Russia has laid to rest Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, in a ceremony in Moscow without the fanfare of a state funeral and with the glaring absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Soviet leader, beloved by the West, lived long enough to see all the reforms he had championed in Russia undone. He was buried on Saturday without state honours.
Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday aged 91, was granted a public funeral: Muscovites were able to view his coffin in the imposing Hall of Columns, within sight of the Kremlin, where previous Soviet leaders have been mourned.
But Putin, a longtime KGB intelligence officer who called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “geopolitical catastrophe”, denied Gorbachev a full state funeral. He also said he was too busy to attend.
In power between 1985 and 1991, Gorbachev sought to transform the Soviet Union with democratic reforms.
In Russia, many blame him for letting go of the Soviet empire and, with it, the country’s position as a global power.
Gorbachev became a hero in the West – where he was affectionately known as “Gorby” – for allowing Eastern Europe to shake off more than 40 years of Soviet communist control.
He also allowed the reunification of East and West Germany and forged arms control treaties with the United States, which lifted the “Iron Curtain” and ended the Cold War.
His achievements were recognised with the awarding of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
But when the 15 Soviet republics seized on the same freedoms to demand their independence, Gorbachev was powerless to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, six years after he had become its leader.
For that, and the economic chaos that his “perestroika” liberalisation programme unleashed, many Russians could not forgive him.
Western heads of state and government leaders who would certainly have come for the funeral will also be absent, kept away by the chasm in East-West relations that has been opened up by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Instead, an unknown number of Russian people filed past the open coffin of the Nobel Peace laureate, whose guard of honour provided an “element” of a state occasion, according to the Kremlin.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban traveled to Moscow for the funeral to pay his respects and was accompanied by a delegation. There were no plans for Orban to meet Putin.
“As far as we know, he will only fly in to say goodbye to Gorbachev. There were no desires for meetings,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state news agency RIA Novosti.
‘Shocked and bewildered’
The funeral is a far cry from the national day of mourning and state ceremony in Moscow’s principal cathedral that was accorded to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 2007.
Yeltsin was instrumental in sidelining Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart – and later hand-picked Putin as his successor.
Like Yeltsin, Gorbachev was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, alongside his adored wife Raisa, who predeceased him by a painful 23 years.
The invasion of Ukraine in February was arguably the last nail in the coffin of Gorbachev’s legacy, one his longtime interpreter and aide said had left him “shocked and bewildered” in the final months of his life.
“It’s not just the operation that started on February 24, but the entire evolution of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years that was really, really a big blow to him. It really crushed him, emotionally and psychologically,” Pavel Palazhchenko told Reuters news agency in an interview.