Russians said farewell to the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday in a funeral that has been snubbed by President Vladimir Putin.
A public farewell ceremony for Gorbachev, who died this week at the age of 91, came to a close despite people still waiting outside their turn to pay their respects. It lasted around three-and-a-half hours.
The ceremony took place in Moscow’s Hall of Columns, a storied venue that has hosted the state funerals of former Soviet leaders like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. Gorbachev was buried next to his wife Raisa later in the day at Novodevichy Cemetery.
While lionized in the West for ending the Cold War, Gorbachev is seen as a pariah at home for the chaos caused by his economic reforms – creating the circumstances that made a strongman like Putin attractive to many Russians.
Putin blamed Gorbachev for the demise of the USSR, which he called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and has set about restoring Russia’s wounded prestige.
Putin missed Saturday’s funeral due to his work schedule, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. The Russian leader did, however, pay his respects to Gorbachev on Thursday. Footage showed Putin laying a bouquet of roses by the open coffin in Central Clinical Hospital, Putin then bowed and made the sign of the cross.
Hundreds of people lined up Saturday outside the Hall of Columns for a final look at Gorbachev, whose body lay in open casket flanked by two soldiers in the ornate, chandelier-adorned room. Members of Gorbachev’s family, including his daughter Irina Virganskaya and his two granddaughters, sat off to the side.
Many of the ordinary Russians who came to pay their respects laid roses and bouquets or took photographs. One Russian citizen who came wanted to thank Gorbachev for bringing democracy to Russia and opening it to the world.
Another woman told Reuters that the former Soviet leader “deserved” a proper farewell.
“I think he did more good things than bad. The older generation that are here, they remember him and they came to say goodbye. That’s what it is,” she said.
The Kremlin stopped short of classifying Saturday’s events as a state funeral for Gorbachev, with its spokesperson saying it would have “elements of a state funeral,” including a guard of honor and the state assisting in the organization. No explanation was provided on how the event differed from previous state funerals.
Gorbachev grew more critical of Putin and his increasingly restrictive regime in recent years, traveling the world promoting free speech and democracy as part of his foundation. While Gorbachev himself did not comment on Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, his foundation called for peace negotiations, saying “there is nothing more precious in the world than human lives.”
The last Russian leader not to be granted a state funeral was Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed for attempting to roll back Stalinist reforms. He died after living in seclusion in 1971 and his funeral was held in semi-secrecy.
Saturday’s funeral was a marked contrast to the death of Russia’s first democratically elected president Boris Yeltsin – who had handpicked Putin to be his successor.
The Kremlin announced a day of national mourning following Yeltsin’s death in 2007, and his funeral was attended by a host of world leaders, including Putin, former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Britain’s former Prime Minister John Major and Prince Andrew, as well as former Polish president Lech Walesa.
Gorbachev’s funeral lacked a similar roster of famous guests, as Moscow has banned hundreds of foreign officials from entering Russia in retaliation for Western sanctions. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan were among the few dignitaries spotted at the remembrance.
Speaking to CNN, Sullivan called Gorbachev “a remarkable man” and “a statesman who changed the world, with his vision for peace, for transformation in his own country and in the world.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen reported from Moscow, Tara John wrote in London.