Yes, the seeds of its demise had been planted many years before, but when a group of military men began and then failed in its coup attempt, the end had been reached.
But as military vehicles rolled into downtown Moscow on Aug. 19, 1991 and in doing so announced that a coup was underway, there was no guarantee that it would fail.
For an eyewitness account of what Moscow as like over the following three days, consider this opinion piece that appears in today's Washington Post.
At the risk of being overly blunt, the coup was staged by a group of military men who knew that their years of treachery, fear and deception were coming to an end. Unwilling to accept that the the people were seeking a different (and a hoped for better) life, they arrested Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, concocted a nonsensical story about his health and sent in the troops.
The plan was a gigantic failure; and looking back at it now, it's not hard to understand why Mr. Gorbachev would say that those who led it were "truly idiots." In his interview with Der Spiegel, Mr. Gorbachev spent considerable time reviewing what took place in August 1991.
SPIEGEL: Then came the coup. But the Americans had already warned you against it early enough -- two months earlier, in fact. And they had even named names, including that of KGB chief Kryuchkov. Is that true?Photos provide potent short- and long-term memories, and what took place in the USSR in 1991 is no exception. On the Foreign Policy Website today, you can find some important images from that day.
Gorbachev: Bush called me. He referred to information from the Moscow mayor, Gavriil Popov.
SPIEGEL: You didn't believe him?
Gorbachev: The conservatives had announced several times that they wanted to get rid of Gorbachev, and they had already tried it in various committees, but without success. By then, we had the anti-crisis program, which was supported by all republics. The new union treaty was to be signed on Aug. 20, and an extraordinary congress was to reform the party. The opponents of perestroika had suffered a defeat, and then they organized the coup.
SPIEGEL: And you chose to go on vacation in Crimea at a time like that?
Gorbachev: I thought they would be idiots to take such a risk precisely at that moment, because it would sweep them away, too. But unfortunately they were truly idiots, and they destroyed everything. And we proved ourselves to be semi-idiots, myself included. I had become exhausted after all those years. I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake.
For one perspective on the collapse of the USSR, consider how the Cold War Museum discusses what took place. And for another, examine how Radio Free Europe - Radio Liberty reviews those tumultuous days.
On Christmas Day (and how ironic is that?) 1991, Mr. Gorbachev announced that he was giving up power and that the USSR was relegated to history. ITN looks back on those events.
What is not a mistake is assessing what Russia has become over the past 20 years.
The Financial Times reports that in looking back on those 20 years, Russia and many of the former Soviet states have taken too few and all-too-small steps toward becoming a democratic nation.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest rankings of democracy class six former Soviet republics “authoritarian” regimes – with two, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, ranked among the world’s four most repressive regimes. Four more, including Russia, are considered “hybrid” regimes, with serious weaknesses in political culture and government functioning. Yet all the former socialist states from outside the Soviet Union are in the EIU’s top two categories of “full” or “flawed” democracies – except Albania, one of the poorest 20 years ago, and war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“Most of the post-Soviet states are corrupt states that have as their purpose to allow the elites to enrich themselves through corruption,” says Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who advised the Russian and Ukrainian governments in the early 1990s.
“Authoritarianism is the means of making sure that they can maintain this.”
Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank says that with some exceptions the former Soviet republics outside the Baltics fall into two groups. First, in former Soviet central Asian states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Soviet-era leaders have adapted old methods to remain in power. A second group held free elections until a leader emerged who “pushed out everyone else”.United Press International adds that the Russian people remain uneasy about what has happened to their nation as they reflect upon the past two decades.
Now, however, democracy has withered and the old ways of ruling by intimidation and favoritism have become entrenched, observers told The Washington Post in an article published Thursday.
The coup began Aug. 19, 1991, when the hardliners ousted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to try to end his perestroika program.
"The difference is this," said Georgy Satarov, president of the INDEM Foundation and an aide to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. "Then, people had hope. Now, they are disappointed and frustrated."