Hundreds of mourners lined up to quietly file past Gorbachev’s open casket as it was flanked by honour guards under the Russian flag in Moscow’s historic Hall of Columns.
The hall has long been used for the funerals of high officials in Russia and it was where the body of Joseph Stalin first lay in state during four days of national mourning after his death in 1953.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who was much admired in the West and who lived long enough to see all the reforms he had championed undone, will be buried today in a public send-off but without state honours.
Muscovites are able to view the coffin of Mr Gorbachev, who died on Tuesday aged 91, in the imposing Hall of Columns, within sight of the Kremlin, where previous Soviet leaders have been mourned.
Ahead of his funeral, pallbearers hoisted Mr Gorbachev’s wooden coffin, covered in a tricolour Russian flag, into the venue.
But it was little surprise that Mr Putin, a long-time KGB intelligence officer who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “geopolitical catastrophe”, denied Mr Gorbachev full state honours and said his schedule did not allow him to attend the funeral.
Mr Gorbachev became a hero in the West for allowing eastern Europe to shake off more than four decades of Soviet communist control, letting East and West Germany reunite, and forging arms control treaties with the United States.
But when the 15 Soviet republics seized on the same freedoms to demand their independence, Mr Gorbachev was powerless to prevent the collapse of the Union in 1991, six years after he had become its leader.
For that, and the economic chaos that his “perestroika” liberalisation programme unleashed, many Russians could not forgive him.
Gorbachev ‘crushed’ by Ukraine events
The many Western heads of state and government who would certainly have come will be today, kept away by the chasm in relations between Moscow and the West opened up by Mr Putin’s move to send troops into Ukraine in February.
It will all be a far cry from the national day of mourning and state funeral in Moscow’s principal cathedral that was granted in 2007 to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was instrumental in sidelining Mr Gorbachev as the Soviet Union fell apart and later hand-picked Putin as his own successor.
After the ceremony Mr Gorbachev will, however, be buried like Mr Yeltsin in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery, alongside his adored wife Raisa, who died 23 years ago.
On entering the Kremlin in 2000, Putin wasted little time in rolling back the political plurality that had developed from Mr Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost”, or openness, and slowly began rebuilding Moscow’s influence over many of its lost republics.
Mr Gorbachev’s long-time interpreter and aide said this week that Russia’s actions in Ukraine had left the former leader “shocked and bewildered” in the final months of his life.
“It’s not just the operation that started on 24 February, but the entire evolution of relations between Russia and Ukraine over the past years that was really, really a big blow to him. It really crushed him, emotionally and psychologically,” Pavel Palazhchenko told Reuters in an interview.