[Discussion Article] Ukraine, Coup or Revolution?

Richard Greeman

The Ukrainian uprising raises questions concerning different kinds of democracy, nationalism and internationalism, types of imperialism and capitalism, and the dangers of ethnic conflict and neoliberal capitalism. Comments especially welcome — Editors

230214uk2Ukraine is no longer “in flames.” With the hurried flight of the detested Yanukovich, peace and order have descended on Kiev (except for some fistfights in the Parliament!) There is no looting. Self-organized popular militias protect the luxurious Presidential Palace (privatized by Yanukovich) as crowds of citizen file through to gape at his collections of antique and modern automobiles.

These orderly crowds have lived through the experience of months of revolutionary activity in support of the constantly renewed Kiev occupations. They are conscious and discipline. All through the cold winter they have organized a continuous mass occupation, including the provision of food, hygiene, safety, and self-defense under the discipline of units of one hundred (“Hundreds”). They have improvised a nation-wide network of smaller occupations and support groups providing the Kiev occupiers with food, medical assistance, rotating reinforcements, and recently the weapons (‘liberated’ from the Army in Lviv), which, although never fired, turned the tide in favor of the revolution.

These military firearms were only “liberated” and brought to Kiev in response to Yanukovich, who clumsily raised the level of violence by ordering his elite snipers to use live ammunition on the occupiers, who had been defending themselves for the most part with shields and clubs. [1] The symbolic arming to the masses, re-established the balance of opposing forces, opening the way for negotiations between the leaders of the “100s” on the one hand and the Army and Police on the other. Many among the latter had relatives among the occupiers; none was ready to kill or be killed to save Yanukovich’s ass. The blood of the 84 fighters who fell to sniper bullets in defense of the occupation was not shed in vain.

Today, no longer confined behind barricades, Ukraine’s citizen activists have jubilantly taken over the city. For the moment, they are the only power, and they have the right to chant, echoing the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: “This is what democracy looks like.”

The Ukrainian demonstrators, like Occupy and the Indignados, also reject the corrupt, entrenched, oligarch-financed political parties who are trying to patch together a new government in a Parliament (whose doors are carefully guarded by citizen defense forces). They have no more use for the leaders of what the media call the ‘opposition’ then they did for Yanukovich. Their contempt echoes the Argentinian masses whose street protests unseated a series of governments in the early 2000s: ¡Qué se vayan todos! (“Throw ALL the bums out!”).[2] They have in their memory the lived experience of 2004, when their mass occupations precipitated a previous democratic revolution, rapidly hijacked by corrupt politicians and billionaire oligarchs. They are not prepared to be bilked a second time, and they have so far had the good sense to remain armed, organized and vigilant.

Nationalism and Internationalism

The crowds who have accomplished this victory for “people’s power” unite people of all classes and all ethnicities, including not just native speakers of Russian and Ukrainian, but also Moslems, Jews, and various nationalities of the Caucasus.[3] A recent interview with a marvelously lucid and well-informed Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist named Vlatislav, who has been in the thick of things, confirms the spontaneous, self-organized, multi-class and multi-ethnic composition of the revolutionary crowds. He dismisses the idea that the people are “pro-Europe” as anachronistic, dating from the early days of the occupation, when it was largely symbolic.

As for the divide between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West, Vlatislav thinks it is “often exaggerated to the point where the existence of a single Ukrainian nation is even denied. I think Ukraine is still a more unified nation-state than Belgium, for example.” This is confirmed by polls that show fewer than 9% of Ukrainians in both geographical areas want to see Ukraine divided. Indeed, Vlatislav explains how this linguistic division has actually been favorable to the Ukrainian working people, for “it was the main reason why in Ukraine the ruling class failed to establish an authoritarian regime in the mold of Russia or Belarus: it ensured that no politician has ever had support from the majority of the population. Therefore, they had to balance and make concessions to the weak working class: bourgeois democracy was retained, and welfare state elements are much more generous than in Russia.”

No wonder the US and Europe are calling for a strong central government capable of imposing IMF-style austerity! No wonder the New York Times laments that no such unity emerged from the “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  One hopes that a more democratic Ukraine will be able to continue playing off Russia and the West against each other to keep its independence. Otherwise the choice is grim: on the one hand, return to neo-Stalinist semi-dictatorship under a Putin clone, on the other, IMF-imposed austerity and eternal debt servitude to the German banks.

Neo-Liberalism Eastern and Western-style

In any case, once in power Yanukovich introduced anti-worker austerity and neo-liberal reforms, privatizing everything in sight, often (like the Presidential Palace) to his family’s enormous profit, which explains why he was universally hated. As Vlatislav testifies: “The natural gas tariffs were growing; the government launched medical reform which will eventually lead to closure of many medical institutions and to introducing the universal medical insurance instead of the unconditional coverage; they pushed through extremely unpopular pension reform (raising pension age for women) against the will of more than 90% of population; there was an attempt at passing the new Labor Code which would seriously affect workers’ rights; the railway is being corporatized; finally, they passed a new Tax Code which hit small business.” Vlatislav’s interview is worth reading in full. [4]

Another observer who stresses the autonomous character of the Ukrainian revolution is Adrian Ivakhiv, who blogs at Ukrainian Temporary Autonomous Zone and discusses “The ‘Threat’ of Direct Democracy in Ukraine.” Ivakhiv makes a useful distinction between three types of democracy: authoritarian (à la Putin), liberal (the EU), and direct, exemplified by people power in Ukraine. He also deals with the question of nationalist and right wing influences in the revolution, pointing out although the neo-fascists, who love to fight, were well represented on the barricades, the percentage of voters identified with far-right parties in the Ukraine is lower than that in France and Austria. And ‘nationalism,” which is near-universal in this land that has been dominated and fought over by Russians, Poles, Austro-Hungarians, Swedes, Rumanians and Germans for centuries, has a different resonance in Ukraine than elsewhere. His piece is also well worth reading. [5]

Media Propaganda Right and Left

In contrast to these credible on-the-ground reports, what we find in the media is mostly sheer propaganda. The Times and the networks portray this revolution as a defeat for Russia and a victory for Western neo-liberal capitalism. Period. On the other hand, part of the Left sees it more or less through the Cold War lens as a ‘right-wing coup’ engineered by US imperialism.  Pacifica Radio’s ‘War and Peace Report’ headlined ‘Ukraine: a coup or a revolution?’ and described (three times) Yanukovich as the ‘democratically elected president’ as if the Ukraine were Chile in 1973 or Honduras four years ago.[6] A previous show featured an interview with pro-Russian professor Stephen Cohen under the headline “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup.” Cohen stressed U.S. aggression (real enough) against Putin’s Russia, the omnipresence in Kiev of right-wing fascists and nationalists, concluding on the danger of a Ukrainian Civil War between East and West that would lead to a new violent confrontation between Russia and the West.[7]

Prof. Cohen is someone whose scholarship (his biography of Bukharin) I admire, who has been critical of both Stalin and Putin, but who has retained his pro-Russian ‘patriotism’ from the Cold War days. His theoretical frame, like many other left-liberals, does not recognize Russian imperialism along with other imperialisms (from Chinese to German and US) in what is increasingly a multi-polar world, similar to the world of 1914 on the eve of WWI with its complex and shifting alliances. Throughout the Cold War, many still defended the Soviet Union as the ‘underdog’ and more ‘progressive’ than the US, but this attitude is sheer nonsense today when Russia is ruled by oligarchs and mafia under a neo-Stalinist police state; today when there is an active, autonomous democratic, revolutionary labor movement with which we can identify.

What Next?

To conclude: the first phase, democratic, of the Ukraine’s ongoing revolution is now complete. The tyrant, abandoned even by his own party, has fled. The repressive apparatus as been neutralized, and the former Defense Minister responsible for the sniper shootings of dozens of demonstrators is on trial. The Constitution of 2004 has been restored in satisfaction of a major popular demand. Today’s Ukrainians remember their so-called Orange Revolution, which soon mired in corruption. The masses, although peaceful for the moment, remain armed and mobilized. The question is, what will happen in the next, in the social phase of this revolution?

Chris Kinder, on the Eco-Rev list serve, has raised some very serious problems, impossible to dismiss as propaganda, about the history of fascism and right-wing nationalism in Ukraine and the many threats to a possible democracy there which need to be taken into consideration.[8]  As Victor Serge observed during the failed German Revolution of 1923, the rise of fascism depends on two factors: 1) despair among the active, youthful, combative elements of society of a liberal or communist solution to capitalism’s problems, and 2) the backing of big capital and the military.[9]

To me, the ultimate outcome largely depends popular struggles and solidarity on the international scene. The potential tragedy of the Ukrainian revolution (and indeed mutatis mutandis of all the  ‘successful’ popular uprisings since 2011 from Egypt on) is that confined to the national context the political leadership gets taken over or overtaken by a rival section of the local ruling class (military, religious, nationalist), normally backed by a rival imperialism. We have seen this happen twice in Egypt, just has we have seen Syria’s original citizen uprising for human and democratic rights turned into a reactionary military holocaust with the interference of at least five imperialisms, secular and religious, world-wide and regional.

The one thing all these conflicting bourgeois interests have in common is the will to defeat and destroy the popular, democratic uprisings, which, if allowed to come to power, would inevitably, being majoritarian, demand more social equality and thus threaten the interests of the rich and power elites. Such a successful revolution would set a very ‘bad’ example for the planet’s billions. As Victor Serge reminds us, in 1917-18 during the First World War, fourteen imperialist nations put aside their deadly conflicts in order to crush the Russian Revolution, while in the Ukraine (whose name means ‘Borderland’) White Russians, Germans, Rumanians, French and Poles intervened militarily and financed local parties.[10] Today we have the same actors interfering Ukraine, plus the U.S. (not always aligned with the “fucking” European Union…)

To survive, revolutions must spread, or retreat….

Given this tragic situation, should we consider the participants in the Ukrainian mass democratic movement (and for that matter their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Greece, etc.) naive and mistaken whenever they rise up in indignation to demand human rights? Do we not, at the least, owe them a duty of international solidarity? Must we not follow the example of Egyptian Teachers’ Union showing support to the teachers occupying the Wisconsin State House in 2011? Of our worldwide support for the Zapatistas’ unlikely uprising a decade earlier?  Did not our own organization, Praxis, present in Kiev and the Crimea since 2004, grow out of such a network in the 90s? Such networks of support and exchange are the seeds from which international solidarity can grow, indeed, that revolutions can spread, as they must if they are to survive.

Like Serge, indeed like every socialist from the First International on up, I have always believed that revolutionary movements can only succeed when they become international, and today, with capitalist globalization, that means planetary. Indeed, only a planetary uprising against capitalism can save the planet from industrialized eco-cide in the very near future. Our only chance is to rise up together in one long “rolling revolution;” and today we can actually create such solidarity in real time thanks to the World Wide Web, social media, alternate media and machine translation.

Planetary revolution? One chance in a hundred!  Maybe, but what if there is no other survival solution for the planet’s inhabitants? (For more, please see my “Ecotopia: A Bet You Can’t Refuse” http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=5852)

Best wishes to all, Richard Greeman


Richard Greeman is Secretary of the Victor Serge Foundation (Montpellier, France), and a founding member of the Praxis Research and Education Center (Moscow www.praxiscenter.ru), which co-sponsored the first International Congress of Independent Labor Unions last November in Kiev.




[1] Some of the demonstrators did, at one point, fire pistols and shotguns.

[3] According Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, who is studying the composition of these crowds. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/24/a_coup_or_a_revolution_ukraine

[9] “Fascists and Communists,” Sept. 29, 1923 in Serge, Eyewitness to the German Revolution, Ian Birchall, TR. Haymarket Books.

[10] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution.


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  1. Paulo Morel

    It is rather “surprising” , to say the least, to read, as a kind of casual observation by the author: “Although the neo-fascists, who love to fight, were well represented on the barricades”. What are neo-fascists doing in a “popular revolution”? Giving a hand, cause they love to fight? There is great ideological confusion under the skies, we should not add to the confusion. Also, it is always crucial to clarify that the democratic masses in Ukraine and “their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Greece” and everywhere else fight under SPECIFIC conditions that is necessary to know in order to evaluate those struggles, crisis, conflicts, etc. in their specificities, to be able to understand their local and global significance. And they are certainly NOT the same. In these days when US foreign policy, also known by the rather precise term of Imperialism, is more and more erratic (and dangerous) as the economic power of the US declines, to ignore the geopolitical dimensions of different kinds of conflicts and struggles, etc. everywhere, is to end up, malgre soi, playing in the hands of those who thrive in confusion and bet on general disorientation to impose their agendas, always in the name of “democracy”, “freedom”, “the masses” and so on. And these are certainly not the real friends of the people or of revolution. It is the role of the corporate and commercial press to simplify reality and to promote confusion and feed ignorance. Our role, I believe, is rather to disturb the comforts of ready-made ideological representations, including of the “revolutionary” kind.

  2. Peter Hudis

    This is a welcome and helpful discussion of the protests that led up to the overthrow of Yanukovich, especially in countering the narrow view adopted by those in the Western “Left” who uncritically swallowed the claim that the protests were driven by right-wing nationalists and even “fascists.” Richard is right to point out that the Kiev protests have to be seen in the context of similar multi-dimensional popular movements, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements.

    At the same time, it is crucial not to ignore the very real dangers the popular forces are now facing in Ukraine, where the oligarchs not only remain in power but are integral to the new government and where a Russian occupation of much of Ukraine–not just Crimea, but of much of eastern Ukraine–is a growing likelihood. In this context, it is only to be expected that a considerable number who oppose Putin’s revanchism will harbor illusions about the economic and political “safety net” now being promised by the U.S., EU, and Western capital.

    Given this situation, Vlatislav’s comments–which claims that the linguistic division of Ukraine has been a barrier to establishing a centralized authoritarian regime–strike me as naive. The analogy with Belgium (which he says is a less unified than Ukraine) breaks down as soon as it is recalled that two massive poles of capital are not competing to control Belgium–most unlike the situation in Ukraine.

    Moreover, we cannot overlook the fact that in all of the popular movements that have erupted since 2011–even the most creative ones–a significant problem has been the relative weakness of a theoretical-political perspective that explicitly opposes all forms of capitalism and envisions a comprehensive alternative to the global dominance of capital. So long as this lacunae remains, the movements risk being taken over by elements that are inimical to their aspirations.

    Therefore, while I am supportive of Richard’s emphasis on international solidarity as a key determinant–if I did not think so, why even submit this post!–positing the need for a “planetary revolution” strikes me as somewhat vacuous so long as the specific content of a global alternative to the dominance of capital remains untheorized and unarticulated.

    This is one moment, it seems to me, when the “optimism of the will” needs to make room for the labor of the concept.

  3. Richard Greeman

    Hello, and thanks for posting my analysis of Ukraine. Of course my call for “planetary revolution” appears ‘somewhat vacuous so long as the specific content of a global alternative to the dominance of capital remains untheorized and unarticulated.’ I do articulate it in my ‘Ecotopia: A bet we can’t refuse’ and thought I had put the URL in my article for those interested in following it up. Here it is:

    Best wishes, Richard

  4. Richard Abernethy

    So rapidly have events flowed in Ukraine, and so much has the focus shifted from Kiev to Crimea, that the Maidan movement and the ouster of Viktor Yanukovich (21 February) already seem like a long time ago.
    The Maidan movement was a broad spectrum of forces, united only in their opposition to Yanukovich. It included tendencies that look towards Western capitalism and the European Union. U.S. Republican Senator John McCain addressed the then opposition last December. He has recently been back to support the new interim government.
    As a tentative answer to the question of the title “Ukraine, Coup or Revolution?”, I would suggest that this was not a coup, but a popular uprising with serious contradictions, and that it is too early to claim it as a revolution. I agree that the basic content of this uprising was democratic, but the presence of neo-fascists on the barricades is a grave contradiction that should give us serious concern, even though Putin has certainly exaggerated the dangers of fascism for his own ends.
    Some of Richard Greeman’s assessments struck me as far too optimistic on first reading, and more so now with a little hindsight. It is far too early to claim that “the first phase, democratic, of Ukraine’s ongoing revolution is now complete”. There appears to be a suggestion (although it may be a problem with the wording) that revolutions divide neatly into a first “democratic” and a second “social” phase. Rather, the two “phases” overlap and blend together. The “social” phase seems to be stalled, at least for now.
    According to Gabriel Levy’s account (http://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/ukraine-1-yanukovichs-end-is-a-beginning/), left participants in the Maidan protest were attacked by right-wing militants. So we do have to question how close the informal structures that emerged there came to “direct democracy”.
    Simultaneous but different upheavals in Ukraine, Thailand and Venezuela have something in common: “people power”, mass mobilisation, occupation of public spaces and confrontations with the police or army cannot be assumed to be revolutionary or progressive until the goals of the movement are also considered. Both sides of the divide can use apparently similar methods and deploy the rhetoric of “democracy”.
    Developing a revolutionary and liberating alternative to all centres of capital and state power, whether Moscow, Washington or Brussels, as well as all brands of narrow nationalism and authoritarianism remains a difficult but necessary task.

  5. sam friedman

    I have dear friends who have been involved in the Maidan uprising. I have had the opportunity for some face to face communication with them, and more by other means. The latest relevant such discussions is about two weeks ago.

    Based on those talks, it is clear that the uprising was mass and democratic in many ways. There was a desire to develop a much more far-reaching concept of democracy.

    There was, and as of two weeks ago, is, very little economic content to their thinking. (This may change, of course.)

    The Russian take-over of Crimea had the effect of increasing national sentiment. Indeed, I have been trying to think through whether it was done (in part) to strengthen right-wing forces in Ukraine and thus make additional barriers to spread of the movement to Russia. My thinking on this is unresolvedd.

    Among my friends, there is no thought of building an alternative to capitalism. At least not yet. The aftermath of “Soviet Marxism” still run deep in the thoughts of activist young people on this.

    So Peter is right in pointing to this as a key issue we need to address.