Valentin Varennikov: Soviet general who helped lead the attempted coup against Gorbachev

To the end, Valentin Ivanovich Varennikov was a believer in an uncompromising Communist Russia under firm rule at home and a feared superpower on the world stage. That was why, as deputy defence minister and commander of Soviet ground forces in August 1991, he was one of the leading figures in the abortive plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev –a plot of which his only regret was that it failed.

Varennikov was a career soldier present at the Soviet Union's greatest military triumph and its greatest military failure. Straight out of young officers school in 1942, he was sent to fight at Stalingrad. He moved west with the conquering Red Army and led one of the units that captured the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. Over the next four decades he rose steadily, serving as a Soviet military adviser in Syria, Angola and Ethiopia, before becoming army deputy chief of staff in 1979. Despite his reported doubts over that year's invasion of Afghanistan (on the correct grounds that it would become Moscow's Vietnam) he ultimately was the top Soviet military official there for the five years before the final inglorious withdrawal in 1989.

By then Gorbachev's policy of perestroika was already encountering difficulties. By mid-1991, as the country sank into chaos, a move by right-wingers to topple the regime became ever more probable. Rarely indeed has an impending coup been more plainly advertised. On 23 July 1991 Varennikov co-signed an appeal in the ultra-conservative Sovyetskaya Rossiya newspaper, warning of the "unprecedented tragedy" that was engulfing mother Russia. How was it, he and a group of right-wing generals and politicians asked, that the country had fallen into the hands of people "who do not love their country, who kowtow to foreign patrons and seek advice and blessing abroad?"

If the document was a manifesto for counter-revolution, the trigger for the rebellion came less than a month later with the scheduled adoption of a new Union Treaty that would have devolved power away from the central Soviet state to Russia and the other Soviet republics. On 18 August the conspirators set up a State Committee for the Emergency that took power away from Gorbachev, who was placed under house arrest at his summer villa at Cape Foros on the Black Sea.

Varennikov was not a member of the Committee, but he was the military's representative in the delegation despatched that day to inform Gorbachev of what had happened. Gorbachev's only choice was to accept the coup or resign, Varennikov told the last leader of the Soviet Union. The latter however did neither, calling the plotters "adventurers and traitors" who would plunge the country into civil war.

In the event, the coup lasted a mere three days. Subsequently its leading members were charged with treason, before being granted an amnesty. Varennikov alone refused the offer, and in 1994 he went on trial before the Russian Supreme Court, showing not the slightest remorse. He likened Gorbachev and his ilk to the Nazis he had fought half a century earlier. "In August 1991 I confronted another enemy," he declared, "a far more dangerous and disguised enemy who wanted to destroy my motherland. I have no regrets about what I did, but I have a bitter feeling that we failed to save our country."

In August 1994 he was acquitted, as the court concluded he had merely followed orders, and had acted "only in an interest of preserving and strengthening his country." As he left the courthouse to the cheers of 150 supporters, Varennikov hailed his acquittal as "proof of Mikhail Gorbachev's guilt."

But his legal exoneration did little to change reality. Varennikov was scarcely less appalled by the shambolic rule of Boris Yeltsin than by the perceived treason of Gorbachev. Only when Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian by instinct and a KGB officer by training, came to power in 2000 did Varennikov find a post-Soviet ruler of Russia to his liking.

The two met frequently, and Putin showed his esteem by naming Varennikov inspector general of the defence ministry, with special responsibilities for veterans. In 1995, the 71-year-old general was elected a communist member of Russia's parliament. In 2008, aged 84, he presented on national television the case for Joseph Stalin as Russia's greatest historical figure, to be chosen by viewers. In the event, Stalin came third.

Rupert Cornwell

Valentin Ivanovich Varennikov, Soviet general: born Krasnodar, Russia 15 December 1923; Head of Soviet Third Army, 1969; Deputy Chief of Staff, Soviet Army, 1979; Chief Soviet military representative in Afghanistan 1984-1989; Commander-in-chief, Soviet ground forces and Deputy Defence Minister, 1989-1991; member, Russian parliament, 1995; married (two sons); died Moscow 6 May 2009.

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