Look: Thousands attend Gorbachev funeral in Moscow as Putin keeps away

Kremlin says president too busy to attend ceremony



Irina Virganskaya, daughter of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev says goodbye to her father for the last time, during his funeral, at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. – AP
Irina Virganskaya, daughter of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev says goodbye to her father for the last time, during his funeral, at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. – AP

Published: Sat 3 Sep 2022, 7:42 PM

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who launched drastic reforms that helped end the Cold War and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, was buried Saturday after a farewell ceremony attended by thousands of mourners but snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin's refusal to formally 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.

Honour guards stand by the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions during a farewell ceremony in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. – AP
Honour guards stand by the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev inside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions during a farewell ceremony in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. – AP

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.

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.

People lining up to pay the last respects to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow on Saturday. –AP
People lining up to pay the last respects to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow on Saturday. –AP

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 honour guards flanking a large photo of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigour he brought to the Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors.

Crowds line-up to pay their respects to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow on Saturday. –AP
Crowds line-up to pay their respects to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions in Moscow on Saturday. –AP

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.

Saturday's ceremony had all the trappings befitting a state funeral except 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 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.

AP
AP

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.

Yeltsin was also buried at the Novodevichy cemetery, which holds the graves of an array of many prominent Russians, including Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Anton Chekhov. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was ousted from power in 1964, is among those who were buried there.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks to the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. – AP
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks to the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. – AP

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.

"I'd like us to have more people like him in our history," said another mourner, Yulia Prividennaya. "We need such politicians to settle the situation in the world when it's on the verge of World War III."

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."

An Orthodox priest leads the service  of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, during his funeral, at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. –AP
An Orthodox priest leads the service of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, during his funeral, at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday. –AP

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."

People lining up to pay the last respects at the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions during a farewell ceremony in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, will be 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 iconic mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times. (AP Photo)
People lining up to pay the last respects at the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev outside the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions during a farewell ceremony in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, will be 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 iconic mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times. (AP Photo)

"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.


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