Through the fall of 1991, constituent republics declared their independence from the U.S.S.R., one after another, while Mr. Gorbachev, who was still the Soviet president, scrambled to keep the union together. In December, Mr. Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine met and agreed on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mr. Gorbachev was not invited. He was not even the first to know: He was informed by the Belarusian leader after Mr. Yeltsin had called President George H. W. Bush with the news. In the end, Mr. Gorbachev had to resign as president because his country was no more. Most of its institutions, along with its memberships in international organizations, passed to a new country called the Russian Federation.
Mr. Yeltsin and his aides believed that what happened in Russia was better than any revolution, even a velvet one. They were convinced that by taking over existing institutions they would bring democracy to Russia faster, and less painfully, than they would by destroying them. They gave little thought to the fact that these were the institutions of a long-running totalitarian regime: They did not doubt that they had the will and strength necessary to transform them.
But these institutions have turned out to be stronger than the men who had set out to reform them. They resisted change for nearly a decade, and once Vladimir V. Putin became president, they fell into place, easing Russia’s regression. Today, life in Russia – where everything is political, where the population is mobilized around leader and nation, where censorship and one-party rule have effectively been restored – is more similar to life in the Soviet Union than at any point in the last 25 years.