Twenty-five years ago this weekend a group of top Kremlin officials, angry over radical reforms and a deteriorating economy, staged a palace coup and ousted Nikita Khrushchev as the nation's leader.
It was over in just a few hours.An unsuspecting Khrushchev was summoned from vacation on the Black Sea, castigated in private, reviled at a full meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee and pensioned off.
A quarter of a century later, the Soviets and their neighbors in Eastern Europe find themselves awash in political changes that make those of the early 1960s pale in comparison.
The natural question lingers: Could it all happen again?
And if it did, what would that mean for the millions of people in the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe whose hopes have been raised by President Mikhail Gorbachev's now-famous blend of perestroika and glasnost?
"To call a spade a spade, not to hide behind euphemisms, the talk (now) is about a political coup, the replacement of the leadership headed by Gorbachev," sociologist Nikolai Mikhailov wrote recently in the daily Moskovskaya Pravda.
"Are we undergoing a revolutionary situation and the danger of a coup today? I would say that the present-day situation is far more dangerous than 25 years ago."
Valery Zolotukhin disagrees. "I don't see any comparison between then and now," Zolotukhin, 57, information director of the State Committee on Science and Technology said in talking about Khrushchev's overthrow.
Zolotukhin, who was strolling in the Novodevichi Cemetery where Khrushchev is buried, believes too much has changed to permit a repetition of the 1964 coup. "Democracy," he said, "has gone too far."
The comparisons between the reforms of Khrushchev and Gorbachev can be eerie.
Like Gorbachev, Khrushchev challenged Marxist theory, angering two powerful institutions by cutting army size and reducing the KGB's influence.
Like Gorbachev, Khrushchev demanded changes in the Communist Party structure that threatened comfortable bureaucrats and promoted young members to top government posts.
Like Gorbachev, Khrushchev traveled abroad extensively, which led people at home to say he was ignoring domestic affairs.
Both men permitted publication of the works of dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and both sold gold reserves to import food and consumer goods for an angry populace. Both launched radical agricultural reforms and then, as now, there even was talk of a two-party system.
Consider some of the dramatic events in the last two months alone:
-Gorbachev, returning from vacation, went on television to warn the nation not to listen to the widespread talk of impending chaos, threats of coups and even civil war.
-After strikes by Siberian and Ukrainian coal miners demanding better living conditions and greater local economic autonomy, the Soviet parliament voted to outlaw walkouts in key industries. The vote came after Gorbachev said the USSR economy was on the verge of collapse.
-Tens of thousands of East Germans, apparently with Moscow's indulgence, fled to the West. After a brief crackdown following pro-democracy demonstrations in Berlin, the hard-line East German government began reform discussions with small, allied and increasingly critical parties. The government, however, still is is rejecting direct talks with the opposition.
-Poland's new Solidarity-led government announced plans to convert its nation's moribund socialist economy into a market-oriented one. This came a day after new Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, once jailed under martial law imposed with Kremlin supervision, was welcomed warmly in Moscow by Gorbachev, who spoke of Poland as a laboratory for East Bloc reforms.
-Hungary's Communist Party broke with its past and transformed itself into a Social-Democratic Party like those of Western Europe. "We have given up the whole terminology of brotherly parties," said Attila Agh, an architect of the reform. The name change notwithstanding, the communists are expected to be trounced by the opposition in the nation's upcoming free elections.
Czechoslovakia remains a major East Bloc hard-line regime. Still ruled by many of the people installed during the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms, the Czechoslovak government shows no signs of opening its arms to reformers.
It has so far ignored pleas for dialogue and recently jailed opposition figures who collected petitions demanding reform. Like neighboring East Germans did just last week before backing off, Czechoslovak authorities in January broke up protests in Prague with water cannons and riot police.
Is Eastern Europe in 1989 on the verge of the kind of brutal radical return toward orthodox communism that began with events inside the Kremlin walls on an October weekend in 1964? Or do its fledgling changes so far presage an evolution into societies more like those in the West?
Opinions differ widely. Some see a rocky but ultimately successful journey from the legacy of 70 years of communism; others say a crackdown is inevitable.
One result of Gorbachev's changes has been the breakup of the East European monolith. It no longer can be predicted unequivocally that what Moscow decrees will become fact throughout the bloc.
Indeed, Gorbachev seems to be shunning such a role.
During a speech in Berlin last weekend marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany, he cautioned those in the West who expected Moscow to order the Berlin Wall dismantled. They should accept as fact, he said, that in 1989, decisions regarding East Germany are made in Berlin, not Moscow.
It is too early to know if Gorbachev's public pronouncements match the Kremlin's private diplomacy, but it is still true that what happens in Moscow will determine the future of all of Eastern Europe.