Historian, Teacher, Writer

Not a Coup: A Revolution

Yesterday the Ukrainian Parliament voted to oust President Viktor F. Yanukovych, and shortly afterward the people of Kiev stormed the presidential palace, forcing Yanukovych to flee the capital. He refuses to step down and rejects the Parliament’s decision to hold new elections at the end of May, despite the fact that it is acting within its constitutional rights. Denouncing the Kiev uprising as a “coup” that is (somehow) reminiscent of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Yanukovych and his Russian allies have repeatedly denied the legitimacy of the Ukrainian protests since they started last November. Violence has steadily escalated since earlier this month, with both the protesters and the government security forces suffering losses. The former prime minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, heroine of the Orange Revolution in 2004-5, has been freed from prison. Now, as Yanukovych tries to regroup in the Ukrainian provinces and perhaps woo the army over to his side, the threat of civil war looms large.

To their credit, the international media have not followed Yanukovych and the Russians’ lead in using the word “coup” to describe these remarkable events in the former Soviet republic.We read instead about “protests,” “popular uprising,” and even “Euromaidan.” The latter name derives from the original purpose of the protests — anger at Yanukovych’s decision to suspend negotiations that would have strengthened ties between Ukraine and the European Union — and from their primary location, Independence Square in Kiev (“Maidan” is an Arabic loan word for square). But as yet no one has called the Ukraine events what they actually are: a revolution.

There are several reasons for this. Because Russia is Yanukovych’s closest ally, the protesters themselves may be reluctant to use the word “revolution,” tinged as it is with the communist past and dependence on Russia. But despite the fact that revolution has fallen out of fashion since the collapse of the Soviet Union, over the past year protests around Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park and the revolution-cum-reaction in Cairo have given renewed currency to the idea of “revolution.” In Russia too, Alexei Navalny has emerged as the latest in a series of popular leaders of the anti-Putin opposition movement, renewing hopes on both the nationalist Right and the democratic Left for radical reform (if not all-out revolution) in that country.1 And the economic crisis in Southern Europe continues to undermine the legitimacy of those governments. 2 It appears that for the first time since the fall of communism in 1990/91, revolution is once again in the air on Europe’s periphery.

Newer ideas have crept into the political discourse over the past decade, from dry technocratic jargon like “regime change” to Occupy-inspired slogans like “We are the 99%.” But many of our favorite political categories — revolution and reaction, left and right, liberal and conservative, etc. — owe more to the 19th and 20th centuries than to the 21st. From a general sociological perspective, the looming “revolutions” on Europe’s periphery involve a potpourri of old and new phenomena: nationalism, religious fundamentalism, traditionalism, grassroots democracy, liberal democracy, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, pro-transparency, pro-women’s rights, and so on. From a historical perspective, the situation is even murkier and allows for very few generalizations. Whether these developments represent a widening of European/Western political ideas to other parts of the world or, conversely, a spiraling-out-of-control of regions that for most of the modern era had fallen within the European sphere of influence remains an open question. Taken separately, then, the revolutions on Europe’s periphery reveal both historical continuities and discontinuities with the European political tradition.

The writer Ingo Schulze, who grew up in East Germany, gave a lecture last year at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., on the subject of “1989: How We Lost Political Alternatives.”3  His basic message was that the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, has come to symbolize the triumph of capitalism over communism, free-market ideology over socialism, and privatization over public welfare. We would do well, Schulze argues, to remember also the events that took place exactly one month earlier in Leipzig around the St. Nicolas Church. There East German dissidents had been meeting every Monday to protest forced military service and indirectly to criticize the state. East German authorities had grudgingly tolerated these meetings. But on that last Monday, October 9, the meeting turned into a mass demonstration for peaceful revolution, defying the heavily-armed Volkspolizei with the slogan “We are the people!” (Wir sind das Volk!). Schulze remembers this moment fondly as the expression of East German’s desire for freedom, popular sovereignty, and — democratic socialism. No one flew any banners calling for “capitalism” or “privatization.” Communism did collapse by 1990/91, but Schulze regrets that it did so entirely on the terms dictated by Western capitalism.4 Another reason that the terminology of revolution has fallen out of favor in Europe in the decades since 1990/91 is that neoliberal ideas, which are profoundly anti-revolutionary, have completely saturated the political discourse.5  If Schulze is right, then 1989 — specifically November 9, the fall of the Berlin Wall — represents the loss of political alternatives in Europe. It is quite possible that just such alternatives plus a few others are being discovered, or rediscovered, today in Ukraine and elsewhere on Europe’s periphery.

The protesters on the streets of Kiev lack a unified message. Unlike revolutionary subjects of the past, they do not appear to be conscious of themselves as a world-historical force or a vanguard of objective historical laws. They are neither the revolutionary bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th centuries nor the revolutionary proletariat of the 20th. Their closest relative might be the “citizens movements” [in German: Bürgerbewegungen] that led the protests against Soviet rule in East Central Europe in 1989. The rallying cries of “Freedom,” “We are the people,” and “We are one people” sound very much like what one hears in Kiev today. “Out with corrupt dictators, and in with Europe-friendly, democratically elected and accountable representatives,” the more verbose among them might chant. What the Ukrainian revolutionaries want most of all is to be “normal,” as a viral video of an attractive young protester makes clear. Normal in this case essentially means European, and not Russian.

The violence on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict is disturbing and tragic. Barricades line the streets around Independence Square, which is filled with smoking rubble. Security forces had initially used only non-lethal crowd-control weapons, like batons, rubber bullets, water cannons, shield lines, etc., and the protesters had used stones and Molotov cocktails. But news reports suggest that the use of firearms is spreading. What began as a non-violent protest demonstration has developed into a permanent display of mass civil disobedience, and now, as real armed struggle rears its head, this little “coup” has all the markings of a modern, 21st-century revolution. The old regime is clearly symbolized by the nepotistic, crony capitalist, and Russia-dependent government of Viktor F. Yanukovych. Should the revolution give birth to a new regime, however, it cannot simply decapitate the hydra of corruption. Thoroughgoing structural reforms are necessary to democratize Ukraine and assimilate it into European “normalcy,” but for that the protesters need organization, discipline, and a clear program of demands. Perhaps the communist tradition does in fact have something to offer the heroic citizens of the Maidan: a clear course in what is to be done.


  1. It remains unclear whether the national excitement around the Sochi Olympics will help or hinder the opposition movement.  (back)
  2. In Greece, for example, the political center has all but disappeared, allowing the radical-left SYRIZA and the quasi-fascist Golden Dawn to become, respectively, the second and third largest parties in parliament. See Mark Mazower, “No Exit? Greece’s Ongoing Crisis,” The Nation (March 13, 2013).  (back)
  3. Ingo Schulze, “1989: How We Lost Political Alternatives” (2012 Hertie Lecture Delivered at the GHI’s German Unification Symposium, Washington DC, October 3, 2012), in: Bulletin of the GHI, Vol. 52 (Spring 2013), pp. 75-92.  (back)
  4. Helmut Kohl and the CDU are his primary culprits.  (back)
  5. Even parties purportedly on the Left, like the German SPD under Gerhard Schröder and the US Democratic Party under Bill Clinton, succumbed to the charms of neoliberalism and the dominant logic of economic growth.  (back)

One Reply to “Not a Coup: A Revolution”

  1. trrenaud says:

    Check out Timothy Snyder’s latest blog post “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” in the New York Review of Books (Mar. 1, 2014). His basic message is the same as mine, although he does provide more detail on who the Maidan protesters actually were and are.

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