Mourners passed by Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. Gorbachev’s daughter and his two grandaughters sat beside the coffin.
Hundreds of mourners have queued to pay tribute to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who launched drastic reforms that helped end the Cold War and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The Kremlin’s refusal to declare a state funeral reflects its uneasiness about the legacy of Gorbachev, who has been venerated worldwide for bringing down the Iron Curtain but reviled by many at home for the Soviet collapse and the ensuing economic meltdown that plunged millions into poverty.
On Thursday, Putin privately laid flowers at Gorbachev’s coffin at a Moscow hospital where he died. The Kremlin said the president’s busy schedule would prevent him from attending the funeral.
Asked what specific business will keep Putin busy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the president will have a series of working meetings, an international phone call and needs to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East he’s scheduled to attend next week.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at the age of 91, will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, following a farewell ceremony at the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions, an opulent 18th century mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
Russia is set to hold funeral ceremony to lay to rest Mikhail Gorbachev, last president of Soviet Union pic.twitter.com/Hg18Lu8o6c
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“Elements” of state funeral
At the ceremony Saturday, mourners passed by Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, and his two grandaughters sat beside the coffin.
The grand, chandeliered hall lined by columns hosted balls for the nobility under the czars and served as a venue for high-level meetings and congresses along with state funerals during Soviet times.
Despite the choice of the prestigious site for the farewell ceremony, the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honorary guards, and the government’s assistance in organising it. He wouldn’t describe how it will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Declaring a state funeral for Gorbachev would have obliged Putin to attend it and would have required Moscow to invite foreign leaders, something that it was apparently reluctant to do amid soaring tensions with the West after sending troops to Ukraine.
Some leaders would attend
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin who served as Russia’s president in 2008-2012, showed up at the farewell ceremony.
Medvedev then released a post on a messaging app channel, referring to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and accusing the US and its allies of trying to engineer Russia’s breakup, a policy he described as a “chess game with Death.”
Some foreign leaders were still expected to attend the ceremony, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who often has been critical of the Western sanctions against Russia.
READ MORE: World leaders pay tributes to ex-Soviet leader Gorbachev