Some lessons on the revolutionary process

I do not view my courses – whether the traditional lecture classes nor the new online courses – as a podium to expound my political views. I disliked this as a student and now as an instructor frequently hear students complain when their professors do the same. Please don’t misunderstand what I am doing here.

I argue in my online classes that revolutions frequently, but not always, follow a process. The events in Ukraine are in a number of ways conforming to this model. Some observations:

1) repression or misery does not necessarily provide the impetus to revolt. Ukrainian president and Kremlin toady Yanukovych has ruled with a heavy and vindictive hand. Trying and throwing his leading opponent, Yulia Timoshenko, in jail for corruption along with several of her cabinet colleagues was a bit much. This was as frequent topic of discussion between Y and European Union leaders. Neither this nor his obvious corruption set things off.

2) the event that sparked the upheaval was in some ways not tied to internal Ukrainian politics. The Yanukovych government was engaged in negotiations with the EU for membership. This was greatly desired by young people, those on the more liberal and pro-business side of the Ukrainian polity, and nationalists eager to decrease Russian influence. As the agreement was ready to be signed, Y broke off talks , accepted a 15B Euro loan from Russia to tide the government through its fiscal crisis, and agreed to join a new, Russian-led alternative to the EU.

3) this even united Ukrainian nationalists, pro-Western liberals, youth, and large segments of the business that had not yet been forced into the hands of Y’s cronies. Protest demonstrations began in Kiev – where they ultimately led to a permanent protest presence in Independence Square. As so often in revolutionary situations, the protests seemed to be focuses in the capital (hey, that’s where the journalists and the English=-speakers are concentrated).

4) the revolution had regional and ethnic dimensions. Ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country supported the opposition. Some of the most dramatic pictures of the revolt came out of Lviv (Lvov/Lemburg) in Western Ukraine. Y enjoyed support in ethnic Russian areas in the east around Kharkiv (Kharkov) and in the Crimea. Several weeks ago when unrest spread to the east, German and British correspondents began to predict trouble for the regime.

5) a signal point in any revolutionary situation is when the military is called in. Is a regime able to employ force effectively against its own people? When Louis XVI sent troops to relieve the besieged troops in the Bastille, they refused to fire on the people. The King lost control of his capital. Faced with a revolutionary situation in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Communist Chinese leadership could not find troops in the Beijing area willing to fire on the demonstrators. They had to temporize until properly indoctrinated troops could be brought in from Inner Mongolia who were willing to kill fellow Chinese.

We will not know for some time what made Yanukovych decide to suppress the demonstrators in the Maidan when he did. I assume that he was under orders from Moscow; why Putin would risk tarnishing his games, I can’t imagine. Perhaps he knew that he had nothing to fear from the Eunuchs of NBC. (Guess he forgot about the BBC and the Germans.) In any case, when Y decided to move, he had only so many internal security police under his command that he could employ against a staggering number of demonstrators. The demonstrators refused to be cowed with water cannons and rubber bullets. When the general serving as Defense Minister, who had expressed his determination that the army would never be used against the people, was fired, it seemed that a major escalation was being planned. Would the army prove a reliable instrument of the regime? Were divisions emerging within the security forces, who were taking casualties? When regime snipers started using live rounds, things looked really grim.

6) In every revolutionary situation, there are voices in the regime open to a less-violent or less-repressive alternative. The more difficult a situation becomes, the greater the contradictions within the ruling group. On the evening of July 14, 1789, the Marquis de Lafayette led a delegation to Versailles and convinced the King to compromise and recall the National Assembly. In the current situation, the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, and Poland flew into Kiev and forced themselves upon Yanukovych. He could hardly throw them out (they refused to leave after initially failing) and he could hardly kill the Maidan demonstrators while they were there.

7) When a regime crumbles, it’s every rat for himself. Shortly after signing an agreement restoring the 2004 constitution and promising new elections, Y flew off to his home base in Kharkiv. While the demonstrators booed the agreement, Y’s parliament ordered Yulia T released from prison, sacked the Interior Minister, and elected one of YT’s supporters as speaker. Why would they do this? The Old Regime is dead. They will now be responsible to voters and need to act nice. Meanwhile, the Security Police announced that it will not fire on the demonstrators, who take over parliament and other government buildings.

8) Time to ridicule the Old Regime. The Maidan self-defense forces take over Yanukovych’s private estate. I do not know how long Twitchy archives its posts, but you really need to see these pictures under “Open House Courtesy of the Revolution.”  The guy lived an absolutely sybaritic lifestyle. Anne Applebaum here compares Y to Imelda Marcos:

Wise revolutionaries know that they have to make time.

9) The road goes ever on and on. Will the revolutionaries hold together long enough to produce a stable regime. Will the Europeans be able to use their influence to effectively pull a stable, democratic Ukraine into their orbit? President Putin has spoken with President Obama on the bat phone and averred his desire to be “part of the solution” to the Ukrainian problem. Perhaps like he has been part of the solution to the Assad problem in Syria.

10) Is foreign intervention on the horizon? At the Congress of Vienna, the Great Powers decided that there would be no repeat of 1789. The British made an exception for Greece. The Russians intervened in Hungary and Austria in 1849. The Western Allies mucked it up in Russia in 1919. It’s hard to say. Walter Russell Mead has some thoughts here and here.

A career studying revolutionary upheavals should make me cautious of predicting the future. One can only hope for the best.


About George Vascik, Historian

A 1988 graduate of the University of Michigan, I have taught history at Miami University since 1992. I maintain blogs on teaching Western Civilization and on Great War. My research focuses on anti-Semitism and rural politics in northwest Germany. I am completing a monograph for Bloomsbury Press, Anti-Semitism and Rural Politics. You can follow my project at Along with Mark Sadler, I have published a book of primary documents on the Stab-in-the-Back Myth (Dolchstoßlegende). I also invite you to visit my profession web page at
This entry was posted in French Revolution, HST 122, Post-1945, Reflection, Revolutions, Russia, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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