Head of Soviet war in Afghanistan backed coup against Gorbachev
Retired Gen. Valentin Varennikov, who directed the Soviet war in Afghanistan and joined the rebellion against Mikhail Gorbachev that sped the collapse of the Soviet Union, has died in Moscow. He was 85.
Varennikov, a hawkish World War II veteran, died Wednesday at Burdenko Hospital, the military’s top medical facility, according to the Military Commanders Club, an association of retired high-ranking military officers. The group’s spokesman, Nikolai Deryabin, would not give the cause of Varennikov’s death, but said it followed neurosurgery he underwent in January.
Born in Russia in 1923, Varennikov joined the Red Army after graduating from an officers’ school in 1942 and was sent directly to the front. He was wounded three times and was among a small group of war heroes who were given the honor of carrying captured Nazi banners and throwing them onto the pedestal of Lenin’s tomb during a 1945 victory parade on Red Square.
He rose steadily through the ranks to lead a group of Soviet forces in communist East Germany in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. In 1979, he was named the first deputy chief of the Soviet military’s general staff and played an active role in the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
From 1984 to 1989, Varennikov served as the top Soviet military officer in Afghanistan, leaving the country briefly to help coordinate salvage efforts after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1988, Varennikov was awarded the highest Soviet decoration -- the Hero of the Soviet Union medal.
In 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he was named the chief of Soviet ground troops.
He enthusiastically backed the August 1991 hard-line coup that briefly ousted Soviet President Gorbachev, who returned to the Kremlin but resigned four months later as the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Varennikov was arrested along with other coup plotters after their defeat and put in prison.
But unlike others, he rejected a 1994 Kremlin amnesty and demanded a trial. He was acquitted and the trial became a forum for accusations against Gorbachev’s administration of the collapsing Soviet Union.
Varennikov went on to pursue a political career, winning election to parliament on the Communist Party ticket in 1995. He was reelected in 2003.
He fiercely criticized Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, accusing him of running the country to ruin, but praised Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, for his moves to rebuild the nation’s military might and global prestige.
Putin repeatedly met with Varennikov and other Soviet military veterans, and it was during his presidency that Varennikov was named the Defense Ministry’s inspector general, a largely honorary title.