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Thousands of Russians — but not Putin — line up to say goodbye to Gorbachev

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin's schedule was too full for him to attend.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Moscow to pay their respects to Mikhail Gorbachev ahead of his funeral on Saturday — a farewell snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, was buried without state honors next to his wife, Raisa, after 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.

At the ceremony, mourners filed by Gorbachev’s open coffin, laying flowers as music, including the melancholic score from the movie “Schindler’s List,” played in the background.

Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, and his two granddaughters sat beside the coffin that was flanked by honorary guards.

The turnout was large enough that the viewing was extended for two more hours beyond the stated two hour schedule.

People line up to pay the last respects at the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev
People line up to pay the last respects at Mikhail Gorbachev's coffin in Moscow on Saturday.AP

Lauded in the West and by many liberal Russians for bringing down the Iron Curtain and instigating greater social and economic freedoms in the Soviet Union, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been strongly criticized by others at home for precipitating the end of the Soviet empire and the ensuing economic meltdown that plunged millions into poverty. 

Reflecting the uneasiness of his legacy in Russia, the government stopped just short of offering Gorbachev a state funeral, although Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it would have “elements” of one and the government would help to organize it.

In a private ceremony on Thursday, Putin laid flowers at Gorbachev’s coffin at the Moscow hospital where Gorbachev had died two days before, but the Kremlin said that his busy schedule would keep him from attending the funeral.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his last respects at the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pays his last respects at the coffin of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.Russian Pool via AP

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Saturday that the president would have a series of working meetings and an international phone call, and needed to prepare for a business forum in the Russian Far East he was scheduled to attend next week.

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 for failing to properly defend the country’s interests in talks with the West.

Putin's attendance would have been required for it to be a full state funeral, and it would have necessitated invitations to world leaders who the Russian leader has been busy avoiding since his invasion of Ukraine in late February.  

Putin, a longtime KGB intelligence officer who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “geopolitical catastrophe” has avoided criticizing Gorbachev since his death but has in the past repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO's expansion eastward.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a conservative nationalist and one of the few European leaders to still enjoy a cordial relationship with Putin, did attend the ceremony.

The U.S., British, German and other Western ambassadors were also present, along with several Russian cultural figures.

The modest event contrasted with the lavish 2007 state funeral for Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader who sidelined Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart, and later hand-picked Putin as his political successor. 

Yeltsin, however, was also buried at Novodevichy Cemetery, a burial ground that survived the monastic and holy destructions of the Stalinist era. Novodevichy is also the final resting place of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.