Moscow – Russians who came for a last look at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday mourned the man and his policies that gave them hope. President Vladimir Putin claimed that he was too busy to attend.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, launched drastic reforms that helped end the Cold War. But it also precipitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Farewell to his body in a lavish hall near the Kremlin was a cause for realization that the openness championed by Gorbachev had been stifled under Putin.
“I want to thank him for my childhood of freedom, which we don’t have today,” said mourner Elijah, a financial services employee in his early thirties who declined to reveal his last name.
“I am the son of Perestroika,” he said, using the Russian word for Gorbachev’s reform or reconstruction initiatives.
“I would like us to have more people like him in our history,” said another mourner, Yulia Privydnaya. “We need these politicians to settle the situation in the world when it is on the verge of World War III.”
After the sighting, Gorbachev was buried next to his wife Raisa at the Novodevichy Cemetery, where many notable Russians lie, including the first president of the post-Soviet state, Boris Yeltsin, whose power struggle with Gorbachev accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The procession that carried the casket to the cemetery was led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, the last Russian news outlet to criticize the Kremlin before it halted its operations in March. Gorbachev used money from his Nobel Prize to help start the newspaper.
The Kremlin’s refusal to officially declare a state funeral reflected its unease over the legacy of Gorbachev, who was revered around the world for bringing down the Iron Curtain, but was reviled by many at home for the Soviet collapse and the ensuing economic collapse that plunged millions into poverty.
On Thursday, Putin laid special flowers on 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 was scheduled to have a series of business meetings and an international phone call and needed to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East. Attend next week.
Gorbachev’s body was displayed before the public in the Pillar Hall of the Council of Federations, a stately 18th-century palace near the Kremlin that had served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
Mourners passed by Gorbachev’s open casket surrounded by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. Gorbachev’s daughter Irina and his granddaughter sat next to the coffin.
The large, chandelier-clad, column-lined hall hosted balls for nobles under the tsars and served as a venue for high-level meetings and conferences along with state funerals during the Soviet era. Entering the building, mourners saw an honor guard surrounding a large portrait of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the exhilarating vitality he brought to the Soviet leadership after a succession of faltering predecessors.
The turnout was large enough to extend viewing for an additional two hours beyond the two scheduled hours.
Despite choosing the prestigious location for the farewell ceremony, the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony would have one “elements”, such as the Honorary Guard, and government assistance in organizing it. It wouldn’t describe how it would differ from a full state funeral.
Saturday’s ceremony contained all the decorations befitting a state funeral except for the name, including the national flag that wraps Gorbachev’s coffin. With riders firing into the air and a small band playing the Russian anthem, which uses the same tune as the Soviet anthem.
But officially announcing a state funeral for Gorbachev would have obligated Putin to attend and would have asked Moscow to invite foreign leaders, something it was apparently reluctant to do amid rising tensions with the West after Russia sent troops into Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council headed by Putin who served as President of Russia in 2008-2012, attended 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 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, was the only foreign leader to attend Saturday’s farewell. American, British, German and other Western ambassadors also attended.
The relatively modest celebration contrasted with a generous state funeral in 2007 for Yeltsin, who named Putin his preferred successor and paved the way for him to win the presidency by stepping down.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party who worked on economic reform plans under Gorbachev, praised him for “offering people an opportunity to say what they think – something Russia has never had before”.
Putin has avoided outspoken personal criticism of Gorbachev, but has repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure written commitments from the West that rule out NATO expansion to the east. The issue has marred relations between Russia and the West for decades and sparked tensions that exploded when the Russian leader sent troops into Ukraine on February 24.
In a carefully crafted condolence letter released on Wednesday to avoid outright praise or criticism, Putin described Gorbachev as the man who left “a tremendous impact on the course of world history.”
“He has led the country through difficult and dramatic changes, amid wide-ranging foreign policy, economic and societal challenges,” Putin said. “He deeply understood that reforms were necessary and tried to provide his solutions to acute problems.”
The Kremlin’s ambivalence about Gorbachev was reflected in state television broadcasts, which described world acclaim and the high expectations that resulted from his reforms, but held him responsible for plunging the country into political turmoil and economic problems and for failing to properly defend the country’s interests in talks with the West.
More AP stories about Mikhail Gorbachev here: https://apnews.com/hub/mikhail-gorbachev
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