MOSCOW (AP) — Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who launched sweeping reforms that helped end the Cold War and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, was laid to rest Saturday after a farewell ceremony attended by thousands of mourners but snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s refusal to officially declare a state funeral reflects 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.
Thursday, Putin laid flowers in private to Gorbachev’s coffin in 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 business meetings, an international phone call and must prepare for a business forum in Russian Far East which he is to attend next week. .
Gorbachev, died Tuesday at the age of 91was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery next to his wife Raisa, following a farewell ceremony at the Pillar Hall of the House of Trade Unions, a lavish 18th-century mansion near the Kremlin that served as the funeral venue of state since Soviet times.
During Saturday’s ceremony, 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 rising tensions with the West after sending troops to Israel. 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 “chess game with death.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has often criticized Western sanctions against Russia, attended 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 Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader who named Putin as his preferred successor and set the stage for him to win the presidency by stepping down.
Yeltsin was also buried in Novodevichy Cemetery, which houses the graves of many prominent Russians, including Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Anton Chekhov. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, ousted from power in 1964, is among those buried there.
The farewell screening was clouded by the realization that the openness advocated by Gorbachev was 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.”
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, who once lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, avoided any explicit personal criticism of Gorbachev but repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure commitments writings 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 country’s interests in talks with the West.