The last days of the Soviet Union began on December 8, 1991, when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus announced that the USSR had "ceased to exist as a geopolitical reality."
They culminated on December 31 -- a week after the resignation of the first and last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev -- when the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the final time.
"I believe that Americans at that time already realized that because of our policy...we would ruin [the USSR] even without their help."
The tumultuous course that Russia has followed ever since has generated, perhaps inevitably, a fervent desire among some to recast the past in a rosy hue.
The shelves of Moscow bookstores are stuffed with more than 500 new books on the life of the Josef Stalin; more than half of them are apologist in tone.
In recent weeks, national television networks have aired two films on the life of Leonid Brezhnev that depict the "stagnation" leader as a genial, sympathetic patriarch with a penchant for mocking his political advisers.
Even more startling has been the public rehabilitation of the Soviet-era intelligence and secret political police, the KGB. Authorities in the city of Tver recently unveiled a monument to former Chekists.
On December 8, the KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), launched for the first time in the country's post-Soviet history a series of awards recognizing literary and artistic achievement in works depicting the agency and its work.
The awards are modeled on similar KGB prizes which from 1978-1989 rewarded artists for the "creation of a positive Chekist image."
Another sign of the times is the resurgent Cold War antagonism toward the West in general, and the United States in particular. It's a mind-set that appears to captivate nationalist-patriots, centrists, and liberals alike. It has become fashionable in Russia to accuse the West of Russophobia.
Mikhail Leontiyev, the Kremlin-friendly commentator for Channel One television, recently repeated a phrase attributed to former presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Leontiyev: "Americans got so drunk at the USSR's funeral that they're still hung over" -- so much so, the reasoning apparently went, that they are incapable of understanding that Russia has changed.
The occasion of the 15th anniversary of the USSR's collapse has also sent into overdrive efforts to revise the Soviet legacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin led the charge in his 2005 state-of-the-nation address, during which he called the demise of the Soviet Union "the great geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."
This year, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov referred to the collapse as "a mistake that could have been avoided."
Vladimir Zhirinovksy -- the outspoken deputy speaker of the State Duma who can usually be relied on to put the Kremlin's thoughts into words -- predicted that in the next decade, Russia would create a new Soviet Union. "There will be no 25th anniversary of the disintegration of the USSR," he told a television talk show.
Nostalgia for the Soviet Union -- as well as for tsarist Russia -- is only one element of the gigantic "cultural counterrevolution" that has marked Putin's presidency. The rise in nationalist and pro-imperial sentiment has gained currency in Russia, as has the mockery of Western liberal values.
The main contributors to this process are a massive and aggressive propaganda campaign eagerly advanced by the national television networks; the Russian Orthodox Church; pro-Kremlin intellectuals, and the myriad quasi-civic and youth organizations created by the presidential administration.
In such an atmosphere, it's hardly surprising that many polls show the majority of Russians expressing regret about the decline of the Soviet Union and even desiring its resurrection together with other former Soviet republics.
Even the theories explaining the Soviet collapse are beginning to evolve. Until recently, there were two popular justifications.
The first, liberal, rationale: The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution wrenched Russia off the road of natural progress and civilization. The democratic trends that emerged after 1991 returned the country to that road, and Russia is continuing the journey, albeit with great difficulties.
The second, national-patriotic, version: The Soviet Union collapsed because of a plot between Western intelligence agencies and traitors among the Soviet nomenklatura. If such a plot had never been devised, the argument goes, the Soviet Union would still exist.
Reasons For The Collapse
Both interpretations, however, betray the Soviet system as inherently weak and inefficient. They also both dwarf the role of the KGB, which was created to guarantee the power of the Communist Party but ultimately failed in its task.
In 2006, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) released a fresh volume of its history, including an analysis of the Soviet collapse. The SVR dismisses the theory that the death of the USSR was historically predetermined. Instead, it depicts the downfall as a chance combination of adverse historical circumstances and the "failed policy" of Gorbachev.
The study notes efforts by the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the American intelligence community to weaken the USSR during the final stages of the Cold War. These efforts included the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative -- better known as "Star Wars" -- that aimed at exhausting the Soviet economy by setting a new bar in military and defense parity. They also included restrictions of exports of Western hi-tech to Russia, the fall in oil prices, and U.S. support to anti-Soviet operations in Poland and Afghanistan.
But, in the view of SVR analysts, it was neither Reagan's strategy nor special operations by the CIA that created the crisis in the Soviet system. In the words of the report, it only "aggravated" it.
This conclusion was recently echoed by former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov. In a December 14 interview with "Izvestiya," Kryuchkov revealed that he had been warned about the possible collapse of the USSR by his U.S. counterparts. In 1987, he said, he met with Robert Gates, the future CIA director (and current defense secretary), who asked him if he was concerned about the possible disintegration of the USSR.
"I believe that Americans at that time already realized that because of our policy...we would ruin [the USSR] even without their help," Kryuchkov said.