It all started with a group of idealistic, and somewhat hot-headed kids. The national association of college and university students met on cold late-autumn afternoon at the University of Engineering, while local chapters of various other schools held concurrent meetings throughout the capital and the rest of the country.
There was a palpable sense of impatience, urgency and desire to finally ACT to change things for the better. These kids were born into and grew up in an era whose social values had become anathema by the time they came of age. They had lived through the full horror of WWII, being occupied by both Germany and USSR, hosting a fascist government and a neofeudal constitutional monarchy with a regent as dictator. Their parents and grandparents had been bent into acquiescence with one corrupt, exploitative and fundamentally unjust regime after another. The social structure that awaited them outside the gates of their respective institutions of higher learning was one rife with cronyism, graft, backwardness, political brinksmanship, selective application and enforcement of the law.
While losing some of its power in translation, their manifesto included something along these lines:
“The aim of the alliance is to ensure that the youth graduating from our colleges and universities, who are destined to represent the best and brightest of society, be a brave, spirited legion fighting for its people, its nation and a happier tomorrow – rather than a cowardly, spineless and selfish mob. We should never be afraid to speak the truth, and always aim to serve society with our skills, knowledge and talent.”
A popular former prime minister had been removed from power and marginalized (in part) due to direct pressure from Moscow. Neither were perfect, both worked within the existing system (and thus can be said to have perpetuated and deepened it) -- but they represented to many a stifled attempt at reform, which was cut short by imperial pressure.
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The country was being forced into an ever-more-dependent satellite/serf status under the heel of the Russian Bear. The economy was stagnating, due in large part to central planning, gross misallocation of national resources and plain crony theft. Neighboring countries had in recent years been successful in skirting out from under the direct influence of the Neo-Russian Empire, and the possibility of aligning with the West, more specifically with Europe, was a huge factor on everyone’s minds. NATO had recently been expanded, and ever-more-directly threatened the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
The activists decided to march to a symbolic, central square in the capital, in what was at first a relatively small early demonstration
That then swelled to a massive crowds of hundreds of thousands...
The manifestos of the demonstrators were read. While Ukrainian demands started out focused and relatively restrained (demanding a resumption of negotiations on EU accession process), they eventually morphed into a demand for regime change. The idealists in Budapest started out by demanding regime change, along with Soviet troop withdrawals, neutrality and constitutional reform.
Statues of dictators that were the embodiment of decade(s) of oppression and murder were toppled (Josef Vissarionovich and Vladimir Ilyich, respectively):
Barracks were overrun, armories were emptied. This gentleman was a young colonel sent to retake a demonstrator-occupied central garrison in Budapest, who decided to join the revolution instead with his entire unit. He was briefly appointed Minister of Defense, a post he held until his capture and summary execution.
„Supporters of the opposition this week overran an Interior Ministry garrison near Lviv, in western Ukraine, and captured its armory. It was unclear whether any of the commandeered weapons were being used Thursday in the fighting in the capital.” -- NYTimes
Some initial successes against armored cav/infantry were achieved, using minimal/light weaponry:
The Regime made initial concessions to revolutionaries – the previously deposed Prime Minister was reinstated, negotiating committees were set up to begin drafting reforms*. Soviet troops began to withdraw, a shaky truce* was established, elections were promised*. The Politburo in Moscow made an initial decision to back off, allow self-determination, and a respect of the country's sovereignty*, and to consider the permanent removal of occupying troops.
(*- any of this sound familiar from current parlance used by the Ukrainian president, US/Russian .gov leaders and mouthpieces?)
Historians debate as to the relative importance of a) Hungary’s stated intent to declare neutrality and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, b) pressure from Chairman Mao to crush the uprising, c) the backing down of the US and its preoccupation with the concurrent Suez crisis, or d) the simple need to maintain the image of Soviet power without possible dissent. Perhaps it took the officials in Moscow about a week to realize that when the people were hanging Secret Police thugs in the streets and demanding trials for all current governement officials and Party functionaries, the situation had moved beyond 'modest reform efforts'. Whatever the reason, the tide shifted the next week – the orders were issued to swiftly stamp out the mutiny.
In the background, Eisenhower communicated to Khrushchev that the US was not "looking for new allies in Eastern Europe". Party functionaries were selected by the Kremlin to be the faces of the ’next government’ – and flown by the Soviet ambassador to Moscow. They were presented with a Faustian bargain*: either return to their country and assist Soviet troops in crushing the rebellion and reestablish order, or remain in custody in Moscow indefinitely. As you may guess, they opted for the former. 17 armored divisions of the Red Army (after the initial burnouts, air-intakes were armored over) did not have much trouble overrunning a minimally equipped and poorly led local military, or the few thousand civilian resistance fighters. All the while Radio Free Europe exhorted locals day and night to keep up the resistance, the UN and NATO could hardly fail to intervene, the corrupt Soviet communist state was far weaker than people imagined and would collapse any day now, etc.
(* - Remember when opposition leaders were offered cabinet posts in Ukrainian government just a few weeks ago?)
The most recent developments out of Kiev are promising, it seems at least an interim agreement framework has been hammered out – addressing most if not all of the demonstrators’ demands (notably, the immediate resignation of Yanukovych is not on the table). However, Russia has also shut the fiscal spigot without which Ukraine teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, as per the S&P – and at least a handful of bank runs are already underway. Even the EU seems to be making (somewhat token) sanctions against Ukraine, as we all know how much those generally hurt the groups in power. And some public notices have been given that Russia will not sit idly by if the territorial integrity of Ukraine is compromised – which would by definition threaten strategic interests.
The ultimate irony? The international agreement guaranteeing Ukraine's security, signed by the USA, Russia and the UK is known as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. It was issued as a precondition to Ukraine surrendering its portion of the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal:
The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
[aforementioned countries] reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
[aforementioned countries] reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.*
(Kinda like the Warsaw Pact and the "Declaration of the Government of the USSR on the Principles of Development and Further Strengthening of Friendship and Cooperation between the Soviet Union and other Socialist States" did the same for its participants...)
We will soon see just how much history rhymes. The analogy only goes so far, the situation and circumstances are significantly different in their details. But as Western leaders offer one sternly worded statement of condemnation and red-line-in-the-sand after another, I am caused to wonder which side has more sway and determination in shaping the events.
Regardless of any possible alphabet-soup/black-budget support for ’civil society organizations’ and agents provocateurs from the West, or likewise planted/funded/controlled by Russia, this is a popular uprising. This is not about oil, or gas, or Russia – though of course each of those may play a pivotal role in the final outcome. It is about the struggle of a nation for its self-determination and right to a productive life. Yes, the EU is a corrupt and corrupting entity which carries with it a serfdom of its own sort – but the alternative paths of maintaining the corrupt status quo, or of even further dependence on Russia (a la Belarus) is even less attractive.
In the end, the US will (once again) not risk a live military conflict over this issue. The EU may offer its (tainted) carrots of economic integration and (spidersilk) sticks of ’sanctions’, but that's about as far as it goes. It will be up to the people of the land to make up their minds: is it time for many more of them to stand up and be counted? Or is it better to hang your head, fall in line, and accept what may come? In the end, it is they, and ONLY they that can 'throw the bums out'.
I just pray that the current apparent progress toward a peaceful and just resolution is real, and not merely a stalling tactic employed by the PTB controlling (or trying to secure control over) Ukraine. While the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Russian troops streaming into the country to put down this ’rebellion’ is thankfully very remote, this is something that could change if partition, major false flag or gas pipeline shutdown is thrown into the mix.
„Lord, in his vain struggles,
Shield him with your mighty hand
From that sea of troubles.
He whom ill-luck long has cursed
This year grant him pleasure,
He has suffered with the worst
Time beyond all measure”
1956: ca. 3300 dead, 230-350 executed after the fact. 22,000 were jailed, 13,000 were sent to re-education/internment/forced labor camps. A few hundred were 'extradited' to Moscow. ca. 200,000 fled the country.
The subsequent 'communism-lite' regime was less bad than any of the neighboring countries, and substantially better in living conditions for the average citizen than the USSR proper. On the other hand, a gap of equal or greater size existed when compared to neighboring Austria, which managed to pull off the tightrope-walking trick of remaining a neutral nation between the WP and NATO. Not to mention the bitter, bitter taste of failure and betrayal.
A pretty decent photo essay about 1956 (with terrible, TERRIBLE captions, please ignore those).
An interesting memoir of 1956 written in English by an active participant is here.
This ZH article, while way too simplistic in the actual post section, has about 9 pages of comments, many of which are insightful. Most of course are snarky to the point of tastelessness, but plenty of meat there as well -- including some darker thoughts on how all this could go very wrong. Lots of local news/photo links as well.
Live TV feed from Maidan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbQC7_TNQPw