MOSCOW — Meet Oleg D. Baklanov, charged with treason and facing a possible death sentence: He greets a visitor in his spacious apartment here, filled with mementos of a fulfilling career. In his study, scale models of Soviet spacecraft and photographs of historic launches attest to his former position as director of defense production.
The works of Lenin line a bookshelf along one wall. A Western computer hums on his desk. Among his neighbors are a fellow defendant and the president of Azerbaijan, a former top Communist Party and KGB official, who keeps a Moscow flat.
"I've lived a good life," Baklanov says. "Built a house, raised my children, did everything in the service of my country. Now, unfortunately, I've fallen under new circumstances."
Indeed. For most of the last two years, Baklanov, notwithstanding his seeming comfort now, has been in prison or on trial in connection with the August, 1991, hard-line coup attempt.
When the coup collapsed after three days, Russian authorities charged Baklanov and 12 other top Soviet officials with betraying their country.
Given that the coup was a world-famous debacle and that its consequences included the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, the case seemed to be in the bag.
Instead, the trial has turned into Moscow's longest-running farce.
After 26 months, not a single word of testimony has been taken in open court, and at least another month may pass before the first of 120 witnesses is sworn in. The formal reading of the charges, encompassing 1,000 pages in five volumes, only began Oct. 15 and is expected to continue for two weeks.
Meanwhile, one alleged plotter has died (by suicide) and another suffered a near-fatal heart attack, leading to his case being separated from the others.
"When will it end? It's very hard to know," says Oleg S. Shenin, a defendant who rejects contentions that the defendants themselves are intent on dragging out the process. "We're paying our own lawyers; our families find it hard to live. I can only tell you that we ourselves are as interested as anybody in getting it over with."
Long having dropped out of Russians' consciousness, the trial of those accused of plotting against the Soviet Union and former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is now likely to undergo greater scrutiny.
The reason is that it will be running in tandem with the trial of a second generation of alleged coup plotters: the fomenters of this month's violent attacks on government installations in Moscow.
The attacks provoked Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to shell the Parliament building, or White House, to drive out hard-line opponents barricaded inside.
The episode was the most violent in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
The previous alleged coup plotters are fully alive to the irony of being tried for an event whose human toll pales in comparison to the later incident.
"To come into the trial after what happened this month--it's absurd," says Shenin, who was secretary to the Communist Party Central Committee at the time of the failed 1991 coup. "In our time, three young people died, basically of hooliganism. And in this one, more than 160."
Baklanov, without accusing either side specifically, lectures: "I feel shame for the politicians who had responsibility for that bloodshed. You can't have economic development under such conditions."
Like most of the other defendants, he still maintains that he acted to preserve, not betray, the Soviet Union, and that the plotters' forced removal of Gorbachev was, if anything, ratified by decades of high-echelon Soviet practice.
"You can't say I betrayed my country. You might say I betrayed one man (Gorbachev), but . . . " He shrugs. "That's the way we did things."
Nothing demonstrates how the way of doing things here has changed like this trial itself.
Defendants such as Baklanov and Shenin never tire of pointing out that they are being tried for traitorous acts against an extinct state (the Soviet Union)--which was dismantled by officials of the government now prosecuting them.
The case has been further complicated by the vagaries of Russian jurisprudence. The country's legal system, inherited almost intact from the totalitarian Soviet Union, is today changing so rapidly that it gives an impression of being made up as it goes along.
In fact, this trial shows better than any other how--in contrast with a democratic regime--unformed and inadequate Russian trial law has been.
Soviet criminal statutes were written broadly to give the totalitarian government great latitude in prosecuting anyone it wished for any of a handful of all-encompassing crimes. The trial outcome, of course, was predetermined.
"An arrest on political charges was as good as punishment," says Sergei A. Kovalev, chairman of the presidential human rights commission and a former dissident.
But now that the state is trying to actually give the defense a chance, defendants can manipulate the process to their own advantage.