Putin says he will not attend funeral for Gorbachev, former Soviet leader

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev on Thursday but will not attend the late former Soviet leader's funeral, a decision reflecting the Kremlin's ambivalence about Gorbachev's legacy.

Mikhail Gorbachev to be buried this weekend in Moscow

A man wearing glasses, with a large, red birthmark on his head, leans into speak to another man on his right.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev during a news conference in Schleswig, Germany, Dec. 21, 2004. Gorbachev died Tuesday. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

Warning: This story contains an image of a dead body.

Russian President Vladimir Putin paid tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev on Thursday 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.

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"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.

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, a historic 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 a state funeral, such as honorary guards, and the government will help organize it. He wouldn't elaborate how the ceremony will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.

Putin says final farewell in hospital

Russian state television showed Putin walking to Gorbachev's open coffin and putting a bouquet of red roses next to it. Putin stood in silence for a few moments, bowed his head, touched the coffin, crossed himself and walked away.

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 divided thinking on 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.

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."

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"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."

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."

Gorbachev bewildered by Ukraine war, interpreter says

Gorbachev was shocked and bewildered by the Ukraine conflict in the months before he died and psychologically crushed in recent years by Moscow's worsening ties with Kyiv, his interpreter said on Thursday.

Pavel Palazhchenko, who worked with the late Soviet president for 37 years and was at his side at numerous U.S.-Soviet summits, spoke to Gorbachev a few weeks ago by phone and said he and others had been struck by how traumatized he was by events in Ukraine.

Man looks at a deceased elderly man who's lying in an open casket
Putin pays his last respects near the coffin of Gorbachev at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow on Thursday. (Russian pool/The Associated Press)

"It's not just the (special military) operation that started on Feb. 24, but the entire evolution of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years that was really, really a big blow to him. It really crushed him emotionally and psychologically," Palazhchenko told Reuters in an interview.

Putin called the Ukraine invasion a "special military operation" to ensure Russia's security against an expanding NATO military alliance and to protect Russian-speakers.

"It was very obvious to us in our conversations with him that he was shocked and bewildered by what was happening (after Russian troops entered Ukraine in February) for all kinds of reasons. He believed not just in the closeness of the Russian and Ukrainian people, he believed that those two nations were intermingled."

In photographs of 1980s summits with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the bald, mustachioed figure of Palazhchenko can be seen time and again at Gorbachev's side, leaning in to capture and relay every word.

A bald man with a moustache, wearing a suit, sits in front of a painting of a man.
Interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko, who worked with the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for 37 years, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Moscow on Sept. 1. (Tatiana Gomozova/Reuters)

Gorbachev's position on Ukraine was complex and contradictory in his own mind, said Palazhchenko, because the late politician still believed in the idea of the Soviet Union.

"Of course in his heart the kind of mental map for him and for most people of his political generation is still a kind of imagined country that includes most of the former Soviet Union," said Palazhchenko.

But Gorbachev would not have waged war to restore the now defunct country he presided over from 1985-1991, he suggested.

"Of course I can't imagine him saying 'this is it, and I will do whatever to impose it'. No."

While Gorbachev believed his duty was to show Putin respect and support, his former interpreter said he spoke out publicly when he disagreed with him such as on the treatment of the media. But he had taken a decision not to "provide a running commentary" on Ukraine beyond approving a statement in February that called for an early end to hostilities and for humanitarian concerns to be addressed.

With files from Reuters