MOSCOW — First came Mikhail Gorbachev, who moved a monolithic Soviet Union toward reform. Then in August 1991, an ill-conceived coup attempt by clumsy and occasionally drunken men opened a crack that could not be closed.
A few pieces of the empire fell off and floated away. Soon the rest of the mass collapsed.
Triumphalists in the West saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the inevitable triumph of democracy, even as "the end of history." Others, like Russian leader Vladimir Putin, bemoaned the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."
The shards of the Soviet Union lie somewhere between those extremes - a jumbled pile of countries, totaling one-sixth of the world's land mass, that are wildly different from one another and facing futures that may be promising or troubling. Islamic insurgencies threaten to explode into wide fighting, and two "frozen conflicts" appear nowhere near resolution.
They include Moldova, Europe's poorest nation, and Russia, which breeds tycoons of Pharaonic wealth.
Some are genuine democracies; others are unconvincing or cynical imitations. Turkmenistan is an open dictatorship, and Belarus and Uzbekistan effectively are the same.
In the assessment of the Freedom House watchdog group, three of the 15 former Soviet republics are considered free, seven not free and the other five are somewhere in between.
Russia is among the "not free" after losing ground over the past decade. By far the largest former Soviet republic, the one with the most lavish treasure chest of natural resources and the only one to still have nuclear weapons, Russia is on a path that is far from clear but of key concern to the world.
In the first years after the Soviet Union's collapse, Russia's political scene seemed wide open, as reformers, opportunists and rabid nationalists entered the arena. In 1996, the presidential election competition was so intense that it forced a second round of voting, which Boris Yeltsin won with 53 percent of the vote.
Mr. Putin's Russia, though nominally a democracy, has clamped a tight lid on any genuine opposition politics, except for the increasingly marginal Communist Party. Authorities routinely deny opposition groups permission to rally, and police harshly break up unauthorized gatherings. Changes in election laws over the past decade threw up almost insurmountable obstacles to independents and true opposition groups.
President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken repeatedly of the need for reform, but as a weak president who attained office only because Mr. Putin could not run for another presidential term in 2008, his words have had little impact.
Mr. Putin, the current prime minister, is widely expected to run for the presidency next year and would be certain to win. That would reinforce the so-called "managed democracy" system, which many observers say could lead to catastrophe.
"Russia throughout its history repeatedly saw political reforms launched only when it was already too late. And now the nation is again heading in the same direction," said Boris Makarenko of the independent Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. "The government can't endlessly ignore society's opinion. If they attempt to do that, it could lead to the scenarios of 1917 or 1991."
Russia's recent stability and its citizens' willingness to accept declining political freedoms are closely tied to the astonishing wealth that has flowered in the country since the Soviet collapse, hinging on world demand for its vast supplies of oil and natural gas. Even Russians who ca not afford the multimillion-dollar apartments of central Moscow appear excited by watching from the sidelines.
But the global economic crises of 2008 and 2011 starkly illustrated how vulnerable Russia is to drops in oil prices. Prolonged economic stagnation or decline could rock the political system.
Russia also is plagued by an Islamic insurgency in its Caucasus provinces, an offshoot of the two post-Soviet wars with Chechen separatists. The violence periodically spreads deep into the heartland, as in January when a suicide bomber killed 36 people at Moscow's largest airport.
Kazakhstan, smaller than Russia but larger than all of Europe, also has thrived on its gas reserves and other natural resources. Its prospects for democracy are even more doubtful than Russia's.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country since the Soviet collapse, holds unchallenged power, and his party occupies every seat in the national legislature.
However, neighboring Kyrgyzstan remains a focus of worry because of violent animosity between ethnic groups, which exploded last year in pogroms in the south that killed hundreds. Both the United States and Russia have air bases in the country, and stability there is a key concern for Moscow and Washington.
Two other former Soviet states' moves toward democracy and the West deteriorated but have not definitively collapsed.
Ukraine, where massive protests in 2004 ushered in a reformist Western-leaning pro-NATO government, almost immediately devolved into factional jealousies that effectively paralyzed the country.
Voters threw out that regime last year in favor of a Russia-friendly president, who is under wide criticism from the West for politically motivated prosecutions and pressure on independent news media.