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Plotters who failed to stop the democratic rot

MISSING PERSONS NO 28: Dmitry Yazov and Vladimir Kryuchkov
For three days in August 1991, they forced the world to hold its breath. They locked up the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, put tanks on the streets of Moscow and, in effect, defied the world to do its worst. Then, almost as suddenly, they were gone - apparently condemned to eternal disgrace.

The collapse of the Soviet coup - four years ago this week - meant dramatic humiliation for the gang who had tried to get rid of President Gorbachev (a group that included several of his closest colleagues). Some took the hasty way out. Boris Pugo, the little-loved interior minister, shot himself in the mouth, after shooting his wife.

Others seemed bewildered by their catastrophic failure. Anatoly Lukyanov, a close associate of Mr Gorbachev's since law school days, flew down to Mr Gorbachev's dacha-prison to assure him that he had nothing to do with the coup. In reality, as would soon become clear, Mr Lukyanov's contribution had been crucial. The surviving coup plotters were promptly arrested. Their future looked bleak. It was not long, however, before they regained their bold-as-brass self-confidence.

For more than two years, the trial was continually postponed - because of the defendants' alleged illnesses and a string of legal difficulties. By the time the case finally began to be heard, time was clearly on the plotters' side. The depth of popular disillusion with life in the new Russia was so great that the plotters' actions began to seem almost justified. What crime, people began to ask, had the plotters committed? Might they have not prevented the chaos which Russians now had to live with?

In the early days after the coup, there had been talk of capital punishment for the plotters' crimes. But that was soon forgotten. While still in custody, in the Sailor's Silence prison in Moscow, the plotters began to release defiant statements from behind bars.

In 1993, while still theoretically awaiting their trial, the now released plotters - including the former defence minister, Dmitry Yazov - felt able to pose for a proud group photograph in a pro-Communist daily.

Eventually, last year, the Russian parliament amnestied the plotters, to get rid of the problem altogether. President Boris Yeltsin pretended to be angry but may have been secretly relieved there were, after all, few votes to be gained by prosecuting the coup plotters.

The plotters themselves remain entirely unrepentant. Vladimir Kryuchkov, former head of the KGB, regularly takes part in hard-line Communist demonstrations. Mr Lukyanov managed to get himself elected as an MP. Valentin Pavlov, Mr Gorbachev's hedgehog-haircut prime minister - who spent much of the coup in a drunken daze - has made a new life for himself as a Moscow financier.

Perhaps the cheekiest of all is Valentin Varennikov, former commander of Soviet ground forces, who refused to accept last year's amnesty, and instead demanded that the trial go ahead. He was duly acquitted. Not satisfied, he pressed for compensation - which he duly received. He, too, now seems keen to return to active politics.

Paradoxically, however, the prospects for those coup plotters who seek a political comeback may be rosier than for Mr Gorbachev.