Muscovites lined up near the Kremlin on Saturday to pay their respects to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader widely admired in the West for his reforms and who lived long enough to see Russian leaders undo much of that change.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, was to be buried without state honors or the presence of President Vladimir Putin.
He was publicly expelled, however, with authorities allowing Russians to view his coffin in the imposing Hall of Columns, within sight of the Kremlin, where former Soviet leaders were mourned.
Pallbearers hoisted Gorbachev’s wooden coffin, draped in a tricolor Russian flag, and placed it in the center of the room, where a gentle recording of the film’s melancholy music Schindler’s list played in the background.
It’s no surprise that Putin, a longtime KGB intelligence officer who called the collapse of the Soviet Union a « geopolitical catastrophe, » denied Gorbachev all state honors and said his schedule did not allow him to attend the funeral.
Putin, however, honored Gorbachev alone on Thursday and the Kremlin said his honor guard would provide an ‘element’ of a state ceremony at the funeral of Gorbachev, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.
A number that divides
Gorbachev became a hero to many Westerners by enabling Eastern Europe to shake off more than four decades of Soviet communist control, leaving East Germany and West Germany to uniting and forging arms control treaties with the United States.
But when the 15 Soviet republics seized the same freedoms to demand their independence, Gorbachev was powerless to prevent the collapse of the Union in 1991, six years after becoming its leader.
For this, and the economic chaos his “perestroika” liberalization program unleashed, many Russians could not forgive him.
The many Western heads of state and government who would normally have been present will be absent on Saturday, sidelined by the chasm in relations between Moscow and the West opened by Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine. in February.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a conservative nationalist and one of the few European leaders with good relations with Putin, will attend the funeral, spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote on Twitter.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the RIA news agency that Putin did not intend to meet Orban during his visit to Moscow.
Several Russian officials and cultural figures, including lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov and singer Alla Pugachyova, also paid tribute to Gorbachev’s family, who sat to the left of his open coffin.
Putin canceled the reforms
Gorbachev’s funeral stands in stark contrast to the national day of mourning and state funeral in Moscow’s main cathedral which was granted in 2007 to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was instrumental in bringing the gap of Gorbachev during the collapse of the Soviet Union and who then chose Putin. as his own successor.
After the ceremony, however, Gorbachev will be buried like Yeltsin in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, alongside his beloved wife Raisa, who died 23 years ago.
Upon entering the Kremlin in 2000, Putin was quick to roll back the political plurality that had grown out of Gorbachev’s policy of « glasnost » or openness, and slowly began to rebuild the influence of Moscow on many of its lost republics.
The interpreter and longtime aide to Gorbachev said this week that Russia’s actions in Ukraine left the former leader « shocked and perplexed » in the final months of his life.
« It’s not just the operation that started on February 24, but the whole development of Russian-Ukrainian relations over the past few years that was really, really a blow to him. ‘really crushed, emotionally and psychologically,’ Pavel Palazhchenko told Reuters in an interview.