Russians who came to take a last look at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday mourned both the man and his policies that gave them hope. President Vladimir Putin said he was too busy to attend.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, launched sweeping reforms that helped end the Cold War. But it also precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
The farewell view of his body in an ostentatious hall near the Kremlin was clouded by the realization that the openness championed by Gorbachev had been stifled under Putin.
“I want to thank him for my childhood of freedom, which we don’t have today,” said Ilya, a financial services worker in his 30s who declined to give his last name.
“I am a son of perestroika,” he said, using the Russian word for Gorbachev’s reform or reconstruction initiatives.
“I wish we had more people like him in our history,” said another mourner, Yulia Prividennaya. “We need such politicians to sort out the situation in the world as it is on the brink of World War III.”
After the visit, Gorbachev’s body was buried next to his wife Raisa in Novodevichy Cemetery, where many prominent Russians are buried, including the post-Soviet country’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, whose power struggle with Gorbachev accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The motorcade that carried the coffin to the cemetery was led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, the last major Russian outlet criticized by the Kremlin before suspending operations in March. Gorbachev used funds from his own Nobel Prize to help start the journal.
The Kremlin’s refusal to officially declare a state funeral reflected its unease with the legacy of Gorbachev, who was revered around the world for bringing down the Iron Curtain but reviled by many at home for the collapse Soviet Union and the economic collapse that plunged millions of people into poverty.
On Thursday, Putin laid flowers privately at Gorbachev’s coffin at a Moscow hospital where he died. The Kremlin said the president’s busy schedule would prevent him from attending the funeral.
Asked what specific business Putin would occupy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the president needed to have a series of working meetings, an international phone call and to prepare for a forum. business in the Russian Far East. attend next week.
Gorbachev’s body was laid out for public display in the Pillar Hall of the House of Trade Unions, a lavish 18th-century mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the location for state funerals since Soviet times.
Mourners walked past Gorbachev’s open coffin flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers to the sound of solemn music. Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, and her two granddaughters sat next to the coffin.
The chandeliered, column-lined Great Hall hosted balls for the nobility under the Tsars and served as a venue for high-level meetings and congresses as well as state funerals during Soviet times. Upon entering the building, mourners saw honor guards flanking a large photo of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the joyous vigor he brought to the Soviet leadership after a string of austere predecessors and sick.
The turnout was high enough that the viewing was extended an additional two hours beyond the stated two hours.
Despite choosing the prestigious site for the farewell ceremony, the Kremlin refrained from calling it a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony will feature ‘elements’, such as honorary guards, and aides. of the government to organize it. He wouldn’t describe how it would differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Saturday’s ceremony had all the trappings befitting a state funeral except for the name, including the national flag draping Gorbachev’s coffin. with goose-stepping guards firing shots in the air and a small band playing the Russian anthem, which uses the same melody as the Soviet anthem.
But officially declaring a state funeral for Gorbachev would have compelled Putin to attend and compelled Moscow to invite foreign leaders, which it was apparently reluctant to do amid growing tensions with the West after Russia sent troops to Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council chaired by Putin who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, showed up at the farewell ceremony. He then posted a message on a chain of messaging apps, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and accusing the United States and its allies of trying to engineer the breakup of Russia, a policy he described as a “game of chess with death”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has often criticized Western sanctions against Russia, was the only foreign leader to attend the farewell on Saturday. American, British, German and Western ambassadors were also present.
The relatively modest ceremony contrasted with the lavish 2007 state funeral given to Yeltsin, who named Putin as his preferred successor and set the stage for him to win the presidency by stepping down.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party who worked on economic reform plans under Gorbachev, hailed him for “giving people an opportunity to speak their minds – something that Russia didn’t have. never had before”.
Putin avoided any explicit personal criticism of Gorbachev, but repeatedly criticized him for failing to obtain written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO’s eastward expansion. The issue has marred Russia-West relations for decades and fomented tensions that exploded when the Russian leader sent troops to Ukraine on February 24.
In a carefully worded letter of condolence released Wednesday avoiding explicit praise or criticism, Putin described Gorbachev as a man who left “a huge impact on the course of world history.”
“He led the country through difficult and dramatic changes, amid large-scale foreign policy, economic and societal challenges,” Putin said. “He deeply realized that reforms were needed and tried to offer his solutions to acute problems.”
The Kremlin’s ambivalence about Gorbachev was reflected in state TV broadcasts, which described his global fame and the high expectations generated by his reforms, but held him responsible for throwing the country into turmoil. political and economic difficulties and for not having properly defended the interests of the country in the talks with the West.