On August 20, 1991, a meeting was scheduled to sign a union treaty that would give the republics more independence. But two days before, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's chief of staff and other Politburo members arrived at the presidential dacha in Crimea putting the president and his family under house arrest.
This move unleashed a chain of events that threatened to engulf the country in a bloody civil war.
"I call on you, my comrade officers, soldiers, and sailors, do not take action against the people -- against your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters," Russian Soviet Republic Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, a decorated hero of the war in Aghanistan, appealed to the Soviet armed forces on August 19, 1991.
A photo gallery presentation of the August 1991 events (Flash required)
MORE: Coverage of the coup from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian.
"I appeal to your honor, your reason, and your heart. Today the fate of the country, the fate of its free and democratic development, is in your hands," Rutskoi said.
Rutskoi's plea was for the most part heeded. Tanks took up positions, but no soldiers fired on the thousands of Muscovites who had taken to the streets to oppose the plotters.
Organizing The Resistance
"Just after 8 a.m., [human rights activist] Yury Samodurov rang and told me to switch on the television," activist Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobel Prize laureate Andrei Sakharhov, told RFE/RL. "I switched it on and saw all those people and everything that was happening. I began to phone everyone. It emerged that I was now the center of a rather large circle of people. I told them all: 'Go to the Moscow City Soviet.' Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, around 9 or 10, they called from the City Council to say that a lot of our people were there and that they were heading for the White House. Of course, I went to the White House as well."
Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin provided the defining symbol of defiance. Standing on top of a tank, with the Russian flag in the background, he called for mass resistance.
Gradually, the tide turned. The coup crumbled and Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea to find a starkly changed balance of power.
Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo announces the coup on August 19; he committed suicide two days later (TASSS)
And as Yeltsin told Radio Liberty just after the coup, the Soviet Union had changed in Gorbachev's absence.
"I think it is important too that President Gorbachev has returned to a different Russia, to a different country," Yelstin said. "It seems to me -- and yesterday I spent half the day with him discussing the future course of reforms and economic transformation -- that he has at last understood that without democracy, without the development of democracy, without radical reforms -- and not the sort of quiet reforms during which coup d'etats of this sort can happen -- that we can't go further. It seems to me too that he has understood the need in fact to end the ruling role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."
After The Coup
But building democracy in Russia -- to say nothing of most of the other post-Soviet republics -- has proved a daunting task.
The war in Chechnya, clampdowns on media and NGOs, the Yukos affair, the appointment rather than election of regional governors, the hobbling of all political opposition are all black marks against Russia's democratic record in the last 15 years.
James Nixey, the manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, thinks Russia's experiment with liberal democracy is over.
"If you look at President [Vladimir] Putin's very high approval ratings and if you look at the fact that living standards have risen quite considerably since 2000 and the fact that you have a leader who is strong and independent and doesn't give off the same kind of vibes as President Yeltsin, then that is actually far more important to [Russians] than the appointment of governors or NGOs," Nixey says.
No More Us And Them
And gone today is the neat demarcation between the plotters and those camped outside the White House, between democrats and their opponents.
In 2004, Putin awarded one of the coup plotters, former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Russia's Order of Merit medal for "high achievements in useful, societal activities."
A recent poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center shows that, with the benefit of hindsight, people's attitudes toward the plotters and the August 1991 events have changed somewhat.
President Putin (right) decorates former coup plotter Dmitry Yazov in the Kremlin on November 17, 2004 (TASS)
Fifteen years after the events, 52 percent of Russians say that both the plotters and Yeltsin had been in the wrong.
Yury Levada, the head of the polling agency, says that democracy these days is not high on Russians' list of priorities.
"People don't [think] of democracy and democratic institutions, universal elections, and other [things] as very important," Levada told RFE/RL. "The subject of concern for Russian people is family, the economic situation, finances, inflation, unemployment, criminality, and other [things]."
Looking Toward The Future
The question of Putin's succession and the 2008 presidential election will be a test for Russian democracy.
"Whether or not President Putin stays in power, and changes or adjusts or abolishes or alters the constitution to enable him to stay in power will show us an awful lot about the true nature of Russia," analyst Nixey says.
After 15 years of a rocky transition, Russians for the moment appear content to waive their human rights in return for stability and rising living standards. The drama of 1991 seems as much a part of history today as the Soviet Union itself.