Death of a Soldier

updated 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HE WAS BURIED IN THE MIDDLE OF A WEEK OF STEADY RAIN. A few dignitaries showed up at the cemetery near Moscow, and some perfunctory speeches were made. But there was no music or honor guard, and no one observed the old Russian ritual of throwing throe handfuls of earth onto the coffin. All in all, it was a strangely undistinguished farewell for Sergei Fedorovich Akhromeyev, 68, hero of the Great Patriotic War, once his country's top military man and a personal adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev. Then again, he had died in disgrace by his own hand, hanging himself from his office ceiling three days after the coup against Gorbachev collapsed.

In the aftermath of the failed takeover—as the power of the Communist Party ebbed and most of the Soviet republics declared independence—Akhromeyev's passing was hardly mourned. Instead throughout the capital some people whispered accusingly: He had helped the men who tried to oust Gorbachev, they said, and committed suicide fearing his treachery would be uncovered. Stories surfaced of Akhromeyev's cruelty and ruthlessness when he was a field commander. By one account—which Washington officials declared preposterous—he had personally ordered the destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the jetliner with 269 civilians aboard that strayed into Soviet territory and was shot down in 1983. And last week vandals dug up the freshly buried corpse and stripped it of its military uniform.

But there was the equal possibility that Akhromeyev was a very different sort of casualty. Unlike the vodka-swilling members of the putsch, the marshal was a sophisticated man, fast friends with his onetime U.S. counterpart, retired Adm. William J.Crowe Jr., former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he had once sat in the White House with George Bush. Akhromeyev had devoted his whole life to defending the Kremlin's dominion and was sophisticated enough to see that his world was being overtaken In history. Near his body was a brief suicide note: "I cannot live when my fatherland is dying and everything that has been the meaning of my life is crumbling. Age and the life that I have lived give me the right to step out of this life. I struggled until the end. Akhromeyev. 24 August 1991."

His is a Russian story. Sergei Akhromeyev was a peasant teenager from central Russia who, fatherless and penniless, joined the Red Army in 1940. When the Nazis besieged Leningrad in 1941, he was pail of the city's glorious defense. "He didn't sleep inside a building for a year," recalls retired U.S. Navy Capt. Jay Coupe, a Crowe aide. Graduating from the Academy of the General Staff in 1967, Akhromeyev went on to serve as first deputy chief of staff of the armed forces before he was named to the country's top military post in 1984.

Akhromeyev endeared himself to Americans during the 1986 summit between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the two leaders raised the possibility of junking the superpower nuclear arsenals. "He didn't play games," says Mike Stafford, a former arms negotiator. "He came to do business." Georgy Arbatov, a prominent Soviet legislator who worked alongside Akhromeyev, says his skills were indispensable. "He was very disciplined. As we stayed up through the night, others became emotional, but he was calm. Gorbachev relied on him."

Admiral Crowe may have known Akhromeyev better than any other American. The two men met in Washington in 1987, beginning a remarkable friendship between two rivals. Crowe was impressed by the Russian's self-confidence and intelligence. He had a booming, commanding voice and carried himself with great bearing—even though lie was all of 5'6" in his huge uniform cap. Invited by Crowe on a cross-country tour in 1988, the Soviet marshal reveled in Americana, becoming an honorary chief of the Western Cherokee Nation, visiting Colonial Williamsburg and the Alamo.

Back at home, the Akhromeyevs lived simple lives. He and wife Tamara, 65, divided their time between a four-room Moscow apartment and a small country house outside the capital. "He was quite strict about himself," says a Soviet colleague. "Ascetic, I would say." Akhromeyev rose at 5:30 to exercise before going to work at 7:30. He often stayed at his office until nearly midnight—even though that meant precious little time for his daughters, Natalya, now 41, and Tatyana, 35. "When we were children, he left for work when we were still asleep and arrived home after we had already gone to bed," recalls Tatyana. Still, she adds, he was a caring father. "He sang me lullabies. He sang very well."

But his reputation was hardly untainted. In Washington, Akhromeyev is remembered for negotiating arms agreements; in Moscow, people remember his role in the bloody Afghanistan war. "He was responsible for a lot of unnecessary deaths," says Soviet scholar Sergei Plekhanov. "Some generals took good care to reduce losses to a minimum, others tried to fulfill orders at any cost. He sacrificed a lot of lives."

Colleagues have also criticized him for backpedaling on his support for Gorbachev's reform policies, including arms control and his efforts to form closer ties with the West. Arbatov remembers that Akhromeyev developed a technique in arms negotiations of waiting until the last moment—just before mutual agreement could be reached—to voice his objections. When Arbatov and others began calling for cuts in the Soviet defense budget, Akhromeyev attacked them bitterly. Crowe believes that Akhromeyev truly believed in reform, but felt that change—such as the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact—was proceeding too fast. "He told me, 'Things are out of control,' " Crowe said. " 'We started this, and now things we didn't anticipate are happening.' "

It remains unclear what role if any Akhromeyev played in the coup against Gorbachev, his patron and superior. Tamara insists that her husband was not involved. But according to Arbatov, an ally of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Akhromeyev was in Moscow the day of the coup, attending a meeting with the plotters. "He was either part of it," says Arbatov, "or, in the best possible case, he was informed, did not protest, did not warn the President nor say anything in public."

Though friends and enemies have already begun to try to write history's judgment of Akhromeyev, the mystery of his life persists. Even Tamara says she did not know of the troubled thoughts plaguing her husband during his final days. "It was completely unexpected," she says of his death. "If we noticed anything, anything at all, we would have prevented it." That may not have been possible; the tragedy was that Akhromeyev could not survive in the new world he had helped create. "You didn't destroy the Communist Party," he once told Crowe. "We did." If Communism was indeed fated to destroy itself, it was certain to destroy as well the people who believed in it. People like Sergei Akhromeyev.

PAULA CHIN
MARIA WILHELM in Moscow, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington

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