Russian President Vladimir Putin has privately laid flowers at Mikhail Gorbachev’s coffin, snubbing the weekend’s public funeral in a move reflecting the Kremlin’s uneasiness about Mr Gorbachev’s legacy.
Just before departing for a working trip to Russia’s western-most Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, Mr Putin visited a Moscow hospital where Mr Gorbachev’s body was being kept before Saturday’s funeral.
Russian state television showed Mr Putin walking to Mr 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.
Mr Gorbachev, who died on 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, a mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
The Kremlin stopped short of declaring a state funeral, with Mr Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honorary guards, and the government will help organise it.
He would not elaborate, however, on how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
If the Kremlin had declared a state funeral for Mr Gorbachev, it would have made it awkward for Mr Putin to snub the official ceremony.
A state funeral would also oblige the Kremlin to send invitations to foreign leaders, something that Moscow would be reluctant to do amid soaring tensions with the West after sending troops into Ukraine.
Mr Putin’s decision to pay a private visit to the hospital while staying away from Saturday’s public ceremony, combined with uncertainty surrounding the funeral’s status, reflect the Kremlin’s dichotomy about the legacy of Mr Gorbachev.
The late leader has been lauded in the West for reforms that put 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.
In Wednesday’s letter of condolence released by the Kremlin, Mr Putin praised Mr 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,” Mr Putin said.
“He deeply realised that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, observed that Mr Putin’s decision to privately pay tribute to Mr Gorbachev reflected both “security problems and utter unpopularity of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies”.
At the same time, Mr Putin wanted to show his respect to the former head of state, Mr Markov said.
The Kremlin’s ambivalent view of Mr Gorbachev was mirrored by state television broadcasts, which paid tribute to him 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 Mr Putin, who has famously lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
“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,” Mr Peskov said.
“This romanticism failed to materialise. The bloodthirsty nature of our opponents has come to light, and it’s good that we realised that in time.”
The Russian public has remained deeply divided over Mr Gorbachev’s legacy, with some praising him for ending the Cold War and offering political freedoms after seven decades of totalitarian rule and others accusing him of betrayal.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man who spent a decade in prison on fraud and tax evasion charges widely seen as a political vendetta for challenging Mr Putin’s power, hailed Mr Gorbachev for dismantling the repressive Communist system.
“In Russia, Gorbachev will be remembered, on the one hand as the man who was able to give the country freedom; on the other hand, he will be remembered as the man who was not able to help Russia make use of this freedom,” Mr Khodorkovsky, who lives in London, said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Mr Khodorkovsky described the Russian military action in Ukraine as a redux of the Russian imperial past that Mr Gorbachev sought to demolish.
“What is happening now, the war between Russia and Ukraine, is an extension of the process of imperial collapse,” Mr Khodorkovsky said.