7/8 TC The year 1991, the last and most dramatic of the six in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's rule, ended with the Soviet leader humiliated and deposed and the multinational superpower he had fought to preserve shattered, hurtling backward through time -- from superpower to empire to a patchwork of petty fiefdoms.
By year's end, the only grim reminder of the superpower was the presence of nearly 27,000 nuclear warheads scattered across the territory of the former Soviet Union -- theoretically under strict guard but in fact protected by an increasingly dispirited and confused Soviet army.
The official successor to the old union is the Commonwealth of Independent States, formed this month by 11 former Soviet republics. But the new grouping, its leaders apparently united only by the desire to remove Gorbachev, is already showing signs of deep divisions and may not last long.
And as a new year begins, Russia, the core of the old Soviet empire and the inheritor of much of its power, is, as so often in its history, in the throes of a wild swing from despotism to anarchy.
Russia's chaos will be intensified, in the short term at least, by the economic reforms -- daring, but by their authors' own admission, not completely thought out -- that are due to be introduced Thursday.
The turmoil of the coming year seems destined to revive an age-old Russian political debate that could have major implications for both Russia and its Western neighbors: Can a country as massive and anarchic as this be governed by a parliamentary democracy, or will it need the iron hand of authoritarianism to keep it under control?
As 1992 dawns, the answer to this question remains open.
Other developments of 1991, now eclipsed by the grand drama of the August coup and Gorbachev's downfall, could also make themselves felt in the coming year.
The powerful strike movement, in Russian and Ukrainian coal fields, Belarussian factories and elsewhere, shook the government in 1991 and could do the same in 1992. The extreme right in Russia could emerge as a serious factor.
The real drama of 1991 was distilled into two or three breathtaking bursts of action. Three days in August were enough to shatter the pillars of the old regime -- the KGB, the Communist Party and the armed forces.
Ten days in December completed the work, stripping Gorbachev of his power, abolishing the Soviet parliaments and its remaining ministries, and finally forcing Gorbachev out of office.
But the turning point in the Soviet regime's fortunes came at the very beginning of 1991.
On the night of Jan. 13, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Soviet tanks moved against unarmed civilians protecting the republic's main television tower. Thirteen civilians died. The assault was halted.
Success in the Baltics in January would have emboldened the men who were to try so clumsily to seize power in August. Instead, the semi-crackdown galvanized the Baltics and shook Gorbachev's grip on the political establishment.
The killings convinced politicians that Gorbachev could at best be only a temporary and unreliable ally.