Thousands of Russians bid farewell to last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev

AFP / ALEXANDER NEMENOV

Thousands of Russians filed past the open casket of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, on Saturday with many saying they wanted to honour his memory as "a peacemaker" who dismantled totalitarianism and gave them their freedom.

Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991, died on Tuesday aged 91. His body lay in state in the grand Hall of Columns in central Moscow in the tradition of previous Soviet leaders, including Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

Flanked by an honour guard of two rifle-wielding members of the elite Kremlin Regiment with the hall's 54 chandeliers emitting only a dim glow, the former president's body lay in an open casket with his face and upper body visible. His daughter Irina and her two daughters sat nearby with close family friends.

Russians of all ages filed through the hall and laid flowers on a plinth at the foot of the casket and stole a brief and final glance as sombre music played and a giant black and white portrait of Gorbachev on the wall looked down.

Best known in the West for helping end the Cold War, reducing his country's nuclear stockpile, and for unwittingly presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's legacy still divides opinion inside and outside Russia.

But those who took the trouble to line up to say farewell on Saturday recalled the late politician, who died in Moscow after an unspecified illness, with affection and gratitude.

"He was a peacemaker, he was one of God's sons," said Tatiana, 80, who said she had come despite poor health.

"He wanted to give us democracy and freedom and we turned out to not be very ready yet," said Alexander Lebedev, a tycoon and close friend who once bankrolled an opposition-leaning newspaper with Gorbachev.

"That's most unfortunate but we will still be a European country. This part of history will be over one day."

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Security Council, paid his respects to Gorbachev on Saturday, as did some other, but not all, senior pro-Kremlin politicians.

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