Russian President Vladimir Putin is to miss the funeral of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, denying the man who failed to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union the full state honours granted to former President Boris Yeltsin.
Gorbachev, idolised in the West for allowing Eastern Europe to escape Soviet communist control but unloved at home for the chaos that his “perestroika” reforms unleashed, will be buried on Saturday after a public ceremony in Moscow’s Hall of Columns.
The grand hall, within sight of the Kremlin, hosted the funerals of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. Gorbachev will be given a military guard of honour – but his funeral will not be a state one.
State television on Thursday showed Putin solemnly placing red roses beside Gorbachev’s coffin – left open as is traditional in Russia – in Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where he died on Tuesday aged 91.
He stood in silence for a few moments, bowed his head, touched the coffin, crossed himself and walked away.
“Unfortunately, the president’s work schedule will not allow him to do this on September 3, so he decided to do it today,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Gorbachev 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.
The Kremlin stopped short of declaring a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honourary guards, and the government will help organise it. He wouldn’t elaborate, however, on how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Nevertheless, it will be a marked contrast to the funeral of Yeltsin, who was instrumental in sidelining Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart and hand-picked Putin, a career KGB intelligence officer, as the man most suited to succeed him.
When Yeltsin died in 2007, Putin declared a national day of mourning and, alongside world leaders, attended a grand state funeral in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine appears aimed at reversing at least in part the collapse of the Soviet Union that Gorbachev failed to prevent in 1991.
Gorbachev’s decision to let the countries of the post-war Soviet communist bloc go their own way, and East and West Germany to reunify, helped to trigger nationalist movements within the 15 Soviet republics that he was powerless to quell.
Five years after taking power in 2000, Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
It took Putin more than 15 hours after Gorbachev’s death to publish a restrained message of condolence that said Gorbachev had had a “huge impact on the course of world history” and “deeply understood that reforms were necessary” to tackle the problems of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, observed that Putin’s decision to privately pay tribute to Gorbachev reflected both “security problems and utter unpopularity of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies”. At the same time, Putin wanted to show his respect to the former head of state, Markov said.
The Kremlin’s ambivalent view of Gorbachev was mirrored by state television broadcasts, which paid tribute to Gorbachev as a historic figure but described his reforms as poorly planned and held him responsible for failing to safeguard the country’s interests in dialogue with the West.