MOSCOW — Mikhail Gorbachev made one last stab at keeping some sort of Soviet-like Union alive. After the failed coup of August 1991 had led to the suspension of the Communist Party and the emergence of the various republics as the true centers of power — with Boris Yeltsin’s Russia taking the conspicuous lead — Gorbachev still hoped to knot together a confederation.
The three Baltic republics were gone — fully independent — but a successor to the U.S.S.R. could manage without them. There were still 12 other republics. Gorbachev envisioned an economic union, a sort of Soviet Common Market. The idea seemed to get some traction, and a signing date for a new treaty was set. This was at least the third treaty Gorbachev had sponsored that year; the first two had fallen by the wayside, overtaken by events.
On Oct. 17, the day before the signing, Ukraine had second thoughts and pulled out. Ukraine was experiencing an upsurge in nationalist feeling, particularly in its western provinces, but more generally Ukrainians were tired of running their economy to fulfill Moscow’s orders. And their economy was in tatters: A visitor to a monastery in Odessa that fall found the monks forced to wear brown robes, because black cloth was unobtainable. Ukrainian leaders said they worried that Gorbachev’s economic union would lead to more of the same.
And without Ukraine, realistically, there could be no Soviet Union. A country the size of France, with an overwhelmingly Slavic population, Ukraine was far and away the second most significant Soviet republic. If it went, what was the point of keeping the rest of the republics together?
On Oct. 18, the signing ceremony went ahead, but only eight republics joined in. A week later, seven republics sent delegates to a new legislature, which listened unenthusiastically to a speech by Gorbachev. The trend was clear; his project was going nowhere.
It has taken Russians a long time since then to adjust to the idea of an independent Ukraine. Relations between the two countries have swung back and forth, but there have always been sources of irritation. When leaders of pro-Russian political parties — such as the current Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich — rise to power, they quickly find that Kiev has its own interests, quite separate from Moscow’s.
Russia eventually formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and it has faint echoes of the grouping Gorbachev had in mind. Russian leaders say Ukraine would be a natural fit, but so far the Ukrainians have been content to go their own way.