A few thousand Russians gathered in Moscow to bid farewell to the last ruler of the Soviet Empire. Vladimir Putin was a notable absentee.
A few thousand Russians said goodbye this Saturday to the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev during a funeral without official fuss, especially marked by the absence of President Vladimir Putin.
Many Russians present
The Russians entered in small groups the House of Trade Unions, an emblematic place in Moscow, to lay roses and bow in silence before the open coffin of Gorbachev, near which sat a portrait of the former leader.
“A great politician is leaving, the Gorbachev era is ending today,” says a 44-year-old miller. “He calmed relations with America (…) The whole world knew him,” he adds.
A long line of people had formed in the morning to pay tribute to Gorbachev, a great political figure of the 20th century who died Tuesday evening at the age of 91.
He made history by precipitating, in spite of himself, the disappearance of the Soviet empire in 1991, while he was trying to save it with democratic and economic reforms, thus ending the Cold War.
Between symbol of openness and downgrading of Russia
In a context of growing repression and withdrawal in the midst of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, some Russians present at the funeral remember with nostalgia the opening under Gorbachev.
“We had a whiff of freedom, he gave us transparency and pluralism,” said Natalia Leleko, a 60-year-old teacher.
It was “an air of freedom that had been missing for a long time, the absence of fear”, abounds Ksenia Joupanova, a 41-year-old interpreter. “I am against cutting oneself off from the rest of the world, I am for openness, dialogue”.
Hailed by the West and some Russians as a man of peace, Gorbachev is also seen by many in his country as responsible for the geopolitical downgrading of Moscow and the years of crisis that followed the fall of the USSR.
A sober funeral
Sign of unease in front of this ambivalent heritage, no day of national mourning has been announced. Above all, the funeral took place in the absence of Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin putting forward a busy “schedule”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, close to the Kremlin, is the only foreign leader to have visited Moscow, where he bowed before the remains of Gorbachev.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his condolences in a phone call on Saturday with Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said.
Ambassadors from several Western countries, as well as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and journalist Dmitry Muratov, Nobel Peace Prize 2021, went to the funeral to offer their condolences to Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina.
After this ceremony, Gorbachev must be buried in the Novodevichy cemetery, next to his wife Raisa Gorbacheva, who died in 1999 and to whom he was very close.
If he did not attend the funeral this Saturday, Vladimir Putin had discreetly gone to the Central Clinical Hospital (TSKB) in Moscow on Thursday, where Gorbachev died, to lay a bouquet of red roses.
In his message of condolence, Vladimir Putin paid a sober tribute to Gorbachev, noting that he had had “a great influence on world history” and had “sought to come up with his own solutions to the problems” of the USSR.
By 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 in 1990 had earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Germany at half mast
Germany, whose reunification was made possible by the fall of the Berlin Wall, announced that the flags would be at half mast in the German capital on Saturday.
But, in Russia, Gorbachev is perceived by many as the gravedigger of the great Soviet power which rivaled America and whose end, considered humiliating, gave way to a decade of crises and violence.
Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia in power during the years of painful transition to a market economy, and who had appointed Vladimir Putin as his successor, was entitled to strong honors at his death in 2007.
The Kremlin had then declared a day of national mourning and organized an official funeral. In the presence of Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev.