Quiet funerals of consequential men

Mikhail Gorbachev’s death and quiet burial do not take away from him the reputation, questionable as it is, he earned as a consequential figure of history

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 3 Sept 2022, 02:42 PM
Updated : 3 Sept 2022, 02:42 PM

Mikhail Gorbachev has been given a public send-off in Moscow. The architect of glasnost and perestroika, who died at the age of ninety-one a few days ago, was not given the courtesy of a state funeral by the government of President Vladimir Putin. Neither did the Russian president make time to be at Gorbachev’s funeral, by conveying the message that his schedule was too full for him to pay his respects to the last leader of the Soviet Union by his presence.

Gorbachev’s detractors -- and there are many in Russia despite all the adulation he has been receiving in the West -- will perhaps argue that a state funeral was out of the question for him for a couple of reasons. In the first place, he died as a former president of the Soviet Union. In the second, the Soviet Union ceased to exist on his watch in 1991. The Russian Federation could, therefore, not be expected to show him the honours he deserved because his leadership had little to do with Russia.

And so it is that Gorbachev has been given a farewell as quiet as it was sad. With him passes an era in history. From the perspective of history, however, quiet funerals, even unnoticed ones, have been the fate of some significant players in national and global history in our times.

Nikita Khrushchev, ousted from power in 1964 by the Brezhnev-Kosygin-Podgorny triumvirate, did not have the honours the state ought to have given him when he died in 1971. Fallen leaders have by and large been deprived of the respect that in the end should have been shown to them. It has happened elsewhere as well.

Liu Shaoqi, a veteran in the struggle for communism in China and longtime comrade of Mao Zedong, became a victim of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s and was purged by the Red Guards. The Red Guards of course had Mao’s blessings. Liu was condemned as a capitalist roader, as were so many other leading figures in Maoist China in that age of upheaval, and carted off to prison.

The world had little knowledge of Liu’s whereabouts after 1966 and only years later would come to know of his death in a prison cell. During his time in incarceration, Liu Shaoqi was treated badly, subjected to torture and forced to go without food. Till today no one knows where Liu Shaoqi’s funeral took place and where he lies buried.

In Indonesia, Ahmed Sukarno, the country’s independence leader, was stripped of all his powers by the post-1965 Suharto-led military junta. There was little news of Sukarno, censorship having been clamped on the media by the military, until his death, in an unobtrusive manner, in 1970. Sukarno’s funeral was a quiet affair, away from the eyes of the world.

Zhou En-lai’s death in January 1976 induced mass demonstrations of support for a proper funeral for him. It had been the aim of Mao’s supporters to ignore the passing of the man who had been prime minister and indeed had been regarded as the urbane, philosophical face of Chinese communism before the world. To a great extent, the Maoists succeeded in letting Zhou go to his grave without fanfare. Mao himself would live till September 1976.

When Richard Nixon died in April 1994, he was given a funeral as a former president of the United States. President Bill Clinton, in company with some of his predecessors, spoke at the farewell ceremonies for the late leader. Even so, the shadow of Watergate, which had destroyed Nixon’s presidency, hung over the proceedings.

In Cairo in 1980, the funeral of the deposed Shah of Iran was a gloomy affair. Nothing of the old glory was there. The monarchy was dead and the ayatollahs had taken over. It was a graceful Anwar Sadat who had given Muhammad Reza Pahlavi refuge, a place to die.

In April 1974, Pakistan’s former president and first military ruler Mohammad Ayub Khan died of illness. The state, then governed by his one-time protégé Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did not give him a state funeral. Bhutto did not attend the funeral but made a point of visiting Ayub’s family a few days later, explaining to them that security concerns related to himself had precluded his presence at the funeral of the man he had served for eight years as a minister.

In a moment of intense irony, Pakistan’s last governor general and first president Iskandar Mirza, who with Ayub had placed the country under martial law and then was thrown out of the country within weeks by Ayub, passed away in London in November 1969.

Mirza’s family appealed to General Yahya Khan, then president and chief martial law administrator of Pakistan, to be permitted to bury Mirza in Pakistan. Yahya Khan refused to accede to the request. In the end, through the efforts of Ardeshir Zahedi, son-in-law of the Shah of Iran and foreign minister of his country, Iskandar Mirza was buried in Tehran.

There have been statesmen who on their own have decreed that following their demise they should be buried in private ceremonies, away from the limelight. Such a statesman was Charles de Gaulle, who voluntarily left the French presidency in 1969 and died in November 1970. He was buried in his village Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. The state accorded him all honours.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s death and quiet burial do not take away from him the reputation, questionable as it is, he earned as a consequential figure of history. The tragedy for him and his people is that Boris Yeltsin, who led the crusade for a dismantling of the Soviet Union, forcing Gorbachev to relinquish power in 1991, was given a state funeral by Vladimir Putin.

The current Russian leader has always blamed Gorbachev, correctly, for the break-up of the Soviet Union but has ignored Yeltsin’s role in the making of the tragedy. That is where history has been going pretty dysfunctional in Moscow.

[Syed Badrul Ahsan writes on politics and diplomacy.]