Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

civilian resistance in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus

Yesterday, I posted about prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia. Perhaps “civilian resistance” is a better heading. That category would include throwing a Molotov cocktail or firing grandpa’s hunting rifle as well as classic nonviolent acts like marches and occupations. My point is not that civilian resistance is better than military defense, or that refraining from violence is–or isn’t–morally superior. I hope for every possible Ukrainian success on the battlefield. But I believe that civilian resistance also has real potential, and indeed, that resistance by Russian civilians offers the best hope in this dire situation.

So I will try to track relevant developments, although with no hope of being comprehensive.

  • This is Rob Lee’s thread of videos showing Ukrainian civilians successfully blocking Russian troops–evidence of courage and of Russian soldiers’ reluctance to kill.
  • This a thread by my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel arguing that Ukrainian civilians will make the country ungovernable by Russian occupiers.
  • Alexei Navalny’s group is officially calling for civil disobedience against the war. OVD-Info is reporting that 6,494 Russians have been detained in “anti-war actions” since Feb 24.
  • Despite the incredible difficulty of organizing resistance in Belarus, there have been antiwar protests in several Belarusian cities.
  • When Ukrainian government officials express deep sadness about the deaths of Russian soldiers, they reframe the conflict as Putin versus the peoples of both countries. This framing invites Russian civilians to help end the war and creates the basis for reconciliation. It reminds me of the way Lincoln describes Confederate deaths in the Second Inaugural Address. He bears responsibility for these deaths as the leader of the North’s military effort, “upon which all else chiefly depends.” Yet he presents both sides’ losses as a shared sacrifice to end slavery and build a better society. Similarly, in honoring the Union dead at Gettysburg, Lincoln never mentions their bloody military victory (or the Confederates’ loss) but describes the soldiers’ sacrifice almost as if it had been nonviolent. In both cases–Lincoln and Ukraine–I presume the sorrow is genuine, but it is also a brilliant strategy.

I have no way of estimating the chances of success in any of these three countries, but guessing the odds is not our task. We should do everything we can to increase the probability of successful civilian (and military) resistance by contributing money, upholding the best examples, and advocating for support in our own countries and institutions.

On Ukraine, see also: prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia; why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); working on civic education in Ukraine (2017); and Ukraine means borderland (2017)

On civilian resistance, see also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; self-limiting popular politics; Why Civil Resistance Works; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence.

prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia

It is not inevitable that Russia will gain control of large portions of Ukraine, but that outcome is certainly possible, even if the invaders must resort to sustained shelling and bombing to capture cities. If an occupation does come to pass, I would anticipate (and support) an armed insurgency. My topic, however, is the possibility of nonviolent resistance–in Ukraine, in Russia, and even in Belarus.

I make no assumption that nonviolence is morally superior to war. An insurgency will be fully justified in the event of an occupation. However, I believe:

  • Nonviolence has powerful potential.
  • A nonviolent movement can complement a violent insurrection, as was the case in British India, South Africa under apartheid, or Palestine 1987-93 (notwithstanding major differences among these examples).
  • A nonviolent movement permits a whole population to participate in forging a democratic future together, whereas a military effort is intrinsically hierarchical and selective; and
  • The circumstances for nonviolence could be propitious. Here I will make a cautious case for optimism.

Already, we see effective moments of nonviolent resistance in Ukraine. This is the widely-viewed video of a Russian tank turning around and driving away when confronted by civilians (apparently near Zaporizhzhia). Although many such cases will have tragic results, the example is powerful. Presumably, most Russian soldiers do not want to run over or shoot Ukrainian civilians. Their reluctance will be a serious challenge to the Putin regime.

Restraint by ordinary Russian soldiers is one reason for tentative optimism. I do not share the view that Russians will be restrained because of their cultural, linguistic, and other similarities to Ukrainians. During this period of very strongly justified concern about racism, we sometimes forget that people can eagerly slaughter others who look just like them. Ukraine from 1932 to 1945 (or even from 1914 to 1945) provides catastrophic examples. Putin’s problem is different. He has failed to legitimate the invasion in any way; and human beings rarely like killing other people unless a war has been legitimized (or they are scared of being killed first).

A second favorable circumstance: Ukraine may have the largest number of highly experienced nonviolent civil resisters in the world, thanks to the successful Revolution of Dignity (2014), which is pervasively and eloquently memorialized in the parts of the country that I have visited. Certainly, the Russian regime–and any puppet regime it installs Ukraine–will be more ruthless than many of the governments that have lost to nonviolent protests. At the same time, the Ukrainian nonviolent resistance will be particularly large, experienced, and motivated. An almost unstoppable force will meet an almost immovable object, with unpredictable results.

Size is an advantage for nonviolent movements. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that no major protest movement between 1900 and 2006 failed if it mobilized 3.5 percent of the national population. Their work has inspired claims like this one: “Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable.” The word “inevitable” overstates Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s findings: the next effort could end in failure. Many of the fully successful cases occurred during a period (ca. 1985-95) when authoritarian regimes were senile and demoralized, whereas lately they have proven resourceful and resilient.

More importantly, some people have drawn a mistaken inference from Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s finding, assuming that the presence of 3.5 percent of the population on the streets causes a regime-change or another major policy shift. As several experts have told me, the causal story is almost certainly different. If a set of organizations and networks is able to get 3.5 percent of the population onto the streets against a government, then either it is strong enough to pose a serious threat, or else the failure of the regime to stop such a large protest indicates the government’s hesitancy, incompetence or internal divisions–or all of the above. In other words, 3.5 percent is a symptom, not a cause.

Still, we could expect a large nonviolent movement in Ukraine. Maciej Bartkowski summarizes a 2015 survey of Ukrainians that showed a high degree of hypothetical willingness to join a nonviolent movement against a foreign occupier. Of course, there is no way to know whether answers to such survey questions predict actual behavior, but so far, the level of mobilization in Ukraine exceeds expectations. In the 2015 poll, three times more people stated that they would act nonviolently than violently. Given the extraordinarily high rates of voluntary participation in the war so far, that ratio would imply that virtually every Ukrainian will take part in nonviolent direct actions.

Organization and leadership offer a third reason for optimism. A Russian guy who was aligned with Putin once badgered me with the question: “Do you believe in spontaneous revolutions?” He believed–as Putin probably sincerely believes–that the Ukrainian peaceful revolutions have been CIA operations. I could have named the Russian Revolution of 1905 as an example of a spontaneous uprising, since it seemed to come out of nowhere. But a better answer is: no. Massive popular movements are not spontaneous; they are organized. However, the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity was organized by Ukrainians in a decentralized way (with modest European and US support), and many of the organizers are still around to try the same approach again.

I am not sure whether the same person can serve as the leader of a nonviolent movement and an armed insurrection. (Nelson Mandela is a special case, for many reasons, including that he was imprisoned.) President Zelensky, if he survives, will presumably head the insurrection, just as he currently serves as the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces. Still, one can see his principled decision not to leave Kyiv as an example of the kind of sacrifice that nonviolence demands. He may inspire, even if he cannot organize, a nonviolent struggle.

The other side of the coin is the potential for nonviolent antiwar–or even pro-democracy–movements in Russia and Belarus. I have no way of estimating the chances of success in either country. However, we have already seen very brave Russians take to the streets as well as anti-war protests in Minsk. May they succeed, not only for Ukraine’s sake but also for the good of their respective countries.

A truly effective movement in Russia or Belarus would require the kinds of organization and coordination that state security agencies are increasingly effective at destroying. Therefore, no one should imagine that success will be likely or easy. Yet resistance can take many forms: not only massive public protests but also a palace coup, emigration and disinvestment, or what James C. Scott named the “weapons of the weak”: ordinary foot-dragging and noncompliance. Russians and Belarusians might use those tools out of genuine support for Ukraine or simply because they resent their superiors and their orders. The Ukrainian official Oleksiy Arestovich appealed recently to Russian soldiers: “Like any military person, you know that there are a million ways not follow the order … You get lost, you break down, the radio station does not work, etc. We believe in you and count on your courage, honor and prudence, which will allow you to make the right choice in this time of tension.”

Indeed, courage, honor and prudence can take a wide range of forms, from throwing a Molotov cocktail at an armored personnel carrier, to holding a sign in a Moscow street, to challenging Putin in a closed-door meeting, to just failing to understand an order on the radio. I am certain we will see a lot of all these things in the days and weeks to come. Whether they succeed is perhaps the most important question of all, unless the Ukrainian military can actually win a conventional war on the ground.

See also: why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); working on civic education in Ukraine (2017); and Ukraine means borderland (2017). See also the case for (and against) nonviolence.

an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany

In this video, I offer a very broad introduction to civic education in the USA–framing my remarks historically. Essentially, I trace a tradition of experiential, community-based civic learning that runs from de Tocqueville through Jane Addams to Dorothy Cotton and onward; and a tradition of studying civics in school that really takes off with Horace Mann. These two traditions intertwine, and John Dewey is an important bridge between them. I argue that neither is in very good condition today.

Then Bettina Heinrich, from the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, gives an overview of “politische Bildung” (political education or development) in the Federal Republic of Germany, focusing on the post-War period. We both note significant mutual influence between these two countries.

Another event will follow this one:

“Growing Up Across the Pond” (May 3, noon US Eastern Time) will be more about the general context for youth in Germany and the USA today. (You can register here.)

These are both open events, meant for anyone who is interested. They are also introductory events for people who might want to join The Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), which “will bring together German and U.S.-American extracurricular civic learning professionals to unlock opportunities for mutual learning and reintroduce a transatlantic dimension to the field.”

a German/US civic education discussion

At a free online event on April 20th 2021, 5-6pm (Central European Time) / 11–noon (US Eastern Time), Bettina Heinrich, Professor of Social Work and Culture Work at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, and I will talk about concepts, infrastructures and approaches for civics/political education in our respective countries, with time for questions from the audience.

For Americans who have not especially thought about civic education in the Federal Republic of Germany, here are some reasons you might be interested: Germany has a very impressive system of adult education that serves a wide range of people and includes elements of democratic education. The USA had a positive influence on Germany democratic education after WWII, just as German models had influenced American higher education in the 1800s and early 1900s. In other words, the two countries are more closely linked that you might think. Nevertheless, there are intriguing differences between “civics” in the US and politische Bildung in Germany. Finally, Germany tends to do an impressive job of addressing the evils of the past. Without equating or even comparing historical evils, we can learn from their experience as we reckon with our own history.

Registration information here:

Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE): School Based and Non-Formal Civics in Germany and the USA

The Tisch College of Civic Life is excited to announce the launch of the Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), a new project in partnership with the Association of German Educational Organizations (AdB). This fellowship will bring together ten participants from Germany and ten from the United States to engage in dialogue in the field of extracurricular/OST youth and young adult civic learning.

From July 2021 through March 2022, fellows will participate actively in in-person exchange activities in Germany and the U.S., as well as online programming to include peer-learning seminars, site-visits, and thematic small-group work.

Are you involved in the field of civic learning with young people (ages 12-29) in a community or youth work organization, after school association, museum, historical site, youth organizing nonprofit, research association or other related institution? Can you commit to enhancing your own practice and boosting the work of your organization through international professional exchange?

We are eager to accept your application by the deadline on May 18th. More information on the program and how to apply can be found here.

As part of our project launch, we will host an open event, “Civic Learning vs. Politische Bildung: A Discussion of Concepts, Infrastructures and Approaches in the US and Germany”, on April 20 at 11:00am EST/5:00pm CET with Dr. Peter Levine, Associate Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and Prof. Bettina Heinrich, Professor of Social Work and Culture Work at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg. The main event will be followed by an informal Q&A session, where applicants can ask questions about the application process. The event will be held in English. To register, please visit:

Please contact with any questions.


The effort to reengage in transatlantic dialogue in the field of youth civic learning comes at a critical time, as both Germany and the United States experience similar societal challenges: structural racism, right-wing populism, polarization and mistrust of democratic institutions and the media, not to mention a strained transatlantic relationship, all exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Germany, the field of non-formal civic education, which falls within the broader “youth work” sector, is legally established and involves a rich array of public and civil society institutions. This system has roots in the democratic “reeducation” effort post WWII in Germany, which was led by the United States. It has its own guiding principles and professional field, separate from school-based civics.

Even though they share a connected history, interactions between school-based and non-formal civic education and between German and US civic educators been sparse. Professional discourse has developed separately, resulting in distinct and diverse infrastructures, concepts, and approaches. In bringing together actors in the field of civic learning, civic engagement and civic youth work from two national approaches and infrastructures, we hope to unlock opportunities for mutual learning through an investigation of common challenges and respective approaches, as well as to identify promising new concepts and future partnerships.