On 6 May 2009, General Valentin Varennikov died, aged 85 in Moscow. His life was a model of loyalty and service to the Soviet proletariat through good times and bad. Born a poor Cossack, his ambition from the age of 5 was to become a soldier. He graduated from officer cadet school in 1942 and was sent straight to the front to fight the Hitlerite army at Stalingrad.
At all times distinguishing himself by his ability and courage, he was part of the Soviet pursuit of the retreating German army, and in fact led one of the units that captured the Reichstag in 1945. He was as a result given the honour of participating in the victory parade in Moscow at which Soviet soldiers in the presence of Stalin threw captured German banners on the pedestal of Lenin’s tomb. When Stalin died, Varennikov formed part of the guard standing by his body as it lay in state.
Varennikov was made a general in 1978 and joined the Soviet army general staff in 1979. He opposed the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on the grounds that it would be the Soviet’s Union’s Vietnam, but once the USSR did intervene, Varennikov carried out his duties as Chief Soviet Military Representative loyally and efficiently. He was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, he was appointed Commander-in-chief of the Soviet ground forces and Deputy Defence Minister.
Perhaps his greatest acts of courage, however, lay in his attempts to save the Soviet Union from overthrow. On 23 July 1991 Varennikov co-signed, along with many other prominent Soviet people, an appeal in Sovyetskaya Rossiya, warning of the “unprecedented tragedy” that was engulfing mother Russia, and drawing attention to the fact that “the great state entrusted to us by history … is being plunged into darkness and oblivion”, in the hope of mobilising the masses for defence of the revolution. Shortly afterwards the Soviet government adopted a new Union Treaty that devolved power away from the central Soviet state to the various republics.
On 18 August several prominent Soviet leaders tried to forestall the collapse of the Soviet Union by setting up a State Committee for the Emergency to take away Gorbachev’s power and to place him under house arrest at his summer villa by the Black Sea. Varennikov was one of the people sent to effect this arrest.
As is well known, the coup leaders failed to mobilise the masses in defence of the revolution and the coup was thwarted after only 3 days. 12 of its leading members, including Varennikov, were charged with treason, and were (briefly) imprisoned. In 1994, however, they were offered an amnesty. All of them accepted – except Varennikov who was determined to have his day in court.
His defence to the charge of treason is that he had acted to save his country, just the opposite of treason. At the trial, he said Gorbachev and his cohorts were like the Nazis he had fought half a century earlier. “In August 1991 I confronted another enemy”, he declared, “a far more dangerous and 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 said in his defence. Much to the joy of his supporters, this defence was successful and he was acquitted.
Thereafter he was elected to the Duma as a Communist representative, where he spoke out loudly and clearly in defence of socialist values. Stalin was his hero, and only last year he appeared on television putting forward Stalin as the person most deserving of the title of Russia’s greatest historical figure.
With the death of Cde General Varennikov we have lost a truly honourable and most courageous fighter for the proletarian cause, but his glorious life will forever be an inspiration to us in the hard struggles that lie ahead.
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