Thousands of mourners lined up Saturday to pay tribute to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who launched drastic reforms that helped end the Cold War and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, in a farewell snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s refusal to declare a state funeral reflects its uneasiness about the legacy of Gorbachev, who has been venerated worldwide for bringing down the Iron Curtain but reviled by many at home for the Soviet collapse and the ensuing economic meltdown that plunged millions into poverty.
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 Putin busy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the president will 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.
The coffin of Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, was brought to Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, where he will be buried 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.
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. Upon entering the building, mourners saw honor guards flanking a large photo of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigor he brought to the Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors.
The turnout was large enough that the viewing was extended for two more hours beyond the stated two hours.
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 organizing it. He wouldn’t describe how it will 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 in 2008-2012, showed up at the farewell ceremony. He then released a post on a messaging app channel, referring to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and accusing the U.S. and its allies of trying to engineer Russia’s breakup, a policy he described as a “chess game with Death.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who often has been critical of the Western sanctions against Russia, attended the farewell on Saturday. The U.S., British, German and other Western ambassadors also attended.
The relatively modest ceremony contrasted with a lavish 2007 state funeral given to Boris 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.
The farewell viewing was shadowed by the awareness that the openness Gorbachev championed has been stifled under Putin.
“I want to thank him for my childhood of freedom, which we don’t have today,” said mourner Ilya, a financial services worker in his early 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.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party who worked on economic reform plans under Gorbachev, hailed him for “offering people an opportunity to say what they thought – something that Russia never had before.”
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 Feb. 24.
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 society challenges,” Putin said. “He deeply realized 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.