‘The revolution devours its children’, wrote the French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan in 1793. Since the execution of Augustin Robespierre and 21 other revolutionary leaders the following year on 10 Thermidor (28 July) 1794, Thermidor has become a synonym for counter-revolutionary reaction, or as the Merriam Webster online dictionary puts it, ‘a moderate counterrevolutionary stage following an extremist stage of a revolution and usually characterized often through the medium of a dictatorship by an emphasis on the restoration of order, a relaxation of tensions, and some return to patterns of life held to be normal.’
Revolutions (as opposed to mere coups-d’état) tear apart the existing social and political fabric, creating chaos. There comes a point at which some of those who make up the new authority decide that restoring order is more important than pressing on with maximalist revolutionary objectives. Economic activity needs to resume, and the state needs to re-establish its monopoly over the use of violence. Also, revolutions are often led by the more extreme elements of the population. Their extremist demands alienate the mass of the population. At some stage, the new order, needing a broader base of popular support, has to curb its more radical elements. Thus, in the mid-1920s the Russian Communist Party purged the ‘Left Opposition’ led by Leon Trotsky, who spent the rest of his life equating Stalin with Thermidor. Similarly, on the Night of the Long Knives of 1934, Hitler eliminated the leaders of the socialist left of the Nazi Party as well as those of the party’s paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung, thereby reassuring conservative Germans that his regime would provide law and order and not seek to disturb the social status quo. There are sound reasons why revolutions are so often followed by Thermidor.
Ukraine currently has a problem with ‘warlords’, local military leaders who pursue their own political agendas and often act in contravention of the law. This is the case both in the part of Ukraine under government control and in the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR & LPR). Adrian Karatnycky writes in The Washington Post that paramilitary groups, many with extreme political views, ‘threaten Ukraine’s rebuilding’. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko ‘clearly wants this problem resolved but has been reluctant or unable to act. … Ukraine’s elected leaders can no longer sweep this emerging threat under the rug.’ Karatnycky seems to be suggesting that the government of Ukraine needs its own Thermidor.
The DPR and LPR, meanwhile, have been undergoing a slow moving Thermidor for several months. This began with the August 2014 resignation of the original Minister of Defence in Donetsk, Igor Strelkov, and continued through the elections of Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky as heads of the two rebel republics in November, and on to the resignation of two more commanders, Igor Bezler and Ataman Koznitsky, in December. Now it has taken a violent turn with the death last week of Aleksandr Bednov, a.k.a. ‘Batman’, the leader of a rebel unit in the LPR.
According to official sources, special forces of the LPR killed Batman after he resisted arrest. The grounds for his arrest were that he was illegally holding and torturing prisoners, accusations which appear well founded. The civil war has destroyed the existing state structures in the rebel-held territories, and the DPR and LPR have been very slow in establishing new structures to replace them. In the meantime, they have become largely lawless regions in which local warlords operate with impunity. Banditry, looting, kidnapping, torture, and even murder have been commonplace, as some rebel leaders and their supporters admit. Batman’s death can be seen as part of an effort to rein in the warlords and create a proper central authority.
One might imagine that this was something all the rebels would welcome – unity, after all, should make them stronger. But instead it is being denounced as betrayal. For some of the rebel leaders, the struggle was never about establishing micro-states in Donetsk and Lugansk. It was about waging war against the oligarchic order in Kiev. Their preference is to continue until final victory, which means eventually marching on Kiev and overthrowing the regime there. A notable example of this school of thought is Alexei Mozgovoi, commander of the Prizrak Battalion, who appears to have a thoroughly socialist agenda allied to some strange ideas about direct ‘people’s democracy’. In his view, the leaders of the DPR and LPR, by seeking peace in order to allow normal life to recover, are guilty of Thermidor – betraying the core values of the revolution in order to cement their own power.
In 2014, war decided the fate of Ukraine. In 2015, it will most likely be the far more prosaic processes of state building which do so. Having determined that a military victory is impossible, Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail. One suspects, therefore, that in Kiev they are cheering for the Batmans of Eastern Ukraine rather than for the Thermidorians.