Last September, seven months after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder took a 16-hour train ride from Poland to Kyiv. Snyder knew the city well: he’d been visiting since the early 1990s, when he was a graduate student and the newly post-Soviet Ukrainian capital was dark and provincial. In the decades that followed, Kyiv had grown bigger and more interesting, and Snyder, who is now 53, had become an eminent historian of eastern Europe. On disembarking at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station, he found the city transformed by war. There were sandbags everywhere, concrete roadblocks and steel “hedgehogs” designed to stop Russian tanks. Air raid warnings blared from phones in pockets and handbags.
Not everything was unfamiliar. The first months of the war had gone relatively well for the Ukrainians – a fact that surprised many observers, but not Snyder – and by September, Kyiv was no longer in imminent danger of occupation. Life, while not normal, was regaining some of its prewar rhythms. You could get a haircut at a barbershop, or hear standup at a comedy club, or sunbathe on the shores of the Dnieper River.
Snyder had come to speak at an annual conference, Yalta European Strategy (YES), which was founded in 2004 to promote ties with Europe. Funded by a Ukrainian oligarch, the conference had become an occasional stopover for the gladhanding global elite. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gordon Brown, Elton John and Richard Branson had all participated in previous years, and the roster for the 2022 meeting included the American national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.
Though he is not a natural gladhander, Snyder had attended the conference before. His first visit came in 2014, a few years after he published Bloodlands, a provocative and emotionally devastating account of Nazi and Soviet atrocities, which established him, in the words of one reviewer, as “perhaps the most talented younger historian of modern Europe working today”. The book was a crossover success, and in the years that followed Snyder began to write more about contemporary issues, including the climate crisis, healthcare and Ukrainian politics. But it was his writing about two figures, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that turned him into one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the past decade.
Snyder’s mainstream breakthrough, in 2017, was On Tyranny, a bestselling little book that helped make him the house intellectual of the centre-left anti-Trump movement sometimes known as #resistance liberalism. The book earned him regular invitations to appear on television. (“Whether or not you talked to your friends about it, everybody you know has been reading and re-reading On Tyranny,” Rachel Maddow said on her show.) The news Snyder brought his audience was almost unremittingly bleak, yet it also offered a strange kind of reassurance. You are not wrong to feel that the situation is grievous, Snyder told them. Take it from an expert in political barbarism: things are exactly as bad as they seem.
Snyder’s dire warnings were easy to caricature as bourgeois-liberal doomerism, yet Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election allowed him to claim vindication for what his critics had seen as hyperbole. On 9 January 2021, three days after a mob laid siege to the US Capitol, Snyder published an essay in the New York Times that made another prescient prediction. Trump’s failed putsch was more like the beginning than the end of something, Snyder argued. Since Trump’s “big lie” – that he won the election – “was now a sacred cause for which people had sacrificed”, it would remain a potent force in American politics unless a concerted effort was made to stop it.