Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend the funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday, citing scheduling conflicts, but he paid tribute to the last Soviet leader Thursday, the Kremlin said.
In a call with reporters, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the president paid his final respects by laying a wreath at Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where Gorbachev died on Tuesday at age 91.
“Unfortunately, the president’s work schedule will not allow him to do this on Sept. 3, so he decided to do it today,” Peskov said.
Russian state television showed Putin walking to Gorbachev’s open coffin and placing a bouquet of red roses next to it. He stood in silence for a few moments, bowed his head, touched the coffin, crossed himself and walked away.
In Wednesday’s telegram of condolences released by the Kremlin, Putin praised Gorbachev as a man who left “an huge impact on the course of world history.”
“He led the country during difficult and dramatic changes, amid large-scale foreign policy, economic and society challenges,” Putin stated. “He deeply realized that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”
Peskov revealed that Gorbachev’s funeral would have “elements” of a state funeral, including a guard of honor, and that the state was helping with the preparation for the event.
He wouldn’t elaborate how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Gorbachev will be buried at Moscow’s historical Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, after a public farewell ceremony at the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions — an iconic mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
If the Kremlin had declared a full state funeral for Gorbachev, it would have made it awkward for Putin to be a no-show.
A state funeral would also force the Kremlin to invite foreign leaders to attend it, which would have been problematic amid escalating tensions between Russian and the West over the war in Ukraine.
Putin’s decision to skip Gorbachev’s funeral in favor of a working trip to Kaliningrad reflects the Kremlin’s uneasiness about the legacy of the late leader — and stands in stark contrast with the government’s actions surrounding the death of former President Boris Yeltsin in 2007, reported CNN.
Putin, who had been handpicked by Yeltsin as his successor, established a special commission to organize a state funeral, declared a day of national mourning and ordered flags to fly at half-mast.
Yeltsin’s farewell ceremony was attended by dozens of foreign guests and former world leaders, including presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Gorbachev has been widely praised in the West for putting an end to the Cold War but reviled by many at home for actions that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which plunged millions of Russians into poverty.
While avoiding explicit personal attacks on Gorbachev, Putin in the past blamed him for the fall of the USSR, which he once famously described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Putin also repeatedly criticized Gorbachev for failing to secure written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO’s expansion eastward — a major point of contention that Russia used as one of the pretexts for invading Ukraine in February.
On his part, Gorbachev in recent years had grown increasingly critical of Putin’s crackdowns on civil liberties in Russia. Although the aging statesman did not personally comment on the situation in Ukraine, his foundation called for peace negotiations between the two sides.
The Kremlin’s ambivalent view of Gorbachev was mirrored by state television broadcasts, which paid tribute to Gorbachev as a historic figure but described his reforms as poorly planned and held him responsible for failing to safeguard the country’s interests.
On Wednesday, Peskov said that Gorbachev was an “extraordinary” statesman who will “always remain in the country’s history,” but noted what he described as his idealistic view of the West.
“Gorbachev gave an impulse for ending the Cold War and he sincerely wanted to believe that it would be over and an eternal romance would start between the renewed Soviet Union and the collective West,” Peskov said. “This romanticism failed to materialize. The bloodthirsty nature of our opponents has come to light, and it’s good that we realized that in time.”