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The Historical Analogy That Should Have Ukraine's Revolutionaries Very Worried

Archive Photos/Getty Images

In the Russian media over the past few days, a seemingly bizarre historical analogy has surfaced in relation to events in Ukraine and the Crimea: a revolt that took place well over two hundred years ago, in a remote area of western France known as the Vendée (see examples here, here and here). It was a revolt of Catholic peasants, armed with blunderbusses and pikes, led by noblemen, against a French Republic struggling to realize the dreams of the Enlightenment. What could it possibly have to do with the current turmoil in Kiev and Simferopol?

Surprisingly, and also unfortunately, the answer is: quite a lot.

The Vendée revolt began in March of 1793, and soon turned into the single bloodiest and most horrifying chapter of the French Revolution. Most immediately, it came in response to the Republic’s attempt to draft soldiers to fight against an expanding enemy coalition in the Revolutionary Wars, but resentment against Paris had been simmering for some time. Particularly at issue was the status of the Catholic Church. Since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the French state had confiscated Church property, abolished the tithe, and tried to subject Catholic clergy to strict state control. Many priests refused to accept this new religious regime, and in areas like the Vendée they had broad support from their flocks. This resentment undermined the authority of a new regime that was already fragile and divided.

Armed rioting took place in many different parts of western France in 1793, but in the Vendée, the Republic’s armed forces proved incompetent at restoring order, and the violence blew up into a full-scale revolt. A ragtag peasant army took shape, wearing the symbol of the Catholic sacred heart, and declaring its loyalty to the Bourbon dynasty which the Revolution had overthrown (at the start of 1793, King Louis XVI had been executed in what is now Paris’s Place de la Concorde). Led largely by noblemen of the Old Regime, the Vendéens won several pitched battles with the revolutionary forces, took important towns, and for a brief moment seemed poised to march all the way to Paris. They received help and encouragement from France’s principal military enemy: Great Britain.

Finally the Republic managed to mobilize adequate force and military talent, and in the fall of 1793 crushed and dispersed the Vendéen army. And there then followed a ferocious campaign of repression, as revolutionary “hell columns” crisscrossed the rebel territory, burning villages and killing anyone suspected of having aided the uprising. Historians estimate the final death toll at somewhere near 200,000. Ever since, the Vendée has stood as a symbol of counter-revolution, and, for many of its supporters, of Christian martyrdom.

So what does this have to do with events in Ukraine and the Crimea, and why have Russians been drawing the comparison?

Well, like the Vendée, the Crimea is an area far removed from its country’s capital. As with the Vendée, a vocal portion of the population in the Crimea does not recognize the legitimacy of the central government—in the Crimean case because, as ethnic Russians, they believe they should come under the rule of Moscow, rather than Kiev. Many of them are also attached to the region’s “old regime” and its accompanying faith. (The fact that in this case, the “old regime” in question was Communist, rather than Catholic, and that its leaders traced their ideological descent from the First French Republic, is a nice historical irony). As in the Vendée, the central government itself is newly established, fragile, and divided, giving potential rebels the hope they can defeat it. And just as the Vendée looked to a large, powerful, threatening neighbor (Britain) for support, so, rather obviously, can the Crimea.

Like any historical analogy, this one breaks down when pressed too far. But there seems to be a broadly similar dynamic at work in both cases, and this is what is worrisome. Given the continuing turmoil in Kiev, Crimean Russians may well feel that this moment offers the best chance they have to reverse Nikita Khruschev’s 1954 decision to annex the Crimea to Ukraine (a decision that, at the time, had little meaning, given Ukraine’s position within the USSR). Given the widespread reports, especially in the official Russian media, that the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich was spearheaded by Ukrainian “fascists,” they may well have exaggerated fears of what to expect from the new government in Kiev. Memories of World War II, when some ethnic Ukrainians greeted the Nazis as liberators, play into these fears as well. Under these conditions, if Kiev tries to restore its authority in Crimea by force, Crimeans could well read the action as confirmation of their worst fears, leading to violence on a considerably larger scale. A very similar dynamic helped intensify the violence in the Vendée, where the inhabitants took initial attempts to restore order as confirmation of their suspicions of the godless Republic.

If the Crimea does turn into the Ukrainian Vendée, however, one large departure from the original template is all too possible. In Vendée, although the rebels pleaded for British intervention, it never came. The British were not in a position, militarily, to land troops in western France. In the Crimea, however, if the province goes up in flames, it is not likely that Russia will just stand by.