Twenty years on, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev still "deeply regrets" the demise of the USSR, blames the United States for not being more supportive of his efforts to reform the Communist system, believes US global power is on the decline and worries that Vladimir Putin – who aims to become president again next March -- is dragging Russia backward.
In a video interview with Liliya Shevtsova, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, and timed for the 20th anniversary of the USSR's collapse, Mr. Gorbachev admits that the Communist system was tainted by dictatorship and violations of human rights, but insists that the Soviet Union had many positive aspects that were worth saving.
"I have always thought that preserving the USSR was possible, and I still think so today," he says. "We were too late with our reforms.... The Soviet Union offered lots of prospects to those who lived there, and it could have had a future if it had modernized and adapted to new challenges. Yes, I regret [its collapse] very much."
In a dizzying six years of intensive reforms after coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev opened up the Soviet media to open debate, allowed free speech, loosened controls on political organization, and replaced Communist Party fiat with elected legislatures at every level of power.
Stymied by economic collapse
But his efforts foundered amid the economic chaos that resulted from his attempts to tinker with Communist central planning, and met growing opposition from national elites in non-Russian republics, who used their new freedoms to press for independence. He also suffered from the mass defections of liberal supporters who accused him of moving too slowly and threw their backing behind his more radical-sounding rival, Boris Yeltsin.
One of those liberals who criticized Gorbachev fiercely in the late 1980's was Ms. Shevtsova, who says she has long since grown to appreciate Gorbachev's democratic instincts, personal openness, and the peaceful manner that he relinquished power when his options ran out in late 1991.
"In the past, Russian leaders only left office in a coffin," she says. "But Gorbachev created this precedent of exiting peacefully. And afterward, he managed his civil life with real graciousness. He is a model of a type of politician that hardly exists in Russia, and certainly does not exist among our top leaders today."
In the interview, Gorbachev says he feels the George H.W. Bush administration did not support him as his power waned, and suggests that "radicals" in the White House, such as then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, urged the president to throw American support to Mr. Yeltsin.
"I think the Americans could have made a clearer stand of friendship at that tough moment in our country's life," Gorbachev says.
He adds that if US global power is waning today, it's in part due to bad decisions taken in the twilight of the cold war.
"I think the moment the US miscalculated was when the USSR ceased to exist," says Gorbachev. "That is when the delusion began, and the US decided to build a new empire."
Gorbachev has frequently criticized Mr. Putin, whose first two terms as president saw sharp reversals in media openness and democratic practices.
But now, he says, Putin's slogan could be "Russia backward!" and his only desire is "to hold on to power and maintain the status quo."
Six more years of Putin could lead Russia into a dead end, he adds.
"We will condemn Russia to be pillaged as a raw materials country for a long time to come.... We need to introduce fundamental changes. We need a new model of development. But it won't work unless it's brought forward by new democratic elections – and we haven't had any of those since 1990."
Shevtsova says that while most ordinary Russians still blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the USSR, many formerly skeptical intellectuals are taking a new and more respectful look at him.
"What we see is a former Soviet leader who's now expressing very logical opposition views," she says. "And he's much more forward-looking, objective, and rational than many contemporary opposition figures. He is the most extraordinary Russian politician, and he offers a model of behavior in and out of power that is completely different from all the others."
[ Video is no longer available. ]