Thousands of mourners lined up Saturday to pay tribute to the eighth and final Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, lauded in the West for helping end the Cold War, in a farewell burial snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s refusal to declare a state funeral reflects its uneasiness about the legacy of Gorbachev, who remains reviled by many at home for the Soviet collapse.
On Thursday, Putin privately laid flowers 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 will keep the Moscow leader busy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin is set to have a series of working meetings, an international phone call and needs to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East he’s scheduled to attend next week.
No gun carriage, no Putin eulogy
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, was buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, following a farewell ceremony at the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions — an opulent 18th-century mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
However, Moscow refused to declare a national day of mourning or display his casket at the Kremlin, an arrangement last observed when former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died in 2007.
Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader — who anointed Putin as his preferred successor and set the stage for him to win the presidency by stepping down — was given a lavish state funeral, including having his casket set on a gun carriage and drawn to the cemetery gates by an armoured personnel carrier, with Putin giving the only eulogy after the burial.
At the ceremony Saturday, mourners passed by Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, and his two granddaughters sat beside the coffin.
The grand, chandeliered hall lined by columns hosted balls for the nobility under the czars and served as a venue for high-level meetings and congresses along with state funerals during Soviet times.
Despite the choice of the prestigious site for the farewell ceremony, the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honorary guards, and the government’s assistance in organising it. He refused to get into the specifics on how it would differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Declaring a state funeral for Gorbachev would have obliged Putin to attend it and would have required Moscow to invite foreign leaders, something that it was apparently reluctant to do amid soaring tensions with the West after sending troops to Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, who served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012, showed up at the farewell ceremony.
He then released a post on a messaging app referring to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and accusing the US and its allies of trying to engineer Russia’s breakup, a policy he described as a “chess game with Death.”
‘Enormous impact on world history’
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who often has been critical of the Western sanctions against Russia, attended the farewell on Saturday. Orban will not meet with Putin while in Moscow, Peskov told the state-own agency RIA Novosti.
Putin, who once lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” has avoided explicit personal criticism of Gorbachev but has repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO’s expansion eastward.
The issue has marred Russia-West relations for decades and fomented tensions that exploded when the Russian leader sent troops into Ukraine on 24 February.
In a carefully phrased letter of condolence released Wednesday, avoiding explicit praise or criticism, Putin described Gorbachev as a man who left “an enormous impact on the course of world history”.
“He led the country during difficult and dramatic changes, amid large-scale foreign policy, economic and societal challenges,” Putin said. “He deeply realised that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”
The Kremlin’s ambivalence about Gorbachev was reflected in state television broadcasts, which described his worldwide acclaim and grand expectations generated by his reforms but held him responsible for plunging the country into political turmoil and economic woes and failing to properly defend the country’s interests in talks with the West.