Thousands of Russians bid farewell to last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ‘the peacemaker’

Nobel Peace Prize winning journalist Dmitry Muratov carries a portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, during the former Soviet leader's funeral in Moscow. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW - Thousands of Russians filed past the open casket of Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, on Saturday with many saying they wanted to honour his memory as “a peacemaker” who dismantled totalitarianism and gave them their freedom.  

Mr Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, died on Tuesday aged 91.

His body lay in state in the grand Hall of Columns in central Moscow in the tradition of previous Soviet leaders, including Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.  

The man affectionately known as ‘Gorby’ in the West and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War was then buried at Moscow’s famous Novodevichy cemetery alongside his wife Raisa, who died in 1999.  

Mr Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and himself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, headed a column of mourners carrying a portrait of his friend.  

A priest read a short prayer before a military band played the Russian national anthem, which has the same melody as the Soviet anthem, as Mr Gorbachev’s coffin was lowered into the ground.

An honour guard fired three shots into the air.  

Earlier, flanked by two rifle-wielding members of the elite Kremlin Regiment and with the hall’s 54 chandeliers emitting only a dim glow, the former president’s body lay in an open casket with his face and upper body visible.  

His daughter Irina and her two daughters sat nearby.  

Russians of all ages filed through the hall and laid flowers on a plinth at the foot of the casket and stole a brief and final glance as sombre music played and a giant black and white portrait of Mr Gorbachev looked down from the wall.  

Best known in the West for helping end the Cold War, reducing his country’s nuclear stockpile, and for unwittingly presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union, Mr Gorbachev’s legacy still divides opinion inside and outside Russia.  

Remote video URL

But those who lined up to say farewell recalled the late politician, who died in Moscow after an unspecified illness, with gratitude.  

“He was a peacemaker, he was one of God’s sons,” said Ms Tatiana, 80, who said she had come despite poor health.  

“He wanted to give us democracy and freedom and we turned out to not be very ready yet,” said Mr Alexander Lebedev, a tycoon and close friend.  “That’s most unfortunate but we will still be a European country. This part of history will be over one day.”

Putin no-show

President Vladimir Putin paid his respects to Mr Gorbachev on Thursday, but stayed away from Saturday’s memorial event with the Kremlin citing his busy schedule.  

Nor was Mr Gorbachev granted a state funeral unlike his nemesis Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president and the man who named Mr Putin as his successor, who died in 2007.  

Some saw Mr Putin’s no-show as a snub from a former KGB officer who has rolled back many of Mr Gorbachev’s reforms and has said he regards the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century that he would reverse if given a chance.  

“I think it’s a kind of a statement,” Mr Vladimir Pozner, a veteran journalist, told Reuters.  “And I don’t think that Mr Putin is a particular fan of Mr Gorbachev. I think they saw the world very differently.” 

Mr Mikhail Gorbachev's coffin is carried into the Hall of Columns of the House of Trade Unions in Moscow on Sept 3, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Gorbachev was, like Mr Putin, crushed by the demise of the Soviet Union but is blamed by many Russians for setting in train a reform process that spun out of control and emboldened the USSR’s 15 republics to break away.  

That ushered in a period of new found freedoms in Russia but also economic suffering and a sometimes bloody redistribution of state property which left many Russians feeling angry and humiliated.

Silent protest? 

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid his respects to Mr 
Gorbachev on Saturday, as did some other, but not all, senior pro-Kremlin politicians.  

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban flew in to pay his respects.

But with Russia sanctioned by the West over what Mr Putin calls his “special military operation” in Ukraine, other European and Western leaders were absent.  

Among the mourners were many young Russians who were not even born when the Soviet Union collapsed.  

“Yes he made some serious socio-economic mistakes, but all that pales in comparison with what he did for the freedom of the press and for international relations. Stuff like the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Mr Oleg, 22, a former history student.  

Mr Vladimir Putin (right) with Mr Mikhail Gorbachev during a news conference at Schloss Gottorf Palace in Germany on Dec 21, 2004. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Andrey Zubov, an historian who knew Mr Gorbachev, said the attendance of young people was a silent protest against the current political system.  

But he said he was disappointed by the turnout given Mr Gorbachev’s role in Russian history, suggesting it showed how few Russians valued freedom over tyranny.  

“When Stalin lay in state here (in 1953) hundreds of thousands came and some people were killed in the crush,” said Mr Zubov.  “But when 
Gorbachev died, thousands of people have come to honour a person who gave us our freedom. It’s not a lot.” 

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.