How Revolutions Start: The Women of Iran and the Russian Protests

Barry Gander
7 min readSep 29, 2022

It’s all about triggers.

There is a link between the death of a young woman in Iran, and the recent unrest in Russia.

They are both danger signals to dictators: democracy is coming.

Dictatorships become democracies with surprising speed. A recent paper looked at more than 200 episodes of democratization over more than a century and found they were largely the result of authoritarian rulers’ mistakes in seeking to hold on to power.

Democratization was an accident — an unintended consequence of a dictator’s misreading of the public.

Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was making a routine speech when he realized he was being overthrown. The increasing hardship he had imposed on his people did not register in him as a threat — he was too isolated (think Putin in his palace).

Gorbachev started reforms to prop up the regime but they went out of control and Communism itself fell.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych lost power in 2013, when his riot police descended peacefully protesting students and brutally beat them. This set off the much bigger protests that resulted in his ouster.

A key similarity here is that the dictators’ mistakes were accompanied by astonishment from the rest of the world when their regimes fell so quickly.

Today it is equally hard to imagine that Xi Jinping in China or Putin in Russia could be overthrown, even though they rule over societies riddled with inequality and injustice. But consider the triggers today:

Young (22-year-old) Mahsa Amini died in police custody following her arrest for improperly wearing the hijab.

Mahsa Amini died mysteriously in the Vozara detention center, where she was being lectured on her ‘indecent’ appearance.

Excuses made by the regime were disregarded by the people. The regime was fragile, and revolutions are often fueled by questions about their legitimacy. In Iran in 2009, the presidential vote held a hope for progressive action, in candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. He lost — and the electoral ballots disappeared.

Barry Gander

A Canadian from Connecticut: 2 strikes against me! I'm a top writer, looking for the Meaning under the headlines. Follow me on Mastodon @Barry