Current and former Russian leaders were swift to send warm condolences to Cuba on the death of Fidel Castro, who relied on Kremlin support during the cold war and struggled to keep the Caribbean island's economy afloat after it ended.
"The name of this remarkable statesman is rightfully viewed as a symbol of a whole era in modern history," Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a message to his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, Fidel's younger brother. "Fidel Castro was a sincere and reliable friend of Russia. He made a tremendous personal contribution to the establishment and progress of Russian-Cuban relations, close strategic partnership in all areas . . . I wish you courage and tenacity as you face this irreparable loss."
The Kremlin said that, in a separate telephone conversation, Raúl Castro had “expressed his gratitude to the Russian leader for his support and confirmed that the course towards further developing comprehensive communication with Russia will remain unaltered”.
Russian prime minister and former president Dmitry Medvedev said he had last spoken to Fidel Castro in August, when he celebrated his 90th birthday.
“He was first and foremost an outstanding individual, a leader. Friendly allied relations between Russia and Cuba were built thanks to his personal involvement . . . A man with an avid interest in global developments and events in Russia, he had a sharp intellect until his last moment,” Mr Medvedev said.
After ousting US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro nationalised US-owned businesses in Cuba, put down the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and survived the Cuban missile crisis the following year, becoming an important Kremlin ally located just 140 kilometres from the Florida coast.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, after a reform drive led by Mikhail Gorbachev, threw Russia and much of its communist empire into turmoil, robbing Cuba of its most powerful ally and pitching its economy into a tailspin.
“To bid farewell to such a person evokes strong feelings,” said Mr Gorbachev (85). “All of us, when we were young, took part in events to support the defence of Cuba . . . He was an outstanding personality who managed, with help from our country and others, to withstand the blockade that America put on us. In those circumstances, he managed to build a state, a country that is modern in culture, education, medicine.”
After slashing aid and trade ties with Cuba through the 1990s, Russia closed its last military facility there – a radar station at Lourdes – in 2002. In recent years, however, top Russian officials, including Mr Putin, have made several visits to Cuba in a bid to reinvigorate relations.
Just last month, Russia's deputy defence minister, Nikolai Pankov, said the military was "rethinking" past decisions to close bases in foreign countries, including Cuba.
“We are working on this,” he added, without giving details.
Moscow has closely monitored the recent US-Cuba rapprochement, which could now be jeopardised by the impending arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, who on Saturday described Fidel Castro as "a brutal dictator".