Hannah Arendt Meets the Revolution of Dignity

In 2013, protests in Ukraine broke out. Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. After the government had attempted to disperse protesters violently, demonstrations grew in numbers and eventually led to the expulsion of president Yanukovych. These events, now known as ‘the Revolution of Dignity’ or ‘the Euromaidan’, lie as the focus of this essay. The aim of the paper is not to introduce new factual data, but to look at this development from the perspective of political philosophy, specifically from Hannah Arendt’s position.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-born American political theorist. This text draws from a number of her essays, which all deal, to some extent, with the issue of people’s discontent. Although Arendt was sometimes criticised for her detachment from “empirical reality” (LeJeune, 2014: 83-88) I do not consider this to be a principal obstacle to using her insights in order to understand the reality better or differently. Quite contrary, this might prove inspiring.

The aim of this text is to use Arendt’s theory to interpret the Euromaidan. Space is rather limited, so I will not go into too much depth, but still, the conclusions might be interesting. Although the Euromaidan has been considered as a start of a new chapter in Ukrainian history, this essay argues that, from a perspective of Hannah Arendt, this is not true since Ukrainians actually failed to set themselves free. First, the nature of Yanukovych’s regime will be delineated, then the text will elaborate on a formation of the Euromaidan and finally, outcomes of this initiative will be discussed. The text is rich in theory, which might seem to be at the expense of the analysis itself, but since the theory is rather complex, this was inevitable.

On Yanukovych’s Regime

According to the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index, Ukraine was not completely free in 2013. With 3.5 points in overall freedom rating, it stood in the same place as Erdogan’s Turkey (Freedom House, 2014a; Freedom House, 2014b). So, from Freedom House’s point of view, Ukraine was not considered to be a liberal democracy, which would provide its citizens with complete civil liberties and political rights. Nevertheless, this is rather far from how Arendt thinks about nondemocratic regimes.

Arendt was one of the pioneers of the theory of contemporary non-democracy and nondemocratic rule. Her voluminous work titled The Origins of Totalitarianism has been influential for its analysis of, not only the emergence, but also the functioning of totalitarian regimes. Arendt does not delineate any definition or set of clear criteria – which is typical for her work – but still, by providing lengthy descriptions, she presents characteristic features of these regimes[1] and inspires further thinking about what makes a totalitarian rule so distinctive. These components are: totalitarian rule based on support from mass movement, (secret) police as a centre of power, pervasive ideology dominating the private sphere of individuals’ lives, and charismatic leader (Arendt, 1979: 392-479). However, these features clearly do not correspond with Yanukovych’s Ukraine.

Still, we can turn to the line of thinking that lies behind her concepts. Arendt, following Aristotle, made an important distinction between two spheres of life: the public and the private. The former is a space, where we act and treat others as equals. It is a political space, polis, where force and violence are not allowed and words and persuasion are used to reach our goals (Arendt, 1998: 26). On the contrary, the private space serves to satisfy our needs and that is the only reason that we share it with the others (ibidem: 30). It is a social space, a household, which we share with our family – a community born out of necessity. Relations in the household are not equal; it is a space dominated by a hegemon. The purpose of this forced cohabitation is to provide the householder with necessary everyday resources, which in turn allow him to be active in the polis, which means to be free (ibidem: 32) – since only he who is capable of leaving the private life, can be considered fully human (ibidem: 38). This is how Arendt understands the division of spheres of life in ancient Greece: freedom and equality located in the polis (although only for some) and the household as a violent and unequal environment.

However, this division has changed. The social space has expanded from its original borders – now we talk about “national security”, “social welfare system” and generally about ‘society’. Obligations and patterns known from the original private sphere are now the concern of the whole collective, and the individual’s survival has moved into the public sphere (ibidem: 46). Unexpected spontaneous action, which is synonymous with freedom, was excluded: “society expects from each of its members a certain kind of behaviour, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to ‘normalize’ its members” (ibidem: 40). Action and individuality are now replaced with conformism of masses[2], whereas freedom moved into a private and intimate sphere. Hence, the political activity of equals, which in the eyes of classic philosophers made us human, gave way to unequal subordination to leaders.

Arendt’s thinking about politics is truly rich and it would be possible to continue further. However, for the purpose of this paper, it is sufficient to stop here. The intention was to show that in Arendt’s view, to lose freedom does not mean to be overpowered by some external totalitarian force. It is our inactivity and conformity which lead to despotism and make us unfree – superiority of the social over the political. Therefore, this might lead to a tyrannical state governed by a few, who provide masses with resources they need in exchange for their conformity.

To some extent, this is the case of every state of our time. Some states do better but none of them reconstituted freedom in the political space. Nevertheless, there are some regimes, which clearly resemble the original private sphere – we may call them authoritarian. Ukraine under Yanukovych’s rule was such a household[3]. Yanukovych, first among Ukrainian oligarchs, was the householder, provided with resources which made him independent in the sense of freedom from need. Ukraine was the household, for which is characteristic relation of inequality and of violence. However, it is impossible to say that Ukrainians were not acting at all. Since the 1991 independence until 2013, we have seen several major demonstrations and “revolutions”[4]. However, these generally resulted in substituting one oligarch with another, or they were aimed to secure better economic situation as in the case of mass protests against Tax Code in 2010 (Auyezov, 2010). This should not mean that securing decent socio-economic conditions is unimportant. Nevertheless, seen from Arendt’s perspective: any such protest is only an instrumental use of the political to defend the social, not an attempt to change the conditions dramatically and constitute something new. Anyway, this did not last forever: Ukrainians eventually acted.

Viktor Yanukovych's (former) residence (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Viktor Yanukovych’s (former) residence (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Revolution of Dignity

Revolutions happen. It is an act of utmost spontaneity, not a step which can be premediated. When a part of a society comes to the conclusion that the government is not able or willing to reflect their grievances, they might decide to act outside a standard framework of conduct. They may start breaking rules to draw attention to wrongs they are facing; they start to be disobedient so to speak (Arendt, 1972a: 74). And that can eventually transform into a revolution.

An oppressive regime is not a powerful one. Arendt distinguished between power and force; the former means to act in concert with others with whom we are connected by a common cause and where “deeds and words are used not to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities” (Arendt, 1998: 200). It is what keeps in existence the public realm between acting men and women. Power is opposite to force, which is instrumental, silent and destructive – there is no potential to build (ibidem: 202). Nevertheless, they exist side by side, for only “where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent” (Arendt, 1972b: 155).

The legitimacy of a regime is based on a promise that the representatives gave to the represented. For Arendt, promises – and willingness to make and keep them – is the only strictly moral duty of a citizen, on which every organization is based (Arendt, 1972a: 92). However, if the promise between a government and citizens is broken and people withdraw their consent, power – that means empowerment to act on behalf of people – disappears (Arendt, 1972c: 223). The treacherous ruling elite may be unwilling to step down and then power needs to be replaced by violence. However, violence does not constitute, nor substitute, power; force is able to destroy power, but not create it, since power comes from the people as it is inherent in political communities’ existence (Arendt, 1972b: 151-152).

It seems that in the case of Ukraine, such promise was broken. After more than a year of official preparations, at the end of November 2013 president Yanukovych turned the course and refused the anticipated Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. A demonstration immediately broke out on the Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti square and gained momentum after the Berkut police units attempted to violently suppress protesters. Force clashed with power, but the former did not destroy the latter – quite the contrary, it attracted many others to protest against the government (The Economist, 2013; Euromaidan Wache Berlin, 2014).

The demonstration comprised of protestors of various political affiliations – in particular, those from the far right were often mentioned. This would be important for Arendt, who was afraid of uniform masses, because, without plurality, there is no competition and agonism, and thus no political life. There must be space between individuals sitting around a “table”, which “relates and separates us at the same time” (Arendt, 1998: 52); that means they cannot be same. We are united by a common cause, but we are looking at the same thing from slightly different angles since we remain different; for without plurality, there is only force, not power. Because of that, a uniform movement would not be able to create a common world, only destroy one (LeJeune, 2014: 123).

The common cause, lying on the table around which people gathered, was originally the integration into the EU. Gradually, as the regime reacted violently, this common cause turned into a broader issue of Ukraine’s development. According to Ukrainians, the four most important aspirations of Maidan were (together with the integration into EU): reduction of corruption, limitation of oligarchs’ influence, and equal treatment of all people (USAID, 2015: 6). Besides these goals, the Maidan square itself became a tangible symbol, which created the feeling of togetherness. So from plurality, action, inter-action, and common cause emerged a polis based on mutual promises and endowed with power potential. People withdrew their consent of the Yanukovych’s administration and started acting.

Successful revolution?

The Maidan protesters eventually succeeded in ousting president Yanukovych. The force the government used to suppress the power of people was not sufficient, and the regime fell in the end. However, has this been a success? From the Arendt’s perspective: not really.

The word “revolution” is used to describe various kinds of extra-institutional regime change. However, Arendt developed an understanding reserved only for a specific sort of case. Besides “revolution”, she also wrote about “rebellion” and “coup d’état”. Although some may want to think this was a coup d’état (Chernenko and Gabuyev, 2014), it is not an appropriate term here, because a coup does not involve people – it is only a shift from one clique to another (Arendt, 1990: 34-35). We are thus interested in a difference between rebellion and revolution.

Rebellion is an attempt to displace unwanted ruler and unshackle oneself from his reign (Arendt, 1990: 40). That is connected to a concept of liberation, which means freeing oneself from restrictions imposed on one’s life. Being liberated thus means being free, in a negative sense, to have freedom from something. Nevertheless, rebels (in contrast to revolutionaries) do not reject the system as a whole – they serve only to oust a person, under whose rule they are not happy to live. Thus even if the rebellion aims at liberation (ibidem: 142), the rebels do not have a say over a choice of a new ruler or over rules of this choice. Who the ruler will be is an open question – it could be anyone: legitimate heir of the throne, elected president or tyrannical dictator.

Leninfall. Did Ukrainians set themselves free?
Leninfall. Did Ukrainians set themselves free? (Source: Youtube)

Next to rebellion, there is a revolution. In the beginning, it is hard to distinguish revolution from rebellion. Both are directed against the government and both can be violent. However, they differ in what happens next. Revolutionaries are not mere figurines who make room for someone else, nor do they fight in mere defence of their rights. Their effort is focused on the structure of the state because they reject not only the ruler, but also system as a whole. Moreover, their campaign does not end with a disintegration of the old regime. After its fall, they take their freedom into their hands and act to constitute new rules and build a new system (Arendt, 1990: 35). This is precisely how Arendt understands freedom: a human is not free when he can choose among several options or when he is not subordinated to unjust rule. For Arendt, freedom means to begin spontaneously something new, and to do so in collaboration with others, thus to make it real in the public space (Canovan, 1995: 211-216). Therefore, the end of a revolution is the foundation of freedom (Arendt, 1990: 142). Otherwise, it is a mere rebellion, which liberates, but does not make one free.

Was the Revolution of Dignity a revolution then? After a period of interim government, which followed the expulsion of Viktor Yanukovych, a new president and government were elected in democratic elections and pro-western and democratic politicians were brought into power. The 2010 version of the constitution, which provided the president with a strong position, was abolished, and Ukrainians returned to the version from 2004, which limits the president’s powers. The controversial Berkut police unit was dissolved and the new government started reforming. Therefore, it can be said that Ukrainians managed to liberate themselves. However, did they set themselves free?

The answer is no. They did not try, or manage, to start and build anything new. Even though Ukraine spent the last two decades in turmoil or being controlled by oligarchs and semi-authoritarian politicians, Ukrainians did not start a completely new story. They returned to the old constitution, elected another oligarch as a president, and according to the results of a national survey, they even do not see Maidan’s aspirations being satisfied – only 5 % say that the current government has done well in addressing Maidan’s goals (USAID, 2015: 7).

This is not to judge their conduct, since conditions have not been easy. However, from Arendt’s view, there has been no revolution. Ukrainians managed to replace one president with another, and probably secure some of their rights, but they did not act to break ongoing development and constitute their freedom in a form of new institutions. Relation of mutual promise between representatives and represented was restored, but it might not hold for long: in 2015, only 17 % of Ukrainians approved of president Poroshenko’s performance, which is 11 % less than in the case of president Yanukovych in 2013 (Ray, 2015). Support for the Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government was even lower (ibidem), but president Poroshenko already managed to replace him with his own loyal figure. The question is whether Ukrainians will eventually withdraw their consent and take to the streets to protest once more. If yes, then the question becomes whether the current government will step down, or use force against power over again.


To briefly conclude, in 2013 Ukrainians faced a regime which could be labelled as partly free. President Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union started protests, which after a violent attempt to disperse them, only grew in power. Ukrainians formed a plural body, which moved against the regime and expulsed the president.

However, from the perspective of Hannah Arendt (if it was applied correctly), this was nothing more than a rebellion. It is not possible to speak about a revolution since Ukrainians failed or did not try to build anything new that would free them from decades of similar regimes. This is not the end, though. The confidence of Ukrainians in the current administration deteriorates and if they decide to withdraw their consent, they may get another chance for a revolution.


Arendt, Hannah. 1972a. “Civil Disobedience.” In: Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harvest Brace & Company, pp. 49-102.

Arendt, Hannah. 1972b. “On Violence.” In: Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harvest Brace & Company, pp. 103-198.

Arendt, Hannah. 1972c. “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution.” In: Crises of the Republic. San Diego: Harvest Brace & Company, pp. 199-233.

Arendt, Hannah. 1979. The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harvest Brace & Company.

Arendt, Hannah. 1990. On Revolution. London: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Auyezov, Olzhas. 2010. “Thousands protest over new Ukrainian tax code.” Reuters (online). http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-ukraine-tax-protest-idUKTRE6AL2CQ20101122 (retrieved: May 13 2016)

Canovan, Margaret. 1995. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of her Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chernenko, Yelena and Alexandr Gabuyev. 2014. “Interesy RF i SSHA v otnoshenii Ukrainy nesovmestimy drug s drugom.” Kommersant.ru. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2636177 (retrieved May 15 2016).

Euromaidan Wache Berlin. 2014. The Real Face of Maidan: Statistics from Protests that Changed the Country. https://euromaidanberlin.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/the-real-face-of-maidan-statistics-from-protests-that-changed-the-country/ (retrieved: May 14 2016).

Freedom House. 2014a. “Ukraine 2013 Scores”. Freedom House (online). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/ukraine (retrieved: May 13 2016).

Freedom House. 2014b. “Turkey 2013 Scores.” Freedom House (online). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/turkey (retrieved: May 13 2016).

LeJeune, John Louis. 2014. Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Democratic Revolution. San Diego, University of California, dissertation.

USAID. 2015. Two Years after Maidan: Ukrainians Committed to Democracy, Disappointed in Unmet Aspirations. http://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/ifes_public_opinion_in_ukraine_sept_2015_key_findings_final.pdf (retrieved: May 14 2016).

Ray, Julie. 2015. “Ukrainians Disillusioned With Leadership.” Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/187931/ukrainians-disillusioned-leadership.aspx?g_source=World&g_medium=newsfeed&g_campaign=tiles (retrieved: May 15 2016)

The Economist. 2013. A new revolution on Maidan Square. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21591217-has-ukrainians-defiance-presidents-european-policy-split-country-new-revolution (retrieved: May 14 2016).

[1] Specifically, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

[2] This is actually where Arendt criticizes behaviouralists, who, in her eyes reduce human being into a conditioned and behaving animal, which can be described, measured and compared to some “norm” (Arendt, 1998: 45).

[3] The nature of regimes before Yanukovych is open to discussion as well, but not in this text.

[4] Quotation marks are used here because Arendt’s understanding of revolution is rather specific as will be explained later.


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