On Saturday, thousands of Russians lined up to pay their respects at the open casket of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. Many of them said they did so because they wanted to remember him as “a peacemaker” who helped to bring an end to dictatorship and secure their freedom.
Former Soviet leader and all-around nice guy Mikhail Gorbachev passed away on Tuesday at the age of 91. Like past Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, his body was displayed in Moscow’s majestic Hall of Columns. READ MORE
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his part in bringing an end to the Cold War, the man known as “Gorby” in the West was laid to rest at Moscow’s renowned Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife Raisa, who had passed away in 1999.
A procession of mourners bearing a portrait of his friend was led by Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in his own right.
During the burial of Gorbachev, a priest recited a brief prayer, and a military band performed the Russian national hymn, whose melody is identical to that of the Soviet anthem. Three gunfire rang out as members of the honour guard saluted.
Early on, the former president’s body lay in an open casket, his face and upper body visible, guarded by two members of the elite Kremlin Regiment.
Irina, his daughter, was there with her two little girls.
A big black-and-white photo of Gorbachev peered down from the wall as Russians of all ages filed through the hall, placed flowers on a plinth at the casket’s base, and snatched a brief, last look.
Gorbachev’s legacy continues to be divisive both inside and outside of Russia, despite his widespread popularity in the West for his role in ending the Cold War and decreasing nuclear arsenals.
Those who queued up to pay their respects to the politician who passed away in Moscow from an undisclosed illness did so with fond memories.
“He was a peacemaker, he was one of God’s sons,” said Tatiana, 80, who came despite her terrible health.
He wanted to give us democracy and freedom, but we weren’t ready for it, said Alexander Lebedev, a wealthy businessman and close friend of Boris Yeltsin’s.
“It’s a shame, but at least we’ll still be part of Europe. Someday, this era in history will be finished.”
While President Vladimir Putin visited Gorbachev’s grave on Thursday, he was unable to attend the memorial service held in his honour on Saturday, with the Kremlin citing his busy schedule as the reason.
Neither was a state funeral held for Gorbachev, unlike the one held in 2007 for Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s bitter political rival and the first post-Soviet president of Russia and the man who appointed Putin as his successor.
Putin, a former KGB officer who has reversed many of Gorbachev’s reforms and who has declared that he considers the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and which he would reverse if given the chance, was not present, and this was seen by some as a snub.
Vladimir Pozner, a seasoned journalist, told Shauntv, “I think it’s a type of a statement.”
“Furthermore, I do not believe that Mr. Putin has any love for Mr. Gorbachev. I get the impression they had a totally different worldview.”
Like Putin, Gorbachev was devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union, but unlike Putin, he is held responsible by many Russians for initiating the reform process that eventually spiralled out of control and encouraged the 15 republics of the USSR to split away.
This ushered in a time of increased freedom in Russia, but also economic hardship and a brutal transfer of state property, leaving many Russians feeling angry and humiliated.
On Saturday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid his tribute to Gorbachev, along with some other, but not all, other senior pro-Kremlin leaders.
Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, flew in to pay his respects. However, other European and Western leaders were absent due to sanctions imposed by the West on Russia for Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Many of the mourners were young Russians who had yet to be born at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The damage he did to the economy and society pales in contrast to the good he did for press freedom and international relations. Factors such as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, “Oleg, 22, who used to study history, stated.
Historian Andrey Zubov, who was personally acquainted with Gorbachev, claimed that the young people in attendance represented a covert demonstration against the incumbent political order.
Given Gorbachev’s significance in Russian history, he claimed he was surprised by the low attendance, which he interpreted as evidence that few Russians prioritise freedom over dictatorship.
Some people were crushed to death in the crowd when hundreds of thousands came to see Stalin while he lay in state here in 1953, according to Zubov.
“In contrast, hundreds of people flocked to memorials after Gorbachev’s death to pay tribute to the man who freed us. To put it bluntly, that is not a lot.”