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Russians pay respects to Yeltsin

Russians were paying their last respects to former President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday before a state funeral for the man who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia in its first chaotic years of independence.
A man holds a portrait of the late former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow
A man holds a portrait of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin as he stands in line to pay his last respects in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral on Tuesday. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Hundreds of Russians lined-up on Tuesday outside a Moscow church to pay their respects to former President Boris Yeltsin, the man who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia in its first chaotic years of independence.

A cortege carrying Yeltsin’s coffin swept into the Christ the Savior Cathedral -- a gold-domed church blown up by Josef Stalin then rebuilt under Yeltsin -- where he will lay in state before his funeral on Wednesday.

An honor guard of several hundred soldiers in full regimental uniform with swords at their sides greeted the cortege. Yeltsin, 76, died on Monday from heart failure.

The procession was led into the cathedral grounds by a black limousine with the Russian flag -- usually reserved to transport Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin -- though the Russian leader himself was not seen.

Yeltsin will lay in state until midday on Wednesday for the public to file past.

Yeltsin, the first democratically elected Russian president, is to be given a state funeral and buried at the Novodevichye cemetery -- a break from the past because Kremlin leaders have traditionally been buried on Red Square.

Tributes to Yeltsin praised him for taking on and defeating the Soviet establishment, but also noted his shortcomings during his eight years as president -- economic turmoil, a disastrous war against rebels in Chechnya and his drink-fuelled gaffes.

“Yeltsin worked very hard and did an awful lot for the people of Russia,” said Lydia, 80, who stood at the front of the queue to see Yeltsin and clutched a bunch of pink carnations. “Of course he made some mistakes, but who doesn’t?”

National mourning
President Vladimir Putin, handpicked by the ailing and out of touch Yeltsin to succeed him before he stepped down in 1999, issued a decree declaring Wednesday a day of national mourning.

Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was prime minister and foreign minister when Yeltsin was in office, recalled a fun-loving, larger-than-life man.

“He was a leader that had a character of his own and broke the boredom of leadership,” Peres said.

“He was quite a special character, picturesque, unorthodox, full of joy, unexpected.”

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan -- two ex-Soviet states which Yeltsin helped to independence -- were among the first to confirm their attendance at the funeral.

Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and composer Dmitry Shostakovich are also buried at the Novodevichye cemetery.

Many newspaper tributes viewed Yeltsin through the prism of seven years under Putin who, critics say, has rolled back many of the democratic reforms his patron introduced.

“Boris Yeltsin said that he was leaving Russia to ’a new generation of politicians’, under whom the country ’will never go back to the past’. But over seven years of his presidency Vladimir Putin has proved that a return to the past is possible,” said the Kommersant newspaper.

There was also acknowledgement of Yeltsin’s failings in office, including a privatization drive that handed state assets to loyal business moguls at rock-bottom prices.

"The malevolence of fate: everything he initiated turned out the opposite way round. He wanted to make many rich but only enriched a few,” said the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.