Russians have paid tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who helped bring an end to the Cold War.
A public farewell service was held in Moscow on Saturday morning for Mr Gorbachev, who died earlier this week aged 91 – but President Vladimir Putin was nowhere to be seen.
Hundreds of people lined up outside the Hall of Columns to pay their respects at the place where former Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were remembered.
John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Russia and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, were among the political figures who attended.
Mr Gorbachev was to be buried next to wife Raisa later on Saturday at the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Mr Gorbachev was not given a full state funeral and the service was snubbed by Mr Putin.
The Kremlin’s refusal to declare a full state funeral reflects its uneasiness about the legacy of Mr 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, Mr Putin privately laid flowers at Mr Gorbachev’s coffin at a Moscow hospital where he died.
The Kremlin said the president’s busy schedule would prevent him from attending the funeral.
Asked what specific business will keep Mr Putin busy on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the president had a series of working meetings, an international phone call and needs to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East he’s scheduled to attend next week.
At the ceremony Saturday, hundreds of mourners passed by Mr Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played. Mr Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, and his two granddaughters sat beside the coffin.
Despite the choice of the prestigious venue, the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, with Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honorary guards, and the government’s assistance in organizing it. He wouldn’t describe how it will differ from a full-fledged state funeral.
Declaring a state funeral for Mr Gorbachev would have obliged Mr Putin to attend it and would have required Moscow to invite foreign leaders, something that it was apparently reluctant to do amid soaring tensions with the West after sending troops to Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin who served as Russia’s president in 2008-2012, showed up at the farewell ceremony.
The modest ceremony contrasted with a lavish 2007 state funeral given to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader who anointed Putin as his preferred successor and set the stage for him to win the presidency by stepping down.
Mr Putin, who once lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” has avoided explicit personal criticism of Mr Gorbachev but has repeatedly blamed him for failing to secure written commitments from the West that would rule out NATO’s expansion eastward.
The issue has marred Russia-West relations for decades and fomented tensions that exploded when the Russian leader sent troops into Ukraine on 24 February.
In a carefully phrased letter of condolence released Wednesday avoiding explicit praise or criticism, Putin described 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,” Putin said. “He deeply realized that reforms were necessary and tried to offer his solutions for the acute problems.”
The Kremlin’s ambivalence about Mr Gorbachev was reflected in state television broadcasts, which described his worldwide acclaim and grand expectations generated by his reforms, but held him responsible for plunging the country into political turmoil and economic woes and failing to properly defend the country’s interests in talks with the West.