Ukraine in Context

What Happens When Authoritarians Fall

A paper installation depicting white pigeons at a memorial for those killed in recent violence in Kiev, February 25, 2014. Konstantin Chernichkin / Courtesy Reuters

The gist of Ukraine’s Euromaidan was aptly summed up in leaflets recently distributed around Kiev that featured a big X over former President Viktor Yanukovych’s crown-bedecked head. Indeed, current events in Ukraine bear more in common with Europe’s anti-monarchical grassroots uprisings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than with more recent rebellions. The Ukrainian protesters’ primary motives were not nationalist grievances or democratic yearnings but popular repulsion at the unconstrained, arbitrary, and corrupt power of an absolutist sovereign and his retinue.

In the seventeenth century, Europe’s absolutist monarchs faced no institutional constraints and could exercise power unilaterally. Neither parliament nor the court could overrule their judgments. And not only was power concentrated in the hands of the ruler but the rest of the “government” was designed to serve his or her needs. The monarchs formed their courts out of coteries of loyal minions who received exclusive access to privileges and rents, including noble titles and life-long public offices. These officials could, in turn, redistribute some of their private goods among their own servile lieutenants, but the monarch retained ultimate power to grant or revoke their privileged status.

Of course, such absolutist regimes were greatly varied, which, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama noted in The Origins of Political Order, affected the patterns of their subsequent transformations. A stronger absolutism, which evolved in Russia, presumed the full subordination of different social groups to the monarch and an absence of space for autonomous action. Its stability depended on the coercive dominance of a single actor. So, for centuries, Russian emperors brutally suppressed rebellion at the first sign of it. In doing so, they managed to avoid the revolutionary upheavals that shook monarchs across Europe. The Bolshevik revolution succeeded only after the imperial court imploded from within.

By contrast, eighteenth-century France developed a weaker absolutism. The system was more decentralized and more dependent on the compliance of provincial elites, whom the king had to buy off. Weak absolutism thus required a balance of power between

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