AMONG the Soviet Army high command, Nikolai Ogarkov represented the old-style, hard-headed military mentality at its best.
Ogarkov was thoroughly trained as an army engineer, and it was fitting that in 1984 he should come into conflict with his political masters over the degree of spending that should be committed to keeping the army at the technological cutting edge of modern warfare. Only the previous year he had emerged as the most aggressive senior spokesman in favour of the shooting-down of a South Korean airliner, arguing that the Soviet action had been justified by a well-founded suspicion that the plane was on a spying mission. Neither Ogarkov nor any member of the Politburo found it necessary to express regret for the loss of lives.
Like the great majority of senior Soviet military men, Ogarkov was the son of a peasant. He was born in the village of Molkov, Kalinin Oblast, in the north-west of Russia, the week of the October Revolution in 1917. He entered the Red Army in 1938 at a time when it was in serious need of new blood, some 44,000 officers having being purged - 15,000 of them shot - between 1937 and 1938. In 1941 he graduated from the Kuibyshev Military Engineering Academy and served on the Western front in a regiment of engineers, rising by 1945 to become division engineer on the Karelian and then the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian fronts.
At the end of the war, and somewhat belatedly for an officer, Ogarkov joined the Communist Party and proceeded up the career ladder in a range of senior posts, beginning with the Carpathian Military District, then the Primorie Military District, in the Far East, becoming Commander-in-Chief Far Eastern forces in 1948 and their Deputy Chief of Staff in 1955, a post he held until 1959. In the same year he graduated from the Military Academy of the General Staff and took over as Commander of the Motorised Rifle Division of Soviet Troops in Germany until 1961. Until 1963 he served as Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander of the Belarussian Military District.
In 1966 Ogarkov was made a Candidate Member of the Party Central Committee and a full member in 1971. He commanded the Volga Military District from 1965 to 1968, when he became First Deputy Chief of General Staff of the USSR Armed Forces. In January 1977 he was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union and elevated to Chief of Staff and First Deputy Minister of Defence under Marshal Ustinov, a position of considerable power and influence in the military hierarchy.
As Chief of Staff, Ogarkov played a significant role in the build-up of the Soviet forces, especially as a vigorous advocate of advanced conventional hardware. Since there was a growing sense in the leadership that the defence budget had become a social liability, and the prevailing mood was for increasing the scope of arms reduction, in September 1984 Ogarkov was suddenly removed from his posts. The military and Party press carried commentaries to the effect that the people's needs could no longer go on being sacrificed to the limitless demands of defence. Several months later, however, he was given the sensitive post of commander of the Western Theatre of Military Operations located in East Germany.
Although vociferous in the army's councils, Ogarkov was not well known for expressing his political views publicly, and there is little direct evidence that he became 'political' when so many of the Generalitet were doing so. He is said to have been reluctant about sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979, but this was his military judgement. He attacked Boris Yeltsin for his demonstrative resignation from the Party at its 1990 Congress (a bold and decisive act performed on television, no less), denouncing him for discarding his heritage recklessly, a more political judgement, no doubt, but one to be expected from a military man of conservative outlook.
Although Ogarkov did not emerge on either side in August 1991 and never made his feelings known about the attempted (and failed) coup of his fellow generals, it is only fair to his memory to assume that he must have harboured an ardent if unvoiced desire to preserve the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union, and to maintain the authority of the already brain-dead Communist Party.