It is now 15 years since the failed coup of August 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev. At the time, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost were seen by Soviet hardliners as a sell-out of communist Russia to the capitalist West. But it is now clear that the KGB and the military who launched the coup were not defending the idea of communism. Instead, they were protecting their idea of Russia’s imperial mission, a notion that had given the Kremlin commissars greater control of the vast Russian empire, and of Russia’s neighbors, than any of the Tsars had ever enjoyed.
Gorbachev’s reforms not only liberated ordinary Russians from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, but also released the national aspirations of people who had been locked in the empire for centuries. Having seen the peoples of Central Europe free themselves from Soviet domination just two years before, the constituent nations of the USSR were beginning to seek the same freedom for themselves.