MOSCOW: Russians on Saturday paid their final respects to the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a ceremony held in Moscow without much fanfare and with President Vladimir Putin notably absent.
Hundreds of mourners lined up to quietly file past Gorbachev’s open casket as it was flanked by honor guards under the Russian flag in the capital’s historic Hall of Columns.
The hall has long been used for the funerals of high officials in Russia, and it was where the body of Joseph Stalin first lay in state during four days of national mourning after his death in 1953.
Gorbachev died on Tuesday at age 91 following a “serious and long illness,” said Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital, where he was treated.
In power between 1985 and 1991, Gorbachev sought to transform the Soviet Union with democratic reforms, but eventually triggered its demise.
One of the great political figures of the 20th century, he was lionized in the West for helping to end the Cold War and trying to change the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but despised by many in Russia 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.
State television on Thursday showed images of Putin, alone, laying a bouquet of red roses near Gorbachev’s open casket at Central Clinical Hospital.
But the Kremlin said Putin would not attend Saturday’s funeral due to his “work schedule.”
There were few other signs of an official presence at the ceremony, where Gorbachev’s daughter Irina Virganskaya sat at the side of the coffin with her two daughters and other family members.
Gorbachev was to be buried on Saturday at Moscow’s prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery, next to his wife Raisa, who died of cancer in 1999.
With Russia isolated by its military campaign in Ukraine, the only senior foreign official to announce he would attend was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.
Before the war in Ukraine, Orban had one of the closest relationships with Putin of any European Union leader, but the Kremlin said there were no talks planned during his visit to Moscow.
After Gorbachev’s death, tributes poured in from Western capitals, where he is remembered for allowing countries in Eastern Europe to free themselves from Soviet rule and for signing a landmark nuclear arms reduction pact with the United States.
Known affectionately in the West as Gorby, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Flags were also flying at half-staff in Berlin on Saturday in memory of the man who held back Soviet troops as the Berlin Wall fell in1989.
In Russia, Gorbachev’s steps toward 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.
By cracking down on independent media and political opposition, critics say, Putin has worked to undo Gorbachev’s efforts to bring “glasnost,” or openness, to the Soviet system.
And by sending his troops to Ukraine on February 24, the president has sought to reassert Russian influence in one of the countries that won its independence when the Soviet Union fell apart.
Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yeltsin, who became the first president of modern Russia and led the country through years of painful transition to a market economy, was honored with a state funeral and day of mourning when he died in 2007. Both Putin and Gorbachev were in attendance.
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Author: Agence France-Presse