The New York Times

People reflected on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who was lionized abroad as a hero of liberalism, but castigated by many in Russia for bringing about the end of the Soviet empire.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday called Mikhail S. Gorbachev “a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history,” offering a conciliatory message about the last Soviet leader, whose legacy of openness he has spent his years in power trying to reverse.

In a brief condolence telegram to Mr. Gorbachev’s family published by the Kremlin the day after his death, the Russian leader said that Mr. Gorbachev “led our country during a period of complex, dramatic changes,” and offered his “sincere words of sympathy and support.”

Mr. Putin’s first public comments on Mr. Gorbachev’s death were a sharp contrast with his policies, which have sought to undo much of his predecessor’s legacy of more personal and political freedoms. Mr. Putin has also called the end of the Soviet Union — which Mr. Gorbachev presided over — the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and is now waging a war in Ukraine to recapture what he sees as lost Russian lands, a war whose possibility Mr. Gorbachev once dismissed as “absurd.”

Mr. Gorbachev “deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems,” said Mr. Putin, who noted “the great humanitarian, charitable and educational work” of Mr. Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.

The condolence note allowed Mr. Putin to appear as a statesman above the political fray, but it quickly became clear that Mr. Gorbachev would not be venerated by the Kremlin. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that the format of Mr. Gorbachev’s funeral — such as whether it would receive state honors — had yet to be determined, and would depend on his family’s wishes, according to the Interfax news agency.

By contrast, on the day in 2007 when Mr. Gorbachev’s successor, Boris N. Yeltsin, died, Mr. Putin, who succeeded him, declared a day of national mourning on his funeral. The ceremony was broadcast live on state television and the lowering of Mr. Yeltsin’s coffin was accompanied by an artillery salute.

On Wednesday, Mr. Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, told the Interfax news agency that her father’s funeral ceremony would take place on Saturday, in the grand hall of Moscow’s House of the Unions.

Flanked by white Corinthian columns, the grand hall has been the site of many high-profile ceremonies, including the funerals of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders. Mr. Gorbachev will be buried next to his wife at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, his daughter said.

Mr. Peskov said that the Kremlin was not sure whether Mr. Putin would attend the ceremony. In comments reported by Interfax, Mr. Peskov was more forthright than Mr. Putin about Mr. Gorbachev, calling him “an extraordinary and unique person” while also labeling him a “romantic” who naïvely believed that a post-Soviet Russia could be friends with the West.

“Gorbachev gave an impulse to end the Cold War and sincerely believed that it will end and there will be an eternal romantic period between the new Soviet Union and the world, and the collective West as we call it,” Mr. Peskov said.

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Credit V. Armand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“That romanticism did not work out,” Mr. Peskov went on. “The bloodthirstiness of our opponents showed itself and it is good that we have realized and understood it in time.”

Since his early days in the Kremlin, Mr. Putin has worked hard to undo Mr. Gorbachev’s signature policies such as glasnost, meaning openness and transparency of government and free discussion of its work.

However, Mr. Putin has been careful never to condemn Mr. Gorbachev’s legacy in full, arguing that he had to preside over a Soviet system that could not be fixed. For his part, Mr. Gorbachev, too, never criticized Mr. Putin to an extent that questioned his legitimacy as Russia’s ruler.

In ill health in the last months of his life, Mr. Gorbachev said nothing publicly about Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine. The son of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, Mr. Gorbachev shared Mr. Putin’s view that Ukraine should be in Russia’s orbit, once telling a journalist: “It might not be a scientific fact, but we are the same people.” He supported Mr. Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 but told a Siberian news outlet that the worst could be avoided.

“A war between Russia and Ukraine — this is absurd,” he said.

Two days after Mr. Putin’s invasion in February, his Gorbachev Foundation, a research institute that “seeks to promote democratic values,” issued a statement calling for a “speedy cessation of hostilities” and “the immediate start of peace talks.”

%d bloggers like this: