The Kremlin’s refusal to declare a 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 open coffin at the 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 will have a series of working meetings, an international phone call, and needs to prepare for a business forum in Russia’s Far East he is scheduled to attend next week.
Mr Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, was buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery next to his wife Raisa, following a farewell ceremony at the Pillar Hall of the House of the Unions, an opulent 18th-century mansion near the Kremlin that has served as the venue for state funerals since Soviet times.
At the farewell event, mourners passed by Mr Gorbachev’s open casket flanked by honorary guards, laying flowers as solemn music played.
His daughter Irina and his two granddaughters sat beside the coffin.
The grand, chandeliered hall lined by columns hosted balls for the nobility under the tsars and served as a venue for high-level meetings and congresses along with state funerals during Soviet times.
Upon entering the building, mourners saw guards flanking a large photo of Mr Gorbachev standing with a broad smile, a reminder of the cheerful vigour he brought to the Soviet leadership after a series of dour, ailing predecessors.
The turnout was large enough that the viewing was extended well beyond the stated two hours.
Despite the choice of the prestigious venue, the Kremlin stopped short of calling it a state funeral, with Mr Peskov saying the ceremony will have “elements” of one, such as honorary guards, and the government’s assistance in organising it. He would not describe how it will differ from a fully-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.
Some foreign leaders did attend the funeral, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has often been critical of the Western sanctions against Russia.
The British, US and German ambassadors also attended.
The modest ceremony contrasts with a lavish 2007 state funeral given to Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet leader who anointed Mr Putin as his successor.