MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday paid tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev but will not attend the late former Soviet leader’s funeral, a decision reflecting the Kremlin’s ambivalence about Gorbachev’s legacy.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that prior to departing for a working trip to Russia’s westernmost Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, Putin visited a Moscow hospital where Mikhail Gorbachev’s body is kept before Saturday’s funeral to lay flowers at his coffin.
“Regrettably, the president’s working schedule wouldn’t allow him to do that on Saturday, so he decided to do that today,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
Russian state television showed Putin walking to Gorbachev’s open coffin and putting 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.
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday, will be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife Raisa after a farewell ceremony will be held 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.
Asked if Gorbachev will be given a state funeral, Peskov said the funeral will have “elements” of state funeral, such as honorary guards, and the government will help organize them. He wouldn’t elaborate how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Putin’s decision to pay a private visit to the hospital while staying away from Saturday’s public farewell ceremony combined with uncertainty surrounding the funeral’s status reflect the Kremlin’s uneasiness about the legacy of Gorbachev. The late leader has been lauded in the West by putting an end to the Cold War but reviled by many at home for actions that led to the 1991 Soviet collapse and plunged millions into poverty.
If the Kremlin had declared a state funeral for Gorbachev, it would have made it awkward for Putin to snub the official ceremony. A state funeral would also oblige the Kremlin to send invitations to foreign leaders to attend it, something that Moscow would probably be reluctant to do amid the tensions with the West over its action in Ukraine.
While avoiding explicit personal criticism of Gorbachev, Putin in the past repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO’s expansion eastward — an issue that became a major irritant in Russia-West ties for decades and fomented tensions that exploded when the Russian leader sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
In Wednesday’s telegram of condolences released by the Kremlin, Putin praised Gorbachev as a man who left “an enormous 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 said. “He deeply realized that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, observed that Putin’s decision to privately pay tribute to Gorbachev reflected both “security problems and utter unpopularity of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies.” At the same time, Putin wanted to show his respect to the former head of state, Markov added.
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 in dialogue with the West.
The criticism echoed earlier assessments by Putin, who has famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
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.”