The last marshal of the Soviet Union Dmitry Yazov, who was a key player in the political turmoil that precipitated the collapse of the USSR, died in Moscow on Tuesday aged 95.
Yazov, who was then the Soviet Union's highest ranking military official, played a central role in the 1991 attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and in the bloody repression of pro-independence uprisings in Lithuania.
Yet he remained a revered figure in Russia and was awarded military decorations by both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Putin expressed grief over Yazov's death, describing him as "a man of exceptional courage and fortitude" whose "professional and personal qualities had earned him undeniable authority and respect."
"He was and will remain a legend," Shoigu said in a statement to AFP, describing Yazov as "a brave, decisive fighter, wise, and a responsible commander."
The defence ministry said Yazov died following a "serious and prolonged illness". He is due to be buried at the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery outside Moscow on Thursday.
- 'Threat of breaking apart' -
Yazov was one of just 41 men to have held the title of Marshal of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest military rank.
Others to have held the title included Georgy Zhukov, who masterminded the defence of the USSR against the Nazi invasion in World War II, top wartime commander Konstantin Rokossovsky and Joseph Stalin himself.
Yazov was the last surviving holder of the rank.
Defence minister of the Soviet Union between 1987 and 1991, Yazov participated in the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev.
The coup, which was led by hardline communists unhappy with Gorbachev's liberal reforms, failed. Its leaders were arrested three days later but the attempted overthrow heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was finally dissolved in December 1991.
The leaders of the attempted overthrow claimed that Gorbachev was unable to perform his duties due to health reasons. They declared a state of emergency and drove tanks into central Moscow.
Yazov was released from prison in 1993 and granted amnesty in 1994.
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid last year, he explained that it was the "threat of the country breaking apart" which had led him to try to overthrow the Soviet leader.
His death leaves just one leader of the failed coup still alive, Oleg Baklanov, a member of the Communist Party's central committee.
- Oversaw crackdowns -
Last year, Lithuania convicted Yazov in absentia along with more than 60 former Soviet officers for war crimes during a 1991 anti-Soviet uprising. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds injured in a crackdown on protests.
"It took very long but he finally was given a proper verdict when he was charged and convicted," Lithuania's first post-Communist leader Vytautas Landsbergis told AFP on Tuesday.
Russia's foreign ministry slammed the 10-year jail term handed down by Lithuanian judges and accused the Baltic country of "falsifying obvious facts".
Yazov was also defence minster during crackdowns on pro-independence demonstrations in Azerbaijan in January 1990, which saw Soviet troops firing into crowds of protesters in Baku, killing hundreds.
Born in the Omsk region of Siberia in 1924, Yazov was a veteran of World War II and was injured twice. He wrote a number of books on military strategy and history.
On February 4, Shoigu awarded Yazov the "For Merit to the Fatherland" decoration for his work with veterans, after being twice decorated by Putin in recent years.
Footage of the meeting re-aired on TV news channels Tuesday showed an elderly Yazov in a medal-laden military uniform but unable to stand from his chair as he received the award from Shoigu.
Making no mention of the marshal's role in the coup bid, Putin said in his tribute that Yazov was an "outstanding military chief and a great representative of a legendary generation of victors."
The last marshal of the Soviet Union Dmitry Yazov (right), with President Vladimir Putin, has died aged 95