Thousands Mourn Gorbachev and a More Open Society

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(Newser)

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who launched sweeping changes that helped end the Cold War and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, was buried Saturday after a farewell ceremony attended by thousands of mourners but snubbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin’s refusal to formally 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, per the AP.

Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at age 91, was buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife, Raisa, after a farewell ceremony Saturday 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. Mourners passed by Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. His daughter, Irina, and his two granddaughters 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 state funerals during Soviet times. Upon entering the building, mourners saw honor guards flanking a large photo of Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigor he brought to Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors.

Turnout was large enough that the viewing was extended by two hours beyond the stated two hours. Though the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, the ceremony had all the trappings befitting a state funeral, including the national flag draping Gorbachev’s coffin. Goose-stepping guards firing shots in the air and a small band playing the Russian anthem, which uses the same melody as the Soviet anthem. Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council who served as Russia’s president in 2008-12, showed up at the farewell ceremony. He 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.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attended the farewell on Saturday, as did the US, British, and German ambassadors. The farewell viewing was shadowed by the awareness that the openness Gorbachev championed has been stifled under Putin. “I want to thank him for my childhood of freedom, which we don’t have today,” said a financial services worker in his early 30s. “I am a son of perestroika,” he said, per the AP, using the Russian word for Gorbachev’s reform, or reconstruction, initiatives. “I’d like us to have more people like him in our history,” said another mourner. “We need such politicians to settle the situation in the world when it’s on the verge of World War III.”

(Read more Mikhail Gorbachev stories.)

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