Few embodied the strength of Soviet communist ideals and practice like General Valentin Ivanovich Varennikov, who died on May 6, aged 85. He was Soviet power incarnate: even as it crumbled, he remained loyal. He hated the post-Soviet order but achieved rehabilitation under it, as the Stalin whom Varennikov revered was merged decorously into a pantheon of Great Russian heroes.
At a time – the fall of the Soviet Union – that seemed to call for opportunism and a swift sloughing of the old skin, he reaffirmed his commitment to the October Revolution, to international socialism and to the Soviet mission. He saw himself as a servant of these causes and had the character to remain true to them, coupled with the moral blindness necessary to regard them as being good for the world and Joseph Stalin as the greatest figure of the 20th century.
Varennikov was born poor, and a Cossack, near Krasnodar in southern Russia. Cossacks were rarely natural communists: that he took that path suggests an early hardening experience. Longing for military service from childhood, he entered cadet school in 1941 as war was looming, graduating the following year to be sent straight to the battle that more than any other defined total war: Stalingrad.
Stalingrad was, incredibly, a victory: with others later, it forced the retreat of the Wehrmacht and opened up the road to Berlin – a road Varennikov took with courage, sustaining three wounds, placing himself among those happy few who took the Reichstag and thereby earning the honour of casting captured Nazi banners at the foot of Lenin’s tomb during the postwar victory parade.
The Great Patriotic War, in which 30m lost their lives, has remained an emotional and patriotic touchstone for more than six decades: Varennikov was chief among those who kept its flame bright through the succeeding years. On his website there is a photograph of Soviet soldiers in Berlin, gathered round one of their number (who might be Varennikov) grinning below a luxuriant Cossack moustache and giving the thumbs-up. Beneath is written: “Dear Comrades, I warmly and heartily congratulate you ... on the day of the Great Victory” – a message that must have been composed shortly before his death, to commemorate the end of the war in May 1945.
He remained in the army after the war and began to rise in rank: while at military college in 1953, he was seconded to guard duty outside the hall in which Stalin lay in state, a mark of distinction for the young officer. He remembered: “I was allowed inside the hall and I could see Stalin’s face clearly. I had the feeling that he had not died, that he only fell asleep and at any moment would get up again.”
As Varennikov rose, he was afforded an unusual degree of trust: much of his career was spent outside the USSR, in East Germany and then training fraternal allies’ armies in Syria, Angola and Ethiopia. Made a general in 1978, he was pulled into the increasingly hopeless Afghan campaign the following year. He became commander of Soviet forces in the country in 1984, a little before Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Under Gorbachev, a growing pressure for disengagement made itself felt; announced in 1987, withdrawal was completed early in 1989. Varennikov, however, had a good war: he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and deputy defence minister.
But he and Gorbachev were each other’s nemeses. The general secretary – endorsed by the KGB – first seemed like an orthodox communist reformer, then revealed himself as an admirer of democracy and the free market. Varennikov maintained a high post, as commander of land forces; but his world, material and more importantly spiritual, was being torn apart by nationalists, dissidents and liberals.
In the hot summer of 1991, he joined other military and party men in signing a letter to the orthodox Sovetskaya Rossiya daily, which proclaimed that “the great state entrusted to us by history ... is being plunged into darkness and oblivion”. When a group led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chairman, and interior minister Boris Pugo cooked up a conspiracy to depose Gorbachev and declare emergency rule, Varennikov joined. He, with three others, flew to the Crimea on August 18 to confront Gorbachev, then on holiday in his dacha. Having failed to persuade Gorbachev to pretend to be too ill to continue, Varennikov flew to Ukraine and briefed the Ukrainian leadership that a state of emergency would be declared.
The coup foundered; Gorbachev returned; Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, emerged as the hero of the hour; the Soviet Union completed its disintegration by the end of the year. Varennikov, with the others, was imprisoned: alone among them, he refused the amnesty offered by the Duma (parliament), demanded a trial – and was acquitted. Eagerly embraced by nationalists and communists, he used the trial as a forum for his beliefs: he had “no regrets” except for “a bitter feeling that we failed to save the country”.
That bitterness was nursed with others through the Yeltsin years, as he sat for the Communist party in the Duma, defended army veterans who were living in poverty and inveighed against the degradation of the country. His sentiments, however, found an echo in Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, who also saw the break-up of the USSR as the geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. Putin received him and gave him an honorary post as inspector general of the defence ministry. On his death, Putin’s successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, hailed him as a “distinguished commander” and “a true patriot”. True he was: but to a fatherland which, as he said, he had failed to save.