The Pillar Hall in the House of the Unions is a grand old ballroom where Soviet leaders are put on display as they die. Nearly a century ago, Vladimir Lenin’s body lay in state for three days before his funeral. Stalin and Brezhnev followed. Now Mikhail Gorbachev is here, pale in an illuminated coffin: the last Soviet leader is finally buried.
Vladimir Putin is not here, a snarl the Kremlin says was the result of his busy work schedule. Yet thousands of Russians have come to pay their respects, queuing along the downtown theaters and trendy cafes, each person reminding that Mikhail Gorbachev remains a hero to some.
“He did a lot, but the people of our country hate him now,” said Vladimir Gubarev, a retired journalist who stood in line on Saturday morning with a few carnations in hand. Observer. “People want to be happy quickly. Straight away. Gorbachev’s road was the slow road to freedom, to real freedom. And he didn’t have enough time.”
For many, coming to the hall was both a mark of appreciation and an act of defiance to honor the memory of a leader who brought new freedoms and hastened the collapse of his own country. “He was a great man, so right after his death people speak good words about him,” Gubarev said. “But not until he’s gone. Because as long as he lived, he was dangerous. He was the enemy.”
Gorbachev, a seasoned communist who saw the shortcomings of the Soviet system, lost control of his reforms and watched as the USSR he was trying to save collapsed. The next 30 years launched a struggle for his legacy, a struggle that cooled his relationship with Putin, who has charted a course to undo many of the reforms Gorbachev initiated in the late 1980s. He was famously divisive among Russians: Pizza Hut even filmed an advertisement in 1997 featuring a family arguing over his legacy.
“He liked to say that history was a fickle lady and you never knew which way it would go,” said Pavel Palazchenko, a former interpreter who worked with Gorbachev for decades and now heads his press service.
“He understood that there were quite a few people in Russia who blamed him for the dissolution of the Soviet Union; he did not believe that criticism was unjustified,” Palazchenko said. “It is the guilt, the defamatory, ignorant accusations, which he rejected. He drew a line.”
While Putin was absent from the funeral, the Russian state was not. A military guard in uniform stood by a portrait of Gorbachev as mourners entered the House of Trade Unions, and national guards patrolled the halls of the 18th-century mansion.
There was silence as people entered the wood-and-marble Pillar Hall, where light opera music was playing and the lights dimmed except for a spotlight on Gorbachev’s coffin. The mourners shuffled past, some leaving flowers or bowing reverently, others stopping to take a photo. Relatives and some dignitaries, including Nobel Prize-winning journalist Dmitri Muratov, sat nearby. Mourners were led past a frame of soldiers in parade uniform, bayonets attached to their rifles, and back out into the world. The whole process took about two minutes.
There was an undercurrent of tension: This was probably the largest gathering of liberal Russians in the capital since the anti-war protests that erupted after the invasion in late February. Many were there in protest, although public dissension has virtually disappeared from the country.
“It’s been six months since so many decent people gathered in one place,” said Alexei, an amateur photographer who attended the ceremony. He asked not to use his last name due to security concerns.
Those close to Gorbachev said he suffered personally from the events in Ukraine in the last months of his life, but that his declining health had prevented him from playing a more public role.
“He felt acute pain when these things were mentioned. I can definitely tell you that,” said Palazchenko. Gorbachev had personally approved a statement from his foundation calling for an “early cessation of hostilities and immediate start of peace negotiations,” Palazchenko added.
Yet Gorbachev’s own legacy complicates matters. The former Soviet leader told an interviewer in 2016 that he supported Putin’s actions in Crimea, and with his declining health, his own voice was conspicuously absent as the magnitude and brutality of the war in Ukraine became apparent.
Palazchenko defended his former boss. “I think people who wrote on their Facebook pages and in the media that Gorbachev is silent… I think this is unfair.
“They didn’t understand very simple things. And we couldn’t say things about his health that have become quite apparent now.”
Outside, the war seemed to hang over the funeral. A banner on the new stage of the Bolshoi Theater read: “We will fulfill the mission!” It sported pro-war symbols, including the patriotic orange-and-black ribbon of Saint George and the V’s and Z’s that have become symbols of the invasion.
When asked how Gorbachev should have reacted to the war, Sergei Truba, a retiree at the ceremony, said: “He had already done the most important thing in his life.” When asked what he meant, he replied, “Perestroika.” As for the war, he added: ‘his vote wouldn’t have made any difference. He couldn’t have changed this.”
“I actually hated Gorbachev,” said Truba, adding that he had condemned Gorbachev and Yeltsin as the main culprits in hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union. “But once Putin arrived, everything changed for me … I realized what a great man we had before.”