Anti-Gorbachev plotter, Soviet Gen. Varennikov dies

MOSCOW (Reuters) - General Valentin Varennikov, one of the leaders of a failed coup against president Mikhail Gorbachev that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, died in Moscow on Wednesday.

Russian General Valentin Varennikov gives a speech near Damascus, September 24, 2008. REUTERS /Khaled al-Hariri

He was 85.

Varennikov, former commander of Soviet ground forces, was charged with treason and jailed after the August coup collapsed in three days. The action, however, dealt a fatal political blow to Gorbachev and opened the way for his rival Boris Yeltsin who had rallied opposition to the “Emergency Committee.”

Unlike the other defendants, who included the head of the KGB security police, the Defense Minister and the Vice-President, Varennikov did not accept a pardon and was acquitted by a court in 1994.

Varennikov, a staunch communist and battle-scarred officer wounded in the battle of Stalingrad during World War Two, told the court his actions were an attempt to save his country, which he said Gorbachev was pushing toward disintegration with his reforms. Constituent republics were breaking away, the economy was in decline and Moscow’s influence abroad was dwindling.

“In August 1991 I confronted another enemy, the far more dangerous 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,” he told the trial then.

The red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin four months after the coup. Russia, under Yeltsin, Ukraine and Belarus formally dissolved the Soviet state other former republics had deserted in the years before.

President Dmitry Medvedev expressed his condolences to Varennikov’s family and loved ones, describing his as a ‘true patriot’.

Varennikov commanded a Russian army in East Germany after World War Two. As a Soviet military instructor he took part in Cold War-era armed conflicts in Angola, Syria and Ethiopia.

In the 1980s he spent four and a half years commanding Soviet troops in Afghanistan, where he was decorated with the highest military award of Hero of the Soviet Union for a large-scale operation against Afghan guerrillas.

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov