When it all ended, one power -- now called Russia -- lost control of vast swathes of territory.
Adding insult to injury, much of that land was absorbed by its former Western rivals, NATO and the European Union.
In the years after the Soviet collapse, Russian society descended into chaos and poverty.
Its leaders stood by, impotently, as former allies in the Balkans and the Middle East were bombed and toppled.
This is, essentially, how Russia sees the past 25 years of history: a quarter of a century of national humiliation and decline that Vladimir Putin, Russia's President, has determined to halt, if not reverse.
"From the very beginning, the United States played the winner, and did so for too long," says General Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired military officer now with the PIR Center, a leading Russian security think tank.
"If Russia says it is not happy with NATO expansion, or we are not happy with missile defence, that is true. But when the West says we have our plans, we will just carry on, that is not the way Russia can be talked to," he told CNN.
It's the sometimes brutal assertion of Russian interests that led, for example, to the crisis in Ukraine in 2014.
Faced with the prospect of yet another former Soviet state turning West, Russia moved to protect its strategic naval base in Crimea, annexing the entire Black Sea peninsula.
In Syria, Russia saw a last toehold of Kremlin influence
threatened in the Middle East and ruthlessly moved to ensure its long-time government ally did not fall.
Even recent hack attacks on US political institutions
, blamed by US officials on Moscow, can be seen through the prism of a Russia determined to make its influence felt once again.
Analysts say the individual flashpoints are part of a broader Russian struggle to redefine its global role.
"There was the feeling that since the collapse of the Soviet Union the West had the opportunity and capacity to reshape the whole world according to ideas which the West believed were correct and right," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a foreign policy journal.
"What we see now are attempts in the West to believe this arrangement, the post Cold War arrangement, can be restored or prolonged. Unfortunately not. Unfortunately, it is over," he told CNN.
Already Moscow is under tough US and EU sanctions over Ukraine. It could face more over its alleged hacking activities.
In Syria, the stakes are even higher, as Russia bolsters its forces amid renewed talk of possible US military intervention.
Yet Russia has so far shown an unwillingness to back down.
"This is a strong signal to the West," said General Buzhinsky.
"If you want confrontation, there will be confrontation on all fronts," he added.
Russian actions abroad are often characterized as sinister attempts to undermine the West.
But in Russia, they are widely seen as a justifiable response to a quarter of a century of Western dominance.