San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

What Happened to the Leaders of
the Attempted Coup d'État in
the Soviet Union in 1991?

After the failure of the coup d'état in 1991 its leaders were charged with treason by the government of the Russian Federation. The prosecution of those charges was not completed until August of 1994. By that time some of those charged had died or had the charges dismissed against them because of their poor health. The hard-liners were after all quite elderly. In February of 1994 the Russian parliament declared a general amnesty for the coup leaders.

One defendant, General Valentin Varennikov, did not accept the amnesty and demanded a trial. His trial was held by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of Russia. Varennnikov had once been the commander of the ground forces of the Soviet Union. At the time of the coup he was a Deputy Defense Minister of the Soviet Union.

The Supreme Court found that since Varennikov was not a member of the State Emergency Committee that executed the attempted coup Varennikov was essentially only following the orders of his boss, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and had no knowledge that those orders were illegal. The State Emergency Committee had initially held a news conference announcing that it was assuming power temporarily because Mikhail Gorbachev was seriously ill and unable to execute his duties. In actuality Gorbachev had been placed under house arrest in his vacation home in the Crimea. He was not allowed to communicate with anyone for several days.

Varennikov's lawyer asserted that Gorbachev had secretly cooperating with the coup. Mikhail Gorbachev came briefly to the trial to vehemently deny those accusations as arrogant lies and slander.

After Varennikov was acquitted of the charges of treason a spokesperson for Mikhail Gorbachev said that it the acquittal set a dangerous precedence of allowing leaders of any future coup d'état to claim they were only following orders. In fact, according to the memoir of Boris Yeltsin, Varennikov was not merely a passive participant in the coup. Yeltsin wrote that on the first day of the attempted coup Varennikov sent dispatches and made phone calls demanding that a stop must be made to the playing at democracy by the opportunist Yeltsin. Yeltsin at the time was the elected president of Russia.

Thus no one paid a penalty for participation in the attempted coup d'état of 1991.

After his acquittal Varennikov himself publically indicated that he was not just passively following orders in the coup. He called for the prosecution of Mikhail Gorbachev for treason and illogically asserted that his acquittal was proof of Gorbachev's guilt. Observers probably attributed such assertions to Varennikov's being 70 years of age.

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