Russia’s farewell to Gorbachev becomes ‘silent protest’

Mikhail Gorbachev was buried in Moscow yesterday as thousands of people used his funeral as a “silent protest” against Vladimir Putin’s regime and the invasion of Ukraine.

Our visitors waited up to an hour to pass Mr. Gorbachev’s open coffin in the great portico near the Kremlin. So many came that the waiting time for the visitors was increased by two hours.

Inside, they laid flowers in front of his wooden coffin, which was covered with a Russian tricolor flag while John Williams’ melancholy music from Schindler’s List played in the background.

The large turnout defied Mr Putin, who had avoided the funeral, claiming he was too busy to attend and denying it status as a state occasion.

An anti-war Muscovite said that as Russia became more authoritarian under Putin, Mr Gorbachev became a symbol of his citizens’ lost freedoms. “Because of Gorbachev, I was able to have my own thoughts and options,” she said over the phone. “I appreciate him for giving us a few free years in Russia.”

Mr. Gorbachev died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Praised in the West for ending the Cold War and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, he is universally loathed in Russia for presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union that followed a decade of precipitous economic decline.

Mr Putin has described the country’s collapse in 1991 as a “disaster” and has refused to give Mr Gorbachev the usual honors bestowed on former Russian leaders, such as a national day of mourning and a state funeral.

Mr. Gorbachev took over the leadership in 1985 after years of economic and political drift. He wanted to preserve the Soviet Union but thought some freedoms needed to be introduced. He couldn’t save it, but he secured his legacy as a promoter of freedom in a country plagued by dictatorships.

In contrast, the Russian authorities are now cracking down on dissent.

Thousands of citizens opposed to the Kremlin have fled abroad and all opposition leaders have been arrested.

Andrey Zubov, a historian who knew Mr Gorbachev, said that although Kremlin propaganda discouraged thousands of Russians from attending, people would still use the funeral as a “silent protest” against Mr Putin. “Thousands of people have come to honor a person who gave us our freedom,” he said. Mourners walking past Mr Gorbachev’s body avoided mentioning the war or directly criticizing Mr Putin, but there was clearly a muted anti-war sentiment among the crowd.

“I want to thank him for my childhood of freedom, which we don’t have today,” said Ilya, a financial services professional in his early 30s. “We need politicians like that to sort out the situation in the world on the verge of World War III,” Yulia Prividennaya said .

Two guards in full ceremonial uniform stood on either side of Mr Gorbachev’s coffin, which was on display in the same hall where the body of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was laid in 1953. Goose-stepping guards fired shots in the air and a small The band played the Russian anthem, which uses the same melody as the Soviet anthem.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, flew to Moscow for the funeral and was the most prominent foreign dignitary to attend. The ambassadors of the USA, Great Britain and Germany were also present.

“Much was needed for Central Europe to get rid of Communism peacefully, without loss of life or bloodshed. One of them was Mikhail Gorbachev,” Mr Orban wrote on Facebook.

Upon entering the chandelier-adorned hall, mourners were greeted by a large photo of Mr. Gorbachev standing with a big smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigor he brought to Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors. Later in the day, Mr Gorbachev’s body was buried alongside that of his beloved wife Raisa at the Novodevichy Cemetery, where many prominent Russians rest, including the post-Soviet country’s first president, Boris Yeltsin. Raisa died of leukemia in 1999.

The procession that carried the coffin to the cemetery was led by Novaya Gazeta newspaper editor Dmitry Muratov, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mr. Gorbachev used funds from his own Nobel Prize to start the newspaper. It was Russia’s last major anti-Kremlin news agency before it shut down in March.

Despite all the pomp, the decision not to call a state funeral allowed Mr Putin not to visit or invite foreign leaders. Instead, on Thursday he laid flowers on Mr Gorbachev’s coffin at the Moscow hospital where he died.

Mr Putin has repeatedly accused Mr Gorbachev of failing to receive written commitments from the West that would have ruled out NATO’s eastward expansion.

Mr Gorbachev supported Mr Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but Pavel Palazhchenko, his former assistant, said in an interview this week that he disagreed with the invasion of Ukraine. “It took him down emotionally and psychologically.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Russia’s farewell to Gorbachev becomes ‘silent protest’

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