Nobody saw it coming — this superb account re-creates in vivid detail the passing of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. So many moments are instantly identified as “the day the world changed” that it is easy to forget the relevant date — or indeed the event the label is supposed to describe. But it is no hyperbole to tag Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, as one of those dates. Very likely, future historians will judge it to be far more significant than 9/11.
THE plot was hatched at a bathhouse in downtown Moscow. At midmorning on Saturday, Aug. 17, 1991, the head of the K.G.B., Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, summoned five senior Soviet officials for a highly secretive meeting that he told them would be vital for the future of the U.S.S.R.