Like many major revolutions in history, the East European Revolution of 1989 caught its leaders, participants, victims, and observers by surprise. This paper offers an explanation whose crucial feature is a distinction between private and public preferences. By suppressing their antipathies to the political status quo, the East Europeans misled everyone, including themselves, as to the possibility of a successful uprising. In effect, they conferred on their privately despised governments an aura of invincibility. Under the circumstances, public opposition was poised to grow explosively if ever enough people lost their fear of exposing their private preferences. The currently popular theories of revolution do not make clear why uprisings easily explained in retrospect may not have been anticipated. The theory developed here fills this void. Among its predictions is that political revolutions will inevitably continue to catch the world by surprise.
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