Russia's 'man of integrity' has no regrets over coup attempt

'HOWEVER the court rules, Valentin Varennikov will go down in history as a man of integrity dedicated to his ideals,' said defence lawyer Dmitry Steinberg, as he summed up for his client earlier this week. Today the military bench of the Russian Supreme Court will judge the only 1991 coup plotter who refused an amnesty and insisted on a public hearing and verdict.

General Varennikov, 70, was a bit player in the attempt three years ago this month to sideline the then Kremlin leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. As commander of ground forces, he merely provided the tanks and men with which the conspirators, including the vice- president, prime minister, defence minister and KGB chief, intended to restore Soviet-style order.

By rejecting the easy way out - an amnesty by parliament in February to the coup plotters and the organisers of last year's hardline uprising against President Boris Yeltsin - General Varennikov has had his moment in the limelight and become an idol for those Russians who feel nostalgia for the certainties of Communism.

The general, who fought as a young man in the Second World War and later rose through the ranks of the army to become Deputy Defence Minister and a Hero of the Soviet Union, has used his trial as a platform to condemn Mr Gorbachev for ruining the empire with his perestroika reforms.

Rejecting the treason charges, General Varennikov told the court this week that the coup was intended to save the Soviet Union and his only regret was that it had failed. 'In August 1941,' he said. 'I gave the solemn oath to be faithful to my Motherland before leaving for the front. In August 1991 I confronted another enemy, a far more dangerously disguised enemy, who wanted to destroy my Motherland. I have no regrets . . . but I have a bitter feeling that we failed to save our country.'

He went on: 'The Soviet criminal code describes high treason as an action aimed at undermining the Soviet state. We on the contrary tried to save the state from attempts on it by the traitor who occupied the top (Mr Gorbachev). The time is nearing when I will finally be told whether I lived my life decently, whether I really served the interests of my people or whether I harmed them.'

The chances are that the slim, bespectacled general, who appeared in court dressed in a smart civilian suit, will be able to celebrate today. Prosecutor Arkady Danilov, said on Tuesday that on the basis of the Soviet law, the defendant could not be convicted and he dropped his case. The ruling will be made by three military judges.

The bungled coup attempt, which resulted in the deaths of three civilians, ended after three days of public resistance led by Mr Yeltsin from his stronghold in the White House. Mr Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin but was weakened and the Soviet Union collapsed four months later.

The plotters spent 18 months in prison but were free by the time their trial began in April 1993. From the outset it was a farce. The elderly defendants were constantly falling ill, so that the court was more often adjourned than sitting. Also, the man who first took charge of the prosecution, Valentin Stepankov, seriously compromised himself by publishing a book about the coup.

The public was also losing interest in the drama of 1991. Although Mr Yeltsin opposed the amnesty which freed opponents to return to politics, he accepted parliament's decision without fuss.

Historians regret that the trial never ran its course because the whole story of August 1991 has not been told and probably never will be. This week the prosecutor, Mr Danilov, said there was evidence Mr Gorbachev was not really a captive in the Crimea during the coup and that he could have escaped had he wanted to. The implication was that the former Soviet leader, whose reforms were leading to more radical change than perhaps he had bargained for, may secretly have approved of the crackdown, something the plotters have claimed all along.