Why Tim Snyder is wrong
Or why Russia is not engaging in eugenics
I first became suspicious of Tim Snyder when I saw his Twitter thread about how Russia’s soldiers “sent to die were largely Asians” and that “[i]n the mobilisation the people forced to serve will also be largely Asians.”
Criticizing the Russian Federation, especially since the start of its war with Ukraine, is easy. The Russian government makes it easy with every single utterance from an official figure, with every single action is takes on the battlefield, with every hypocritical whataboutism it engages in online. There is no need to make up nonsense, no need to skew statistics, no need to lie. The truth speaks for itself.
As I wrote in response, he is wrong and he has nothing to back up his claim. A randomly selected video of a dead or captured Russian soldier will immediately show that the soldiers Russia uses are not “largely Asians” by any reasonable definition.
I believe that Mr. Snyder’s incorrect beliefs are driven by reporting that has been severely misunderstood by the general public and by important personalities active in the public discourse. People who don’t know any better look at the statistics reported by outlets like Mediazona and incorrectly assume that soldiers from places like Bashkortostan or Dagestan or Buryatia are of non-Russian ethnicities.
Tim Snyder is not someone like that, he should know better. He should be honest with the facts and he should apply basic logic to the data we have available. The data speaks for itself: the majority of Russia’s population is ethnically Russian. Ethnic Russians (in the American understanding - white people, not Asians) make up about 70-80% of the population. They are found all over the country and make up a majority of the population in almost every region in Russia, including many “ethnic republics” like Buryatia, which is intended to be a republic within the Russian Federation that serves as a home to the native Buryat population.
As a matter of fact, only a handful of subjects within the Russian Federation are overwhelmingly majority non-Russian, and they’re located in the North Caucuses (Dagestan, Chechnya, etc.) and in Tuva. The rest either have ethnically Russian majorities or are a strong mix of Russians and non-Russians, like Tatarstan or Chuvashia.
When looking at the places within Russia where soldiers are are coming from, regardless of if they’re serving by contract or if they are mobilized, the common trend is not that those places are non-Russian, but that they are poor. Poverty is the link between Russian Chelyabinsk and non-Russian Dagestan. You cannot explain the disproportionate numbers from both Bashkortostan (~30% Russian and ~30% Bashkir) and nearby Sverdlovsk Oblast (~90% Russian) by ethnicity. If Buryatia provides a disproportionate number of soldiers relative to its overall population, you cannot assume that all those soldiers are non-Russian. After all, ~60% of Buryatia’s population is ethnically Russian, and no one has so far been able to provide any evidence that the selection mechanisms the government employs to obtain men to throw at the front are explicitly selecting for non-Russian ethnicities.
Moreover, the extremely strong claim that the majority of the soldiers sent to fight are “Asian” can’t possibly be true when you think about the numbers. If ~20% of Russia’s population is non-Russian, that takes the pool of potential soldiers down to ~14 million men, only a portion of which are of fighting age (20% of 140 million citizens is 28 million, only half of which are men). Do you really think that Russia has managed to get hundreds of thousands of people from a limited pool of 14 million to the fight? Why would they limit themselves in the number of soldiers they can muster in what they claim is an existential battle? It doesn’t pass the smell test in any way. Again, look at a randomly selected video of Russian soldiers, dead or alive, and see how many look “Asian.”
I bring up that single Twitter thread because it demonstrates Snyder’s thinking on one of the major points he makes in his piece titled Russia’s Eugenic War. It’s one of many flawed arguments he makes in the article, one of many logical leaps that have no grounding, and it’s the reason why we cannot take him seriously as a commentator on the war - he is not interested in trying to objectively understand the situation, he is actively taking a side in the conflict and choosing to go out of his way to make Putin and the Russian Federation look as evil as possible, even at the expense of factual accuracy and reasonable assumption. Again, there is no need to do that, they make themselves out to be evil all by themselves.
Snyder’s article doesn’t start off too bad. While I disagree with the “genocide” label he gives to the situation in Ukraine, it’s undeniable that the Ukrainian identity is showing its full potential as Ukrainians defend their homeland against a war of aggression. He’s on to something very profound, something many Russian intellectuals have been commenting on for years at this point, when he states “[i]ndeed, the war raises the question: what is Russia? Putin has failed to answer this question in any positive sense.” It’s true, Putin has failed in that goal entirely. It’s one of his regime’s biggest and most important failures, and has very serious ramifications for Russia. It seems, though, that Snyder and I disagree on why he failed and what it means.
“Judging from Russian mass media, including the all-important talk shows, the dominant Russian self-understanding at the moment is that of an "anti-Ukraine."“
Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin Russian commentator, has coined the term “anti-Russia” to label Ukraine and its government, which he believes is a puppet state of the boarder West (led by the United States). Markov is an insane clown of a man, he’s wrong on almost every point, but the fact that Snyder uses the exact same terminology is telling because neither Markov nor Snyder are actually digging in to the complexities that make up either Ukraine or Russia.
Just as it would be wrong to define Ukraine’s entire existence as “anti-Russia,” it is wrong to do so in the other direction. Despite the fact that Ukraine is engaged in a war for its sovereignty, it still has broader ambitions that have nothing to do with Russia directly. Ukraine wants to join the EU, for example. Ukrainians want a government free from corruption, a government that answers to the people and performs the basic functions one would expect from a government, like building roads and funding high-quality public education. Snyder himself, at the very end of the piece, says “Ukrainians persist in defining their highest goal as "freedom," in the sense of an open future, full of possibilities.”
If we were to actually judge Russia’s self-image by Russian mass media, including “the all-important talk shows,” we would come away with only one reasonable narrative; that Russia is the last bulwark against an aggressive and expansive West that seeks to dominate the entire world and impose its corrupt ideology on everyone. This can be seen in the way the talking heads on TV excuse Russia’s military failures by saying that Russia isn’t fighting Ukraine (which should be an easy enemy, in their eyes), but fighting literally all of NATO. This can be seen in Putin’s own speeches and addresses about the war, the majority of which are spent talking around Ukraine, not about Ukraine, and focusing on the evils and wrongdoings of the US and its allies.
What can’t be gathered from consuming that propaganda is that Russia is an “anti-Ukraine,” at least in part because Ukraine as a independent agent comes up less often than does “the collective West” or NATO. Russia may be portrayed as an “anti-West” or as an anti-Nazi force, considering that the propaganda claims Russia’s soldiers are fighting literal Nazis serving a literal Nazi regime in Ukraine. It would be easier to make the argument that Russia’s true aims in this war is to stop the spread of “gayness” to Russia (see Putin’s multiple references to gender-related Western culture war topics) than it would be to back up Snyder’s claim.
He then goes on to make an argument surrounding this claim: “There is no explicit image of Russia to be found among Russian elites; there is, however, an implicit racial notion to be found in policy.” It’s tough to know where to start on this topic because Snyder is wrong on every count.
He mixes the “self-cleansing” of Russia from internal threats like anti-war Russians who have either fled the country or who have been prosecuted by the authorities with the flawed claim that ethnic minorities are being sent to die in the war with the fact that Russian prisoners are being used as recruitment centers for the Wagner Group. First, the majority of anti-war Russians are ethnically Russian (because the country is majority ethnically Russian), so the “self-cleansing” can only be an ideological cleansing, not a eugenics-style purification of the race, as Snyder implies. Second, as I have already covered above, ethnic minorities are not being intentionally selected to fight and die in the war. The majority of Russia’s soldiers are ethnically Russian and the majority of casualties are subsequently ethnically Russian. Again, the country is majority Russian. Third, the prisoners that are being recruited (and it is recruitment, we haven’t seen forced expulsion of prisoners reported by anyone) by the mercenary Wagner Group are not being recruited out of a desire for “purification” as Snyder argues, but out of a desperate need to find warm bodies to fill the front line and rush the enemy’s positions. Russians are not eager to volunteer to fight in this war, so the government has to use other means, any means, to find more men. Snyder never provides any source that this prisoner use is “explicitly presented as a purification of the Russian population.”
While I can’t prove what is in Putin’s head, I can pretty confidently say what is not. Specifically, I can say that while Putin may be a bigot of the homophobic or transphobic variety, he is highly unlikely to be a racist bigot. Russia’s government is an autocratic pyramid with Putin at the top, so the alleged “implicit racial notion to be found in policy” necessarily has to emanate from Putin himself.
Let’s take Putin at his word. In order to avoid potential bias in my own translation, I have entered Putin’s address to the country that started the war into Google Translate. Here are some parts of the speech that I think are directly relevant to the topic I am covering here. The bolded emphasis is my own.
“In this regard, I appeal to the citizens of Ukraine. In 2014, Russia was obliged to protect the inhabitants of Crimea and Sevastopol from those whom you yourself call “Nazis”.”
“Today's events are not connected with the desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with the protection of Russia itself from those who took Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and its people.”
“I should also appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine.
Dear comrades! Your fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers did not fight the Nazis, defending our common Motherland, so that today's neo-Nazis seized power in Ukraine. You took an oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people, and not to the anti-people junta that plunders Ukraine and mocks these same people.”
“..the fate of Russia is in the reliable hands of our multinational people.”
Here is another one from his speech on February 21st, 2022, three days before the invasion.
“Let me emphasize once again that Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space. These are our comrades, relatives, among whom are not only colleagues, friends, former colleagues, but also relatives, people connected with us by blood, family ties.”
Here are excerpts from his address announcing the “partial” mobilization in Russia.
“Today I appeal to you, to all citizens of our country, to people of different generations, ages and nationalities, to the people of our great Motherland…”
And another very interesting quote from a speech to the Security Council in a meeting on March 3rd, 2022 in which he praised the heroism of an ethnically Lak Russian soldier, one of the first reported causalities that was publicly confirmed.
“I am a Russian person. As they say, I have Ivans and Marias in my family. But when I see examples of such heroism as the feat of a young guy Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, a native of Degestan, a Lak by nationality, I want to say: “I am Lak, I am Dag, I am Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew, Mordvin, Ossetian.” It is impossible to list all.”
To be clear, I despise Putin, I despise the war, and I do not accept any of the nonsense he spouts about NATO’s expansion or the “Nazi regime” in Ukraine. But as I said at the beginning, there is no need to create falsehoods to explain why Russia is in the wrong. Putin states it clearly himself, regardless of his clumsy attempts to coat the invasion as a measure of self-defense, that he intends to invade Ukraine and overthrow its government to establish a puppet regime. We take him at his word that he wants to invade Ukraine and overthrow the government, so why wouldn’t we take him at his word that he has no ill will towards Ukrainians as a people or the various ethnic minorities in Russia?
“Our multinational people” is a phrase that Putin has consistently used in all of his speeches for year. It’s an official part of the metodichka directives to state propaganda when it comes to TV and online media within Russia. The government always treads carefully around the issues of ethnicity and religion in Russia, always careful not to stir up any discontent. This is a major point of criticism of the Putin regime from Russia’s right wing. Yegor Prosvirnin and his wildly successful Sputnik & Pogrom project was a massive driver of critique that called out Putin for failing to use “русский/russki” and instead choosing to use the non-ethnically-specific “российский/rossiyski” when referring to the people of Russia. “Multinational” is an intentional choice by Putin’s regime because it avoids the difficult subject of Russia’s failed federalism and the internal contradictions of multiple nationalities/ethnicities existing alongside the Russian majority. In English, both of those variations are translated simply as “Russian” with no regard for which option is being used. Tim Snyder doesn’t have an out here; he should catch the difference and draw the appropriate conclusion that Putin and his government act in a politically correct manner when it comes to Russia’s internal politics.
Looking at the problems raised by the non-government-aligned Russian right wing is extremely useful. They point to the unregulated flow of migrants from Central Asia and the South Caucuses to Russia as a massive problem. How does that square with the alleged “eugenics” that Putin is supposedly engaging in? Importing Muslim non-Russians in massive numbers does not help build the “pure” society Snyder is claiming Putin wants to build.
Right wing bigots show their antisemitism and xenophobia by looking at the elite of the Russian Federation. “Look at who the oligarchs are!” they say.
Roman Abramovich - Jewish
Oleg Deripaska - Jewish
Alisher Usmanov - Uzbek
Petr Aven - Half Latvian, half Jewish
Vagit Alekperov - Azeri
The Rotenberg brothers (close friends of Putin from back when they were in the same sambo class when they were teenagers!) - Jewish
“Look at who is in major government positions!” they say.
Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnillin - Tatar
Head of the Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina - Tatar
First Deputy Chief of Staff of the
Presidential Administration Sergey Kirienko - Jewish, but adopted his mother’s Ukrainian last name
Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu - Tuvan
It must have taken Snyder a long time to put on all those blinders that allowed him to claim that the Russian Federation is intentionally sending ethnic minorities like Tuvans to die in the war when the Minister of Defense, the guy who is in charge of the war effort, is ethnically Tuvan himself.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the mini-dictator of Chechnya, is a huge public figure who allows himself a lot of freedom to make statements that are not at all in alignment with the eugenics theory. Would a dictator intent on building a purely Russian society allow the Islamist rhetoric that Kadyrov engages in? How does the “Akhmat is power” slogan cried out by Kadyrov’s personal forces work to attain this goal? What about “Allahu Akbar?” If Putin wants to purify Russia of anything non-Russian, why not start within Russia itself by going after a pseudo-Islamist semi-theocracy?
Listen to the leaked phone conversation between prominent Russian music producer Iosif Prigozhin and businessman (and former Russian senator) Farkhad Akhmedov. The first is Jewish and the second is Azeri. At no point in their private conversation are they lamenting the top-down discrimination they face. At no point are they afraid for their lives or their livelihoods because of the alleged “implicit racial notion to be found in policy.” As a matter of fact, they use both “русский/russki” and “российский/rossiyski” without a second thought when referring the their people and their country.
Where are the purges? Why hasn’t Putin been using his incredible autocratic power to remove the “undesirables?” Why can we find non-Russians in Putin’s inner circle stretching back decades into his early life? My answer is clear - Putin is not a bigot of that kind. He has a perception of ethnicity and nationality that was formed by his life in the Soviet Union, which, despite many flaws and contradictions, was not the type of racist society that Snyder needs for his narrative.
It is undeniable that he does not believe Ukraine should be fully independent from Russia. It is undeniable that Putin believes Ukrainians and Russians to be almost the same thing, certainly close enough that they should exist under one big umbrella. Putin’s thoughts on this topic and many others are illogical, based on skewed readings of history, clearly suffering from delusions of grandeur, self-contradictory to the fullest extent, but they are not at all leading him to conduct “wartime eugenics.”
Snyder references Ivan Ilyin twice in his piece. He could have referenced Alexander Dugin or any other right wing Russian thinker and have been as equally wrong. I recommend this video on the ideology of Putin’s Russia to show why it is a mistake to refer to any philosopher when it comes to trying to understand Putin’s Russia. The bottom line is that Putin’s Russia has no ideology.
This brings me to the last point that Snyder makes in his post, a point that is periodically echoed by others online, that Russia is abducting Ukrainian children and forcing Ukrainian female refugees to flee to Russia as a part of an effort to help shore up the declining fertility rates and to raise them as Russians instead of Ukrainians.
I am not a demographer by training, so I cannot speak from a position of expertise here, but I highly doubt that even a couple hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees successfully integrated into Russian society are going to make any difference in Russia’s demographic troubles. The Russian Federation has somewhere around 140 million people. Even though every single dead Russian solider takes Russia further away from demographic stability, it is still a drop in the bucket, and I’d wager that the Ukrainians who end up assimilated into Russia will similarly not make or break any demographic trends.
What I believe is happening to Snyder is that he has taken a position in the Russo-Ukrainian war, he has chosen the side of Ukraine. It’s understandable. As a matter of fact, I think it’s the only reasonable position for non-Russians and non-Ukrainians to take when looking at who is in the wrong (Russia) and who is in the right (Ukraine, as it seeks to defend itself from a senseless war of aggression). But while normal people who casually observe current events can be excused for not going out of their way to research the details of the situation, public personas like Timothy Snyder have to be held to a higher standard.
It makes it very difficult to pick up any of Snyder’s books or read any of Snyder’s articles on Substack or elsewhere without having a massive asterisk by everything he says. At the bottom of the page, the asterisk is explained: “Take with a grain of salt, this person is highly biased.” He is considered a leading expert on the region, he is invited to high-profile podcasts like Sam Harris’ and he gets articles published in prominent media institutions.
Snyder’s commentary drives the thoughts of many others downstream, and the inaccuracies and bad assumptions he makes find their way into creating narratives in the public conversation that make it harder to stop this war, help Ukraine, and end Putin’s regime. We have a responsibility to try our best to understand the reality in which this war exists. We have to accurately gauge Putin himself and his government so that we don’t fail to anticipate an invasion like this one or, god forbid, a nuclear strike. We cannot expect to successfully end this war with fair conditions for Ukraine and create a stable relationship with (a hopefully revived and revitalized) Russia in the future without avoiding the unnecessary errors Snyder makes.