Putin stays away as Russia says farewell to Soviet gravedigger Gorbachev

·2-min read
AFP - EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA

Thousands of Russians on Saturday paid their final respects to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a ceremony held in Moscow with little fanfare. Russian President Vladimir Putin was notably absent.

Several thousand mourners queued to file past Gorbachev's open casket as it was flanked by honour guards under the Russian flag in the historic Hall of Columns.

The coffin was then carried out of the hall in a procession led by Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor-in-chief of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which Gorbachev helped found.

The former leader of the Soviet Union was buried in Novodevichy Cemetery, next to his wife Raisa, who died from cancer in 1999.

The Kremlin had said President Vladimir Putin would not attend Saturday's funeral because of his "work schedule".

Gorbachev died on Tuesday at the age of 91 following a "serious and long illness", the hospital where he was treated said.

A hero despised by many

In power between 1985 and 1991, he sought to transform the Soviet Union with democratic reforms, but eventually triggered the bloc's demise.

One of the great political figures of the 20th century, he was lionised in the West for helping to end the Cold War and trying to change the USSR.

Many in Russia despised him for the economic chaos and loss of global influence that followed the Soviet collapse.

He had spent most of the last few decades out of the political limelight and his death this week was barely acknowledged in official circles in Russia.

The only senior foreign figure to attend was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who laid flowers at the casket.

Flags were flying at half-mast in Berlin on Saturday, in memory of the man who held back Soviet troops as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

In Russia, Gorbachev's steps towards peace and reform have been overshadowed by the economic troubles that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin, who called the Soviet collapse the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, has spent much of his more than 20-year rule reversing parts of Gorbachev's legacy.