly created and recreated by the criminal gang.
‘The Mists of Time’
I have shared many lessons from Snyder — among them one of my favorite posts — ‘The Executed Renaissance’ — which was inspired by his Making of Modern Ukraine lecture series, which I am constantly citing on these pages. If you want to know how important and dangerous writers are to authoritarians, read about the hundreds of Ukrainian poets, playwrights, reporters, and free thinkers who were executed under Stalin.
From lecture No. 16, I brought you this mantra:
“When there is a far right threat, the left should not be divided.” - Timothy Synder
Would to God.
‘Our Minds In a Trap’
Without further delay, I plucked these very important highlights from Snyder’s Frontline interview. If you have not already watched the Frontline PBS special, ‘Putin’s Revenge’, here is a thread I wrote titled ‘Prisoner Tsar’ which captures Putin’s rise to power from that vital documentary film.
It’s good background for what Snyder had to say, which is as follows. Take a breath, it’s a lot:
On Ukraine War
What was at stake is countries shouldn’t destroy other countries for no reason in a war.
If you let a country invade another country with the goal of exterminating its population, that’s not just a horror in and of itself, it’s a remaking of the world which is going to continue in directions that you don’t want, indefinitely.
I think in 100 years, historians will be writing about the war in Ukraine… A lot of the things that seem very important to us right now… are going to disappear into the mists of time. Whether Ukraine wins or loses, which is very much up to the United States, very much up to the Biden administration, is something that historians are going to be writing about in 100 years.
Putin doesn’t really believe that Ukraine has any kind of independent existence…
He thinks he knows everything; he doesn’t know anything.
He’s talking about a fantasy of America, a fantasy of America that wants to do these insidious things like take Ukraine away from Russia. But that just shows, in my view anyway, a misunderstanding not only of America and Ukraine, but also of his own country.
The Russians think about America all the time. Americans only think about Russia when they have to.
We only react to Russia when we absolutely have to. I mean, we reacted very, very late and very, very weak to the Russian intervention in the American election in 2016. When Mitt Romney said, when he was campaigning against Barack Obama, that Russia was a serious threat, everyone laughed at him except the Russians.
If too few people own too much of the stuff and if too few people dominate the media, you’re not going to end up a democracy, whether you’re American or Russian or anybody else.
The eyes-seeing-the-soul thing I don’t understand at all; I’ve never had that experience.
Putin did consistently say that Ukraine is not a real country… the country only becomes threatening when Ukraine in some ways becomes a better country than Russia. (He gives the integrity of the vote and a peaceful transfer of power, as examples)
The way to understand Putin, I think, is to follow the failure of his domestic policy.
Russians get a foreign policy of spectacle, so we the West are the enemy of choice for Putin.
The idea that elections could be real… is a threat.
Putin needs Russians to believe that elections are always a circus, a farce and a fake, because if Russians believed that British elections and German elections and American elections are also fake, they’re not going to mind that their own elections are fake.
We would be living in a more secure world if there were more democracies in it… Putin’s reaction to that.. is much more threatening when it comes from nearer neighbors like Ukraine, where Russia’s could actually see, ‘Aha, the system is actually working.’
The Putin regime was never about creating things. The Putin regime is about removing alternatives.
It’s about making the normality that is Russia—the corruption, the inequality, the spectacle, the constantly lying—seem normal. And the way you make it seem normal is by making it be normal, not just in your own country, but in other places. So what the Russians became very effective at doing, by way of their international propaganda and then later by interfering in elections, is messing things up, taking the worst of other societies and bringing the worst tendencies to the fore, finding, by digital means and otherwise, our weaknesses and making those weaknesses greater and greater.
So the Obama administration was totally blindsided when the Russians decided to try to alter our electoral outcomes, but it was totally consistent with the way Russia sees the rest of the world. Russia’s not trying to make America like Russia; Russia’s just trying to turn America into a total mess. That’s what they’re going for. And that’s a kind of power.
What matters in Russia is what happens in Russia.
What they would rather do is have the Americans as the cartoon enemy.
There’s no such thing as history on your side… And I think the whole arc of history bending towards justice, it’s a nice thing; one likes to believe things like that are true. But there’s no arc of history; it’s not bending in any particular direction. You can make democracies happen, but to make democracies happen, you have to first set a really good example yourself and, second, understand the countries that you’re dealing with. And in the case of the Obama administration, I think we dismissed Russia as weak rather than realizing that the people who run the Russian state are very intelligent, that they have no desire to have democracy at all, that they’re not just going to wait and let it happen to them, but instead, they’re going to go on the offensive and try to undermine it in other places.
The Logic of Being a Tyrant
When Putin looks at the Arab Spring, or when Putin looks at Qaddafi, it’s absolutely right that he thinks: they’re dictators, I’m a dictator; they’re tyrants, I’m a tyrant; they end up in a cage, I could end up in a cage. He certainly thinks that because that is the logic of being a tyrant. As we know from Plato to Shakespeare, the logic of being a tyrant is that you’re going to be afraid of ending that way.
When you are the boss of bosses, when you are the tyrant, you’re going to be afraid of ending up in a cage.
Well, the message Putin had been sending since 2008 in Georgia was that he was willing to intervene militarily in his neighbors if he could get away with it.
And the “if he could get away with it” is really important, because what America thought or Americans thought or our administration at that time thought is that we are winning the war of ideas. We are winning the war of words. But that was wrong.
War of Words
What Russia was able to prove was that, no, as a matter of fact, we can invade a country, and we can make you think that it didn’t actually happen.
Russia invaded Ukraine and basically persuaded us that it didn’t actually happen.
While Russia was invading Ukraine, the most important thing that was happening in the minds of the West, not just Americans, were discussions about whether there’d been a coup in Ukraine or whether the Ukrainians are all Nazis, or maybe they’re all gay, or maybe they’re all Jews, depending on what social media you were following, right?
The Russians totally had our minds in a trap, and we were totally unprepared… they were paying attention to us, at least in the negative sense of knowing what our vulnerabilities were on social media.
So what we were not prepared for was the possibility that actually the ideas and the culture and the digital technology were not working for us. They were actually working for somebody else.
I wouldn’t want to underestimate how important Russian propaganda was at that time… we can’t learn a lesson if we don’t know the thing is actually happening.
The lesson we should have learned in domestic politics is that the Russians have found techniques to structure and frame what’s going on… they did that in 2014 when they invaded Ukraine, and they did it in 2016, to great effect, when they intervened in our presidential election, using the same people, the same institutions, the same techniques.
Once we’d been had in 2014… we should have been better prepared for being had in 2016.
So one of the lessons he learned is that you can mess with the American political mind, which he then applies in 2016.
You’re not a party to war if you give weapons because if that were true, every country in the world would be a party to every war… if we’d armed Ukrainians earlier and better, I think we’d be in a better world now.
The Russians won a propaganda war. It’s very rare that Country A invades Country B and Country C talks about other subjects entirely. So one of the lessons that Putin learned is you can mess with the American political mind.
They always have the advantage of believing in the worst part of human nature.
It’s clear they’ve been paying attention to (Trump) for a long time. It’s clear that Putin wanted Trump to win. He said as much. It’s clear that he applauded Trump’s idea that the European Union isn’t really a thing, that NATO should perhaps be weakened.
What Trump does for Putin is he normalizes the Russian way of doing politics. So Putin’s view that democracy is a joke, you can lie all the time, politics is fundamentally about some rich guy becoming richer, corruption is normal, right, that—Trump normalizes that for the whole world. So it’s a huge gift for Putin.
Putin was now normal thanks to Donald Trump, and that had a tremendously negative effect on politics around the world.
Look, it was a bonanza for them… a feast for the Kremlin every day. Because what the Trump administration delivered every day in its outrageous rhetoric, in its disrespect for American institutions, and in the countless scandals was what Russian propaganda outlets dreamed of. They dream of this kind of raw material which proves that democracy is a joke.
Trump is there to tell you that democracy is a joke. He’s there to tell you that the rules don’t apply to everyone equally; they don’t apply to him. He’s there to tell you that might makes right. He’s there to tell you that you can lie every day, not just in Russia but in America, which—that’s what he did. He lied every day, all the time, just like Putin.
Trump gave them the basic thing that they wanted, which was an American administration which was an embarrassment for everyone who cared about democracy.
If there’s another Trump administration, I think we can probably say goodbye for quite a while to American-European cooperation.
And one thing which they wanted, which they got and which they celebrated was a coup attempt. Nobody loved Jan. 6 more than the Russians did… They talk about it all the time. Trump gave them four years, which was one big gift, but Jan. 6 was like the wrapping.. if he’s elected again—if he becomes president again, I should say, I’m sure he’ll come up with new things, but Jan. 6 was an extraordinary gift to Russia.
And when it comes to the interaction between President Trump and President Zelenskyy, we see that the only thing which matters to Trump is staying in power personally, because of course he needs to avoid prosecution.
Absolutely Ukraine has a problem with corruption, but that became a sort of trope where, thanks in part to Russian propaganda, it was pushed to a degree where people would say, “Well, it’s not really a state; it’s a failed state,” which is something that Russians said over and over again. So what happens is that people use various things that are in some way or another kind of true about Ukraine in order to turn Ukraine into a place that doesn’t really exist.
I’m going to judge the Biden administration from how it reacted to a crisis, and the way they reacted to a crisis was to recognize that the crisis was real… they were right to believe that they couldn’t handle the problem on their own.
First of all, Ukraine changed. Ukraine between 2014 and 2022 saw a generational change in leadership where a lot of talented and interesting people actually came to power. Ukraine changed in the sense that 2014, the Maidan, the first war, opened up a period of cooperation in civil society and human networks which were going to prove to be very important in the 2022 war.
I think that we and the Russians were alike in the sense that we didn’t really understand how much Ukraine had changed and how much Ukraine would be an agent in this story of a war, how much this was not going to be a story of Russia humiliating America by invading Ukraine, how this was going to be a story of Russia humiliating itself because Ukrainians were going to fight back and win.
Russia was an alternative to democracy which pretended to be a democracy and which functioned in its foreign policy by trying to destroy the democracies which were more real than it was.
Putin’s in a conventional war which he is going to lose.
Dictators always fall from power. It always happens. And when it happens, it’s not something we should feel guilty or ashamed about. We should just be ready for it and be preparing our policy for the next person.
The situation is very dangerous for Putin, and poetically, he’s created the situation which could bring him down, which didn’t have to happen. By mobilizing a million Russian soldiers to go fight a war which was utterly pointless in which many of them are going to die, he’s created the situation where he could fall. He’s gone back to a place like 1917 where a Russian government is fighting a war it probably shouldn’t have been fighting. He’s going back to the 1560s and Ivan the Terrible, fighting a war he shouldn’t have fought.
Slava Ukraini 🇺🇦✊🏼
Please watch the interview for yourself. I took copious notes for you, but there is so much more. Including how Russia used racism as a wedge issue, to make people vote against the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history — Hillary Clinton. The question I have for everyone is, have we learned our lesson?
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