Gorbachev’s Funeral Begins in Moscow, With Putin Conspicuously Absent

Thousands of Russians traveled to Moscow on Saturday to pay their final respects to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who was viewed by some as a great reformist but was reviled by others.

Inside the grand hall of Moscow’s famed House of the Unions — with its windows draped in black and its chandeliers dimmed as solemn classical music played — people walked by Mr. Gorbachev’s coffin, flanked by two guards of honor. Some mourners left flowers on a table in front of the coffin.

Mr. Gorbachev died on Tuesday at age 91, after what Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital said was “a long and grave illness.”

From the beginning, it was clear that Mr. Gorbachev’s funeral, befitting his legacy, would be much more personal and avoid the aplomb of a grand state ceremony that characterized funerals of his Soviet predecessors. It was not broadcast live by state television, and there were no lines of sobbing people in gray coats, carrying red carnations.

High-ranking government officials, members of the Kremlin’s inner circle, did not carry his coffin, a sign by which Kremlinologists used to try to decipher a possible successor before Mr. Gorbachev changed that.

The Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

Few leaders have had as profound an effect on their time as Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who died on Aug. 30 at 91.

  • An Idealistic Mind-set: As the Soviet Union’s final leader, Mr. Gorbachev dreamed of a “common European home.” Three decades later, that tantalizing idea remains out of reach.
  • Facing Skepticism: Mr. Gorbachev presented himself as a modernizer, but neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush was sure he was being authentic. He proved them both wrong.
  • Lessons for Strongmen: For autocratic leaders around the world, Mr. Gorbachev’s legacy stands as a cautionary tale of power discarded quickly with little or nothing in return.
  •  Reversing His Legacy: For President Vladimir V. Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He blamed Mr. Gorbachev for it.

Many high-profile public figures still attended the ceremony on Saturday, including Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former Russian president; Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister; and some popular figures, including Alla Pugacheva, a Russian pop superstar.

Gathering on Saturday in front of the House of the Unions for Mr. Gorbachev’s farewell ceremony in Moscow.Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

However, one person was conspicuously absent. Citing a busy schedule, President Vladimir V. Putin did not attend the proceedings. Instead, he paid his last respects to Mr. Gorbachev on Thursday, bringing a bouquet of flowers to his coffin at the hospital in Moscow.

Mr. Putin’s absence sent a clear message: While the Kremlin wanted to avoid any direct condemnation of a person who was once at its helm, it also wanted to distance itself from the symbol of an era whose legacy Mr. Putin is now largely trying to undo.

In that vein, on Wednesday, Mr. Putin issued a conciliatory statement. Addressing Mr. Gorbachev’s “relatives and friends,” Mr. Putin said, “Mikhail Gorbachev was a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history.”

“He deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems,” Mr. Putin added.

The Kremlin said that there would be only “elements of a state funeral,” including an honor guard. By contrast, when Mr. Gorbachev’s successor, Boris N. Yeltsin, died in 2007, Mr. Putin, who succeeded him, declared a day of national mourning for his funeral. The ceremony was broadcast live on state television, and the lowering of Mr. Yeltsin’s coffin was accompanied by an artillery salute.

In 2021, Mr. Putin broke off from his strict coronavirus isolation to pay his last respects to Yevgeny N. Zinichev, his former bodyguard, whom he had turned into a government minister.

Mr. Yeltsin’s funeral was attended by numerous foreign dignitaries, including acting state leaders and former ones like Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. The absence of global representatives at Mr. Gorbachev’s ceremony highlighted Russia’s isolation as its current leader is engaged in a brutal war in Ukraine.

Flanked by white Corinthian columns, the grand hall of the House of the Unions has been the site of many high-profile ceremonies, including the funerals of Lenin, Stalin — whose funeral drew hundreds of thousands of people, creating a human crush that cost dozens of lives — and other Soviet leaders. Mr. Gorbachev himself took part in some of them.

Shortly after the ceremony on Saturday, Mr. Gorbachev will be buried next to his wife at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

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