The Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine: Stages of the Maidan Movement and Why They Constitute a Revolution

By Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff
2015, Vol. 7 No. 02 | pg. 1/3 |


What is “revolution”? Can the Maidan movement in Ukraine, which led to the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, be called a revolution? If so, what are the implications of calling the Maidan movement a revolution? While a “war of narratives,” as well as a civil war, is being fought over the legacy of Maidan and the future of Ukraine, this paper tackles these pressing questions by constructing a narrative of the events which unfolded in Ukraine between November 21st, 2013 and March 1st, 2014. This narrative is analyzed in four stages: revolutionary onset, popularization, radicalization, and revolutionary ousting. I argue that the stages of the Maidan movement in Ukraine cannot be considered in isolation, but rather must be considered as a cumulative and dynamic process, which, taken together, constitute a revolution.

The images from Kyiv’s Independence Square—of protesters guarding their barricades against columns of riot police amidst snow and ice and thick black smoke rising from burning tires—dominated the international press during the winter months of 2013-14. There is much disagreement, however, as to whether the events which unfolded in Ukraine, culminating in the ousting of President Yanukovych in late February 2014, are to be considered a popular revolution or not.

Maidan Protests in Independence Square, Kyiv, 19/12/13

Photo: Jose Luis Orihuela CC-2

A protester at Euromaidan

Riot police divided Euromaidan in two

Photos: Ivan Bandura CC-2

A “war of narratives” is effectively being fought over the collective memory of Ukraine’s Maidan and its consequent legacy. This paper seeks to contribute to the debate by providing greater empirical and conceptual depth to the matter, and hopefully disarming those arguments that act only to polarize the debate. The paper begins with a brief discussion of the origin and meaning of the term “revolution” and is then divided into four sections, each delineating a stage in Ukraine’s revolutionary process. The individual sections begin with a chronological narrative of the events in that stage, which is complemented by a conceptual analysis of a specific and determining issue present in that stage.

The first stage is termed the “revolutionary onset,” which lasts from 21 November 2013 to 1 December 2013. The subsequent analysis considers the historical context of EuroMaidan in Ukraine, as well as the theoretical causation of revolution. The second stage of the revolutionary process is termed “popularization,” and lasts from 1 December 2013 to 16 January 2014. The subsequent conceptual analysis centres on the notion of Maidan as a public space for action.

The third stage is the “radicalization” of Maidan, which lasts from 16 December 2014 to 21 February 2014. In this section Hannah Arendt is evoked to discuss the relationship between violence and power, and how the use of violence by the regime shifted power into the hands of the people. The final stage of Ukraine’s Winter Revolution is the “revolutionary ousting” of President Yanukovych, and is set between 21 February 2014 and 1 March 2014. The revolutionary process does not end with Russia’s invasion of Crimea on 1 March, but I chose this date as an end point because the revolutionary process changes considerably after this point. Ultimately, this paper argues that the stages of the Maidan movement in Ukraine cannot be considered in isolation, but as a cumulative and dynamic process, which, taken together, constitute a revolution.

Before any such argument is made, the question arises: Why does it matter whether we call the Maidan movement a “revolution”—as opposed to, perhaps, a “civil resistance campaign” or “coup d’état”? The answer to this question lies in the degree of political legitimacy the provisional government that was inaugurated following the ousting of President Yanukovych and his Party of Regions in fact has, domestically and internationally. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, as a notable example, has labeled the Maidan movement as a “fascist coup d’état” and does not recognize the legitimacy of the new government in Kyiv; consequently (and conveniently for Moscow), neither does Russia recognize the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine.

A revolution, on the other hand, in the modern conception of the term, necessitates popular domestic support and a “radical break from the past,” among other elements that are discussed in this paper. Consequently, a revolution bestows upon the newly inaugurated government a greater degree of political legitimacy than would be the case if it had come to power through a coup d’état.1 The following discussion considers the concept of “revolution” in history, before analyzing why the Maidan movement in Ukraine can and must be considered a revolution.

Theories of Revolution

When the term “revolution” first entered the political sphere in 17th-century Europe, it retained its astronomical meaning, describing recurring, cyclical movements, and an irresistible force. “Revolution” was used as a metaphor to intimate a “sweeping dramatic change” in the realms of men; and just as the stars followed their preordained paths in the skies, this dramatic change implied a movement back to a preordained order.2 The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the event through which paradoxically the term found its definite place in political and historical language, was not thought of as a revolution at all, but as a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness.3

Essentially, the premodern understanding of revolution made no intimation of novelty and self-conscious agents; it was a cyclical and irresistible process—a “reversal of fortune”—that was experienced as a fact, rather than lived as an act.4 Nothing could be farther removed from the original meaning of the word “revolution” than the idea with which all revolutionary actors have been possessed and obsessed, namely, that they are agents in a process which spells the definite end of an old order and brings about the birth of a new world.

The modern concept of revolution, inextricably tied with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew—that an entirely new story is about to unfold—was unknown prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century: the American and the French Revolutions.5 Hannah Arendt, in her essay On Revolution, writes:

If we want to learn what revolution is—its general implications for man as a political being, its political significance for the world we live in, its role in modern history—we must turn to those historical moments when revolution made its full appearance, assumed a kind of definite shape, and began to cast its spell over the minds of men…6

It was in particular the novel ideas and impulses of the French Revolution in 1789 which gave a profoundly new meaning to the notion of revolution, a notion that from then on communicated the possibility of a radical break with the past achieved by the conscious will of human actors. This allegiance between revolution, human agency, and novelty represented an inaugural moment for a drama of change and transformation projected indefinitely into the future.7 If we consider the famous revolutionary triad of 1789—liberty, equality, fraternity—as the basic point of departure for the three most powerful ideologies of the modern word—liberalism, socialism, nationalism—then every revolution since the French Revolution has carried forth its tradition.8

Jaroslav Krejci’s Great Revolutions Compared: The Outline of a Theory provides a useful conceptual framework with which to study revolution.9 Krejci observes that, as historians, we should not consider revolution to be a single event, but rather a protracted period of turbulent, dramatic events, which may be better styled as a “revolutionary process.”10 However, the notion of revolution, or revolutionary process, continues to escape simple definition. Hence, the best a conceptual discussion on revolution can do—without taking a reductionist stance—is to consider those events in history that qualify as “sweeping dramatic changes” and search for common variables.

Among others, these include the role of novelty, human agency, necessity, ideology, popularity, rhetoric, power, violence, and freedom. Since we understand revolution not as a single event but as a process, it follows that all its characteristic elements do not need to materialize at once or in a particular stage of that process.11 The discussion that follows on Ukraine from 21 November 2013 to 1 March 2014 will analyze the variables that commonly appear in revolutionary processes and, in so doing, establish why the crisis in Ukraine was a revolution.

Stage I: Revolutionary Onset

Narrative: 21 Nov. 2013 - 1 Dec. 2013

“No Deal,” read the news headlines in Ukraine on 21 November 2013—the austerity of two words marked the onset of a revolutionary process that would set Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) ablaze for the ensuing four months of winter.12 On 21 November the Ukrainian government, headed by President Viktor Yanukovych (2010-14), Prime Minister Mykoly Azarov (2012-14), and the Party of Regions, rejected a “landmark” association agreement with the European Union (EU).

That same evening a spontaneous, social media-organized demonstration of 2,000 people, mostly students, came to Maidan carrying Ukrainian and EU flags in protest. The leaders of the three opposition parties in parliament—Arseniy Yatseniuk of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), Vitali Klitschko of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR), and Oleh Tiahnybok of Svoboda (Freedom)—joined the rally and called for a larger one to be held on Sunday. The mass demonstration on Sunday 24 November against the government’s decision not to sign the EU association agreement brought more than 100,000 people to Maidan Nezalezhnosti; this was the largest demonstration in Ukraine since the “Orange Revolution” in 2005.13

The peaceful protest movement that began on 21 November 2013 became known as “EuroMaidan,” following the popular Twitter hashtag.14 In its inception, EuroMaidan (which translates as “EuroSquare”) was experienced and understood as a continuation of the Orange Revolution.15 The initial demands of EuroMaidan were policy-motivated and limited in their scope: the movement sought to convince President Yanukovych to change course and agree to sign the EU association agreement at the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, which ended on 29 November.

When the deadline passed and no deal was signed, the organizers of EuroMaidan and the leaders of the political opposition called on the people to focus their efforts in peacefully removing the government from power in the 2015 presidential elections. The mass demonstration on Sunday 1 December was intended to be the concluding chapter of EuroMaidan. The unexpected events in the early hours of 30 November proved otherwise; in fact, Ukraine was just reading the introduction to the story of Maidan—the first stage to a popular revolution.

At 04:00 on 30 November, Berkut riot police “brutally” removed the several hundred peaceful protesters who remained on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, critically injuring 36 men and women, most of them students. The incident sparked popular outrage amongst Ukrainians against the Yanukovych-Azarov regime. In Lviv some 20,000 people protested that evening, and in Kyiv 10,000 people came out, defying the government’s latest ban on demonstrations in public squares. “Ukraine, wake up!” the protesters shouted, and their calls were answered on Sunday 1 December by 350,000 voices that came to rally on Maidan.

One protester preceptively expressed the sentiment of that evening: “I am here because what happened two nights ago was brutal. They have beaten not only those at Maidan, but every one of us…. We will be slaves, and this is not just a romantic comparison.”16 The EU association agreement became a secondary concern, i.e. a means to an end, while this end now sought to hold Ukraine’s authorities accountable, stop the incessant corruption, and correct the arbitrary and dysfunctional rule of law. The people ultimately came to the streets to express their desire to “change life in Ukraine.”17

The mass demonstrations on 1 December instilled EuroMaidan with a sense of necessity—a sense of “now or never.” A Ukrainian journalist participating at the rally said: “I’m sure that we should be here to the end, otherwise we’ll lose Ukraine again like we did many times already. There’s no other way.”18 Later that evening, the demonstration turned violent when 20,000 protesters tried to occupy the Presidential Office and were pushed back by riot police with truncheons, tear gas, and flash grenades. The protestors responded in kind by throwing rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails. Barricades were erected around Maidan, and members of the far-right party Svoboda seized the City Hall and Trade Union buildings, turning them into “revolutionary headquarters.”

The opposition parties Batkivshchyna and UDAR established “headquarters of national resistance” across Ukraine.19 On 1 December EuroMaidan became an alternative power structure to the government, and would now enter the second stage in its revolutionary process: popularization. In order to understand why an incident of police brutality transformed a policy-oriented protest into the onset of a popular revolution—why there was “no other way”—we need first to consider the underlying historical context of EuroMaidan in Ukraine, and thereby, the causation of revolution.

Context and Causation

Krejci’s analysis on the causation of revolutions in Great Revolutions Compared examines the patterns of contradictions which played an essential role in the unfolding of past revolutions. Krejci does so without attempting to schematize his etiology, i.e. the structure of causation he presents is eclectic. Krejci effectively brings together six theories and embarks to explore the degrees to which these theories are able to explain his “empirical data.” The theories that are considered are: Weber’s disproportion between wealth and power; Marx’s contradiction between productive forces and modes of production as reflected in the class struggle; the Aristotelian contradiction arising from differing conceptions of justice; the Tocquevillian sense of relative deprivation between expectations and achievements; the Paretian contradiction between the elites loyal to an incumbent regime and those which for reasons of interest or ideology wish to overthrow it; and the Khaldunian disproportion between the fighting spirit of those inspired by a new faith and the less dynamic stance of those defending an old order.20 When applied to the context of Ukraine, these theories (in particular the Tocquevillian disproportion) go far in explaining how EuroMaidan developed into a popular revolution.

Before a conceptual analysis can be applied, however, the structural context of Ukraine’s recent history must briefly be considered. Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. Despite popular approval, independence arrived without a major popular movement to shape it.21 The process of nation-building in Ukraine—a country of diverse peoples and histories, situated between Russia and an expanding European community—has defined the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural life since independence and is still in process.22 The chaos of the 1990s witnessed a select few individuals monopolize the economic, and hence, political capital of the country.23

The Orange Revolution between November 2004 and January 2005 briefly demonstrated that there existed an active civil society in Ukraine which could hold the elites accountable. The election of the pro-European candidate Viktor Yushchenko in January 2005 instilled hope that the situation in the country would improve. Instead, the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko government was marred by political infighting, and in February 2010 the candidate who had been defeated in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected as president.24

Between Yanukovych’s election and the onset of EuroMaidan, Ukraine’s democracy was unravelled, the rule of law undermined, and the economy severely mismanaged.25 In late 2013 Ukraine faced bankruptcy and President Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov decided it was in their interests to ask the Russian Federation for financial support rather than the EU or IMF.26 On 21 November the Yanukovych-Azarov government announced that Ukraine would not be signing the association agreement with the EU that was scheduled to be signed on 28 November, and which had been on the negotiating table for several years.

The onset of the EuroMaidan protests can initially be explained by the Tocquevillian disproportion, i.e. “a sudden widening of the gap between expectation and gratification when it is perceived that the governing regime is either responsible for, or incapable of, dealing with this intolerable situation.”27 Broadly speaking, integration with the European Union represented an assurance that there would be the rule of law, a reduction in corruption, and economic prosperity—essentially, a future.28 However, the “frustrated expectations” of a great many Ukrainians, expressed loudest by the younger generation, could not in itself cause a popular revolution. According to Krejci:

The combustible material, so to speak, has to be further prepared before ignition takes place. A sufficient number of people have to be deeply disturbed by the development. Their perception of the causes of their trouble may vary; individuals or groups may even take opposing views, but they are united by their discontent with, or hatred of, the government.29

The incidence of police brutality on 30 November, in which hundreds of peaceful protesters were beaten at night, ignited popular outrage amongst Ukrainians. As intimated by the Aristotelian contradiction, the people needed to consider their plight not only as unbearable, but also as “unjust in terms of a value system which differed from that practiced by the people in power.”30 The blatant manifestation of injustice on 30 November, combined with the sudden rejection of a European future just days before, unified the Ukrainian people in their discontent with the Yanukovych-Azarov regime.

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