MOSCOW -- Former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev took the stand yesterday to set the record straight on the 1991 Kremlin coup attempt, and his main message -- publicly under oath for the first time -- was a disgusted denial that he had collaborated with the plotters.
"These are all lies, lies, shameless lies by people who have lost everything," Mr. Gorbachev said of allegations that he initially went along with the coup, that he could have phoned or escaped from his junta-imposed captivity at a government estate in Crimea.
For all the talk of falsehood, the trial Mr. Gorbachev attended is meant to establish the historical truth of the three-day August putsch that jarred the world, and, within months, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Formally, military judges at Russia's Supreme Court are now hearing charges of treason against Gen. Valentin I. Varennikov, one of the most active of the dozen conspirators. But in reality, participants and spectators say, the trial is also meant to determine who is to blame for the Soviet Union's messy disintegration.
Mr. Gorbachev, who remains as scorned at home as he is revered abroad for ending the Cold War, must have had to steel himself for the courthouse ordeal, which began with a gantlet of protesters shouting "Judas!" as he entered.
But the former president, initiator of the Soviet reform program known as "perestroika," said he had decided to testify because he wanted to ensure that Russians see the error of trying to solve problems by force instead of legal means.
His court appearance has also prompted speculation that the 63-year-old former leader, rosy and energetic as ever, may be planning a political comeback. He told the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta this week that he did not rule out running for president in Russian elections planned for 1996.
When it did not focus on one of the most significant political events of the late 20th century, Mr. Gorbachev's testimony included accounts, detailed to the point of trivia, describing his experiences during the coup.
Letting his throaty voice reflect all his outrage, he accused General Varennikov, then-commander of Soviet land forces, of intentionally isolating him from the launch mechanism to the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, thus endangering the country's security.