MOSCOW — Russians who came for a last look at former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday mourned both the man and his policies that gave them hope. President Vladimir Putin claimed to be too busy to attend.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at age 91, launched drastic reforms that helped end the Cold War. But he also precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Putin had called the 20th century's “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.”
The farewell viewing of his body in an ostentatious hall near the Kremlin 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.”
After the viewing, Gorbachev's body was buried next to his wife Raisa in Novodevichy cemetery, where many prominent Russians lie, including the post-Soviet country's first president, Boris Yeltsin, whose struggle for power with Gorbachev sped up the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The procession that carried the coffin into the cemetery was led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Russia's last major Kremlin-critical news outlet before it suspended operations in March. Gorbachev used funds from his own Nobel prize to help start the paper.
The Kremlin refusal to formally declare a state funeral reflected 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.
Asked what specific business would keep Putin busy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the president was scheduled to have a series of working meetings, an international phone call and needs to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East that he's due to attend next week.
Gorbachev's body was displayed for public viewing 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.
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 honor guards flanking a large photo of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigor he brought to the Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors.
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 Russia sent troops to Ukraine.
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, was the only foreign leader who 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 Yeltsin, who anointed Putin as his preferred successor and set the stage 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, hailed him for "offering people an opportunity to say what they thought – something that Russia never had before.”
Putin 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.”
“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.