The Soviet Union’s flag came down for the last time today 1991

Now out of never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989 (Article Summary)

A. Main Hypotheses

Dynamics of Transition

Current scholarship on political revolutions fails to explain how rapidly and unexpectedly the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe developed.

Individual decisions to support the opposition eventually create a snowball effect. The people that join the movement as it grows will later portray themselves as long-time members of the opposition and encourage even more people to switch over. Thus, preference falsification is both the source of a regime’s stability and its downfall. This phenomenon makes it difficult to track anti-government sentiment in repressive regimes, which is why revolutions come as a surprise but seem to have been inevitable.

B. Summary

United In Amazement

The revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe challenged the view that communist totalitarianism is more stable than ordinary authoritarianism.

In retrospect, it all appears like an inevitable consequence of multiple factors (bad leaders, bad economy, and no freedom.) But at the time, academics, statesmen, diplomats, journalists, futurists, and other experts all did not see it coming, and were astounded when it did.

Received Theories of Revolution and their Predictive Weaknesses

Kuran offers a critique of the current literature related to the hypothesis.

-          Structuralist theory: A revolution occurs when: 1) a state’s evolving relations with other states and local classes weaken its ability to maintain law and order, and 2) the elites harmed by this situation are powerless to restore the status quo ante yet strong enough to paralyze the government. This theory doesn’t rely on subjective factors like religion, etc.

-          Standard theory (Rational-choice): An individual opposed to incumbent regime is unlikely to participate in efforts to remove it, since personal risks outweigh benefits of the movement’s success. He or she will let others make sacrifices to kill the regime, and will still benefit since revolution is a “collective good.”

The standard theory explains why revolution is so rare but not why the 1989 ones occurred, and fails to explain why some people do make the irrational choice to challenge the regime and risk their lives. The structuralist theory explains why conditions were ripe for revolution in Soviet Union, but does not explain why old order collapsed so suddenly at once and why 1989 revolutions were so unexpected.

Preference Falsification and Revolutionary Bandwagons

According to Kuran, “a mass uprising results from multitudes of individual choices to participate in a movement for change; there is no actor named ‘the crowd’ or ‘the opposition.’” (p. 16)

The distinction between an individual’s private and publicly expressed preference is preference falsification.

-          Thus, the individual’s choice to join the opposition is based on a trade-off between internal and external payoffs – the internal psychological cost of preference falsification vs. the benefits and harms of siding with the opposition.

-          As the opposition grows, the external cost of joining becomes lower than the internal cost of not joining. Everyone has a different revolutionary threshold (i.e. “intellectuals” are less susceptible to social pressure) but even one individual shift to opposition leads to many others, creating a revolutionary bandwagon.

-          Since private preferences and thresholds are unknowable, this snowball effect means that society can quickly and quietly reach the brink of revolution.

-          Unanticipated revolutions seem predictable in hindsight because once individuals switch to the opposition after the snowball effect, they will claim they were always opposed to the old regime even if they were not. This perpetuates preference falsification and biases post-revolutionary opinions and analysis.

Gradual and abrupt changes in preference are part of a single unified process:

-          When public opinion changes enough that people start to think a revolution could be possible, the speed at which people join the bandwagon will accelerate.

-          Pressure groups and unorganized groups complement each other in efforts to overthrow the regime. “Where a small pressure group fails to push a bandwagon into motion a slightly better organized or a slightly larger one might.” (pg. 25)

East European Communism and the Wellspring of its Stability

Although oppression under Communism prompted a tiny number of citizens to express dissent through Western and independent publications, uprisings were rare and the few that did occur in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Berlin were quickly crushed. Most people living in Eastern Europe were tolerant of and submissive to the regime. According to Kuran, this was due to 1) official punishment of regime opponents, 2) the need to publicly support the regime, and 3) ignorance of how many people internally shared their antipathy. State propaganda reinforced individuals’ perceptions that they were alone in their dissent. However, once people stopped trying to prove their loyalty and started challenging communism, the regimes began to unravel. Thus, preference falsification is “the wellspring of stability” for Eastern European regimes, which would likely have fallen before 1989 were it not for this phenomenon.

The Revolution

The regimes of Eastern Europe were more vulnerable than publicly expressed opinion made them seem. Even genuine support for the regime was very thin; they could easily be swayed by an alternative to socialism if they thought enough people would support it.

Soviet policies of perestroika and glasnost pointed to growing dissatisfaction with communist leadership, which opened up the possibility of a coup by more hard-line Party leaders. Life under communism had reinforced peoples’ fear of change.

While in retrospect it seems like Gorbachev had engineered the liberalization and ultimate revolution in the Soviet Union, in reality these events occurred in spite of him. Kuran argues they were ignited by several other factors:

-          The massive rise in expressed discontent during glasnost lowered everyone’s revolutionary threshold.

-          Individual decisions to keep anti-Communist movements nonviolent were crucial to their cohesion and ultimate success.

-          Success of anti-government demonstrations in one country inspired them elsewhere, and emboldened those who were on the fence about joining. Each successive revolution took less time to complete.

-          Small government concessions, such as in Czechoslovakia, encouraged protesters to make greater demands for freedom.

-          Communist officials acquiesced to the opposition. The pressure to not support the status quo is an example of preference falsification in the opposite direction, contributing to the regime’s demise.

The Predictability of Unpredictability

Revolutions that come as a surprise are the product of a long period of gestation. The rapid growth of mass movements is due to interdependent public preferences – it is the result of many rational individual decisions undertaken based on changing incentives. Even though the confluence of so many variables is unpredictable, we can still gain insight into the general processes by which revolutions form. However, it is difficult to gauge peoples’ revolutionary thresholds, especially when state censorship and regulation of public opinion polls makes this information unavailable.

C. Comments

Kuran’s argument about the “element of surprise” in revolution supplements PDT’s framework for understanding the causes of regime change, although he does not tackle the question of differentiating successful revolutionary outcomes from failures once the initial government turnover occurs. Additionally, his analysis of revolution in Eastern Europe shows that seemingly stable authoritarian regimes can actually be on the brink of revolt and thus vulnerable to internal and external pressure. This supports PDT’s idea that boosting a state’s civil society will influence more people to publicly express their internal dissent, giving the opposition movement the strength needed to successfully challenge the regime.

Summarized by Shelli Gimelstein. July, 2013.

Source: Timur Kuran, “Now out of never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1, October 1991, pp. 7-48

My favourite speech: Vaclav Havel’s address to the US Congress, 21 February 1990

Dear Mr. President, dear Senators and Members of the House, ladies and gentlemen:

My advisers advised me to speak on this important occasion in Czech. I don’t know why. Perhaps they wanted you to enjoy the sweet sounds of my mother tongue.


The last time they arrested me, on October 27 of last year, I didn’t know whether it was for two days or two years.

Exactly one month later, when the rock musician Michael Kocab told me that I would be probably proposed as a presidential candidate, I thought it was one of his usual jokes.

On the 10th of December, 1989, when my actor friend, Jiri Bartoska, in the name of the Civic Forum, nominated me as a candidate for the office of president of the republic, I thought it was out of the question that the parliament we have inherited from the previous regime would elect me.

Nineteen days later, when I was unanimously elected president of my country, I had no idea that, in two months, I would be speaking in front of this famous and powerful assembly and that what I say would be heard by millions of people who have never heard of me and that hundreds of politicians and political scientists would study every word that I say.

When they arrested me on October 27, I was living in a country ruled by the most conservative communist government in Europe, and our society slumbered beneath the pall of a totalitarian system.

Today, less than four months later, I’m speaking to you as the representative of a country that has set out on the road to democracy, a country where there is complete freedom of speech, which is getting ready for free elections and which wants to create a prosperous market economy and its own foreign policy…

Rod Croome’s unanticipated revolution

Back in 1986, an old University mate of mine, Rod Croome was very physically brave in his protesting for reforms to the Tasmanian state criminal law.

  • Rod even walked into a Tasmanian police station and confessed to abominations against the order of nature, as the Tasmanian criminal code called it.
  • The Police said they could not prosecute without the other party coming forward as the witness. The abominee did.
  • The Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions then declined to prosecute on public interest grounds. His discretion to not prosecute is absolute.

These days, Rod is campaigning for the equal right to marry. All inside one generation!

When Rod walked out of that police station rather disappointed at being a free man, I wonder if he anticipated how much change would happen regarding gay rights in his lifetime, much less in the next 5, 10, and 20-years.

A good explanation of this rapid social change is in Timur Kuran’s “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolutions” and “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989“.

Kuran suggests that political revolutions and large shifts in political opinion will catch us by surprise again and again because of people’s readiness to conceal their true political preferences under perceived social pressure:

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak.

Because of the preference falsification, a government that appears unshakeable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves.

Kuran illustrated his bandwagon effect first with the fall of the Russian Czar in 1918. On the morning of the day that the Czar abdicated, he thought it was just another day at the office. But the regiment stationed in St. Petersburg to put down riots had been recently sent to the front. The raw recruits that replaced them melted away in the front of the rioters. The rest is history.

Then there is the Ayatollah Khomeini: two months before the Iranian Revolution, the main concern of his aides was his French visa was expiring; He needed a new country to seek refuge. Just before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a CIA report characterised the Shah of Iran as an “island of stability.”


Yeltsin came to power after the coup attempt by hard-liners against Gorbachev because a KBG regiment sent to arrest Yeltsin mutinied against the orders of the hard-line coup leaders. Then everyone at the top of the military and security forces saw their main chance and switched sides. All popular revolutions against autocrats are ultimately palace revolutions, as I have argued before.

The loyalties of security forces are crucial in any political revolution. Within the security forces, a key concern is ending-up on the winning side in any show-down. Moving too early, too late or not at all have risks of their own when the time comes after a military coup to reward supporters and punish those that chose the wrong side, or even worse, sat on the side-lines waiting to see who would win.

Kuran argues that everyone has a different revolutionary threshold where they reveal their true beliefs, but even one individual shift to opposition leads to many others to come forward and defy the existing order. Small concessions only emboldens the ground-swell of revolution.

Those ready to oppose social intolerance or who are lukewarm in their intolerance keep their views private until a coincidence of factors gives them the courage to bring their views into the open. They find others share their views and there is a revolutionary bandwagon effect.

Plenty of people have had personal experiences of this in the 1980s and the 1990s when there were rapid changes in social and political attitudes about racism, sexism and gay rights.

A few political entrepreneurs such as Rod Croome had to stand up for what was right, and a surprisingly large number of others will quickly join the side pushing for social change.


In switching sides, these early movers and initial protestors encourage other hidden opponents of the established social and political order to switch. As knowledge of the opposition spreads and grows, the external cost of joining becomes lower.


In Crime Waves, Riots, and Revolutions, Alex Tabarrok makes the important related point that when the courts and police are over-crowded and over-whelmed, proportionately fewer criminals or protestors will be apprehended, convicted, and imprisoned or otherwise socially pressured to conform. This feedback effect from one decision to participate in crime or protest to the decisions of others to break the law or rebel can be highly significant.

Kuran argued that fear changes sides once the revolutionary bandwagon takes hold: genuine supporters of the old political or social older or the traditional social values falsify their publicly professed preferences, pretending that they support the new order.

These are late-switchers. Do not trust them.

These late switchers are opportunists who will as easily switch back or move on to support another coup or a counter-coup or a return to traditional values.

Kuran argued that the reason for the bloody purges among revolution movements after many takeovers is to find and route-out these late-switchers. Many are purged, rightly or wrongly, before they have a chance to betray the current leaders of the revolution or military coup.

There are plenty of Christian and family parties winning upper house seats in Australia and soon in the New Zealand House of Representatives. There are plenty of morally manoeuvrable politicians willing to switch to their side if they have enough votes.

Ministers of course have a whole range of dazzling qualities, including … um … well, including an enviable intellectual suppleness and moral manoeuvrability.

Sir Humphrey, The Death List

Addendum: don’t pretend it was just the old fogeys who were the social reactionaries back then in the 80s.

When a gay men’s club sought affiliation with the Tasmanian University Union’s Societies Council in 1983, a number of clubs spoke against it because they simply didn’t like gays. I was there representing a catholic college students club so I seconded the motion.

When the motion was put to the vote, it was carried on the voices with a lot of people not saying anything or mumbling against it.

The chairman of the meeting, who was a member of the Liberal club, wisely didn’t put the motion to a vote. He declared it carried and moved as quickly as possible to the next item of business in case there was a call for show of hands.

Anti-gay rhetoric was common among young people in the 1980s.

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