In an interview with a reporter not long ago, Mikhail Gorbachev reminisced about his years at the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union. Once in flow, it is normally hard to stop him talking. But on this occasion he hesitated, was silent for a long time and stared at his interviewer disconcertingly with those piercing eyes. “You know, I could still be there now, in the Kremlin,” he said. “If I was motivated solely by personal power I might still be possessing it… If I had simply done nothing, changed almost nothing in the Soviet Union as it then was, just sat there and carried on like those before, who knows…” Then he laughed. If he felt bitterness, he hid it well. Part of this was the usual self-delusion of retired, defeated or ousted leaders. But Gorbachev has a more profound point, especially relevant this year—the 20th anniversary of 1989, the beginning of the end of his rule. Even with hindsight, it does not seem inevitable that the Soviet empire—that vast monolith that two generations in the west were brought up to fear—would disappear overnight. Analysts thought the USSR could limp on for decades trying and failing to reform communism: Upper Volta with nukes, but a serious power.

more from Victor Sebestyen at Prospect Magazine here.