Muscovites lined up near the Kremlin on Saturday to pay their respects to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who was widely admired in the West for his reforms and who lived long enough to see Russia’s leadership roll back much of that change.
Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, was set to be buried without state honours or President Vladimir Putin in attendance.
He was, however, granted a public send-off, with authorities allowing Russians to view his coffin in the imposing Hall of Columns, within sight of the Kremlin, where previous Soviet leaders have been mourned.
Pallbearers hoisted Gorbachev’s wooden coffin, covered in a tricolour Russian flag, and placed it in the centre of the hall, where a soft recording of melancholic music from the film Schindler’s List played in the background.
It was little surprise that Putin, a long-time KGB intelligence officer who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “geopolitical catastrophe,” denied Gorbachev full state honours and said his schedule did not allow him to attend the funeral.
Putin, however, paid his respects to Gorbachev alone on Thursday and the Kremlin said its guard of honour would provide an “element” of a state occasion at the funeral for Gorbachev, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.
A divisive figure
Gorbachev became a hero to many in the West for allowing eastern Europe to shake off more than four decades of Soviet communist control, letting East and West Germany reunite, and forging arms control treaties with the United States.
But when the 15 Soviet republics seized on the same freedoms to demand their independence, Gorbachev was powerless to prevent the collapse of the Union in 1991, six years after he had become its leader.
For that, and the economic chaos that his “perestroika” liberalization program unleashed, many Russians could not forgive him.
The many Western heads of state and government who normally would have attended will be absent on Saturday, kept away by the chasm in relations between Moscow and the West opened up by Putin’s move to send troops into Ukraine in February.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a conservative nationalist and one of the few European leaders to have good relations with Putin, will attend the funeral, spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs wrote on Twitter.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told RIA news agency that Putin had no plans to meet with Orban during his visit to Moscow.
Several Russian officials and cultural figures, including senior lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov and singer Alla Pugachyova, also paid their respects to Gorbachev’s family, who were seated left of his open coffin.
Putin rolled back reforms
Gorbachev’s funeral strikes a sharp contrast with the national day of mourning and state funeral in Moscow’s principal cathedral that was granted in 2007 to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was instrumental in sidelining Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart and who later hand-picked Putin as his own successor.
After the ceremony Gorbachev will, however, be buried like Yeltsin in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, alongside his adored wife Raisa, who died 23 years ago.
On entering the Kremlin in 2000, Putin wasted little time in rolling back the political plurality that had developed from Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost,” or openness, and slowly began rebuilding Moscow’s influence over many of its lost republics.
Gorbachev’s long-time interpreter and aide said this week that Russia’s actions in Ukraine had left the former leader “shocked and bewildered” in the final months of his life.
“It’s not just the operation that started on Feb. 24, but the entire evolution of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years that was really, really a big blow to him. It really crushed him, emotionally and psychologically,” Pavel Palazhchenko told Reuters in an interview.