Thousands of Russians at Gorbachev’s funeral, but not Putin

Thousands of Russians bid farewell on Saturday to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a funeral without official pomp and circumstance, marked above all by the absence of President Vladimir Putin.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at 91, was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow, next to his wife Raissa, who died in 1999, while a military orchestra played the Russian national anthem, AFP noted.

Earlier, the remains of this major political figure of the twentieth century had been exposed in the House of Trade Unions, an emblematic place in Moscow where the funerals of several leaders of the USSR were celebrated, including those of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

“A great politician is leaving, the Gorbachev era ends today,” said Yevgeny Matveyev, a 44-year-old miller who was among the thousands of people who came to say goodbye to the former leader.

In small groups, people of all ages came to lay roses and bow in silence before Gorbachev’s open coffin, framed by a guard of honor and near which sat his black and white portrait.

Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and made history by precipitating, in spite of himself, the disappearance of the Soviet empire in 1991, while trying to save it with democratic and economic reforms, thus ending the Cold War.

In a current context of growing repression and withdrawal in the midst of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, some Russians present at the funeral remembered with nostalgia the liberal opening under Gorbachev.

“We had a breath of freedom, he gave us transparency and pluralism,” stressed Natalia Leleko, a 60-year-old teacher.

👉You might appreciate  Return of the train on the right bank of the Rhône

Ksenia Zhupanova, a 41-year-old interpreter, especially remembers the “absence of fear” under Gorbachev. “I am against cutting myself off from the rest of the world, I am for openness, for dialogue.

No national mourning

But if he is greeted in the West and by some Russians as a man of peace, Gorbachev is also seen by many in his country as the person responsible for the geopolitical downgrading of Moscow and the years of crisis that followed the fall of the USSR.

As a sign of unease with this ambivalent legacy, neither an official funeral nor a national day of mourning was announced. Above all, the funeral took place without Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin putting forward a “busy schedule”.

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, close to the Kremlin, is the only foreign leader to have gone to Moscow, where he bowed to the remains of Gorbachev, noted AFP.

Gorbachev was one of the reasons central Europe was able to “get rid of communism peacefully, without human loss or bloodshed,” Orban said on Facebook.

Some prominent Russians attended the funeral, such as former president Dmitry Medvedev and journalist Dmitry Muratov, Nobel Peace Prize 2021.

Although he was absent on Saturday, Putin had discreetly visited the Central Clinical Hospital (TSKB) in Moscow, where Gorbachev died, on Thursday to lay a bouquet of red roses.

In a sober message of condolence, he had given Gorbachev “a great influence on the history of the world.

East-West rapprochement

In contrast, Western capitals, from Washington to Berlin, via Paris, warmly celebrated the memory of Gorbachev, hailed for having worked for East-West rapprochement and a reduction in nuclear arsenals, which had earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

👉You might appreciate  Kiev's counter-offensive in southern Ukraine

Germany, whose reunification was made possible by the fall of the Berlin Wall, announced that flags would be flown at half-mast in the German capital Saturday.

But in Russia, Gorbachev is seen by many as the gravedigger of the great Soviet power that rivaled America and whose end, considered humiliating, gave way to a decade of crises and violence.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president in power during the years of painful transition to a market economy, who appointed Vladimir Putin as his successor, was honoured with a great deal of praise when he died in 2007.

The Kremlin declared a day of national mourning and organized an official funeral, attended by Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev.