Russia bade a solemn farewell Wednesday to Boris Yeltsin, its first post-Soviet president, with a sonorous funeral under the gilded arches of a cathedral near the Kremlin and burial in a leafy cemetery near the banks of the Moscow River.
Two dozen white-robed priests led the service before a crowd of dignitaries, including his hand-picked successor, President Vladimir Putin, and other world leaders of his era, including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Sir John Major, Britain’s ex-prime minister.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior echoed with the priests and a choir singing the Russian Orthodox funeral liturgy during the 85-minute service, which was televised live.
It was a quiet finale for one of the most dynamic figures of Russia’s recent history.
Funeral route strewn with carnations
Afterward, a black Mercedes hearse carried Yeltsin’s flag-draped coffin from the cathedral, past a crowd of mourners. At a spot closer to Moscow’s prestigious Novodevichy Cemetery, it was transferred to a caisson, and an armored, military-green reconnaissance vehicle then pulled it along a street strewn with red carnations.
It was borne slowly to the grave as priests, relatives and VIPs walked behind.
The coffin was reopened so that Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, could gently caress his cheek one last time, and kiss his face. She, their two daughters and other relatives said their final farewells, and the coffin was then lowered into the earth.
His relatives made the sign of the cross, the Russian national anthem played, and a cannon fusillade rang out.
The solemn procession brought together Russia’s leading politicians, artists and intellectuals, many of them political foes and almost all of them veterans of a more chaotic, desperate and — to some — freer era.
The choice of Novodevichy Cemetery was a fitting site for the grave of its first post-Soviet, post-czarist leader. An avowed foe of Communism who sought to outlaw the party after he came to power, it would not seem appropriate to bury him behind Lenin’s tomb, beside the honored Soviet-era leaders by the Kremlin wall.
Keeping company with the elite
Novodevichy Cemetery holds the graves of an array of Russia’s artistic elite, including those of Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Anton Chekhov. It also holds the graves of politicians, including another reformer — former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — who is buried about 200 yards from Yeltsin.
Yeltsin was a key engineer of the end of the Soviet Union and led Russia into often-chaotic attempts to recover from decades of Communist repression and economic stagnation.
The first freely elected president of Russia, Yeltsin was widely admired for his valor in opposing the 1991 hard-line coup attempt — scrambling atop a tank to rally democratic opposition. But he was widely derided for his heavy drinking and was despised for allowing the sell-off of lucrative prizes of Russia’s industrial empire to insiders while millions of his countrymen plunged into poverty.
“The whole dramatic history of the 20th century was reflected in Boris Nikolayevich,” Patriarch Alexy II said, using Yeltsin’s patronymic in a letter read at the funeral. “Being a strong individual, he took upon himself the fate of the country at a difficult and dangerous time of radical change.”
The letter was read by Metropolitan Yuvenaly, who led the service. The church said Alexy was unable to attend because he was undergoing medical treatment.
20,000 view leader
Before the funeral, more than 20,000 people filed through the gold-domed cathedral to the view the body of Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76.
Also attending the service was Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader and a bitter rival during the final years of the Communist era. Gorbachev’s attempts at reform set in motion a wave of open dissatisfaction with the Soviet system, but Yeltsin believed the changes did not go far enough.
Many of the mourners said they admired Yeltsin for breaking the grip of monolithic Communism and moving Russia toward pluralism — and said they fear Putin is reversing the progress.
“I came here to pay respect to Boris Nikolayevich for everything he has given us: freedom and the opportunity to realize ourselves,” said 73-year-old Svetlana Zamishlayeva. But now, she said, “there is a certain retreat from freedom of the press, from fair elections, from all kinds of freedom.”
“The policy course that he set is being dismantled today,” said Nikita Belykh, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, which has become increasingly marginalized during Putin’s seven years in office.
He suggested that when Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, and turned over the presidency to Putin, the departing leader may have expected his successor to continue his policies.
“We all make mistakes,” Belykh said outside the cathedral.
A study in contrasts
Putin’s clean, disciplined image is in marked contrast to that of Yeltsin. During the last years of his presidency, Yeltsin was viewed as hard-drinking, feeble and increasingly out of touch.
Putin and his supporters often compare Russia’s comparative stability and prosperity of the past eight years with the economic and social disorder he inherited from Yeltsin.
But Putin has had only praise for Yeltsin since his death, remaining steadfastly respectful of the man who handed him power.
At a Kremlin reception after the funeral, Putin praised Yeltsin as an engine of irreversible change and focused on the qualities that helped him reshape Russia. He hailed Yeltsin’s “unbending will and genuine resolve,” according the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Yeltsin “truly tried to do all he could so that the lives of millions of Russians ... would be worthy of this proud name,” Putin said, adding: “We will move toward this goal.”
Some condemn ‘destroyer of fatherland’
Communist lawmakers, meanwhile, expressed resentment of Yeltsin’s role in bringing an end to the Soviet Union. They refused to stand for a moment of silence called in Yeltsin’s memory at the opening of the Wednesday session of the lower house of parliament, news agencies reported.
“We will never give honor to the destroyer of fatherland,” Communist deputy Viktor Ilyukhin was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Many ordinary Russians revile him, accusing him of breaking up the Soviet Union in a grab for power and of compounding the disorder, loss of prestige and economic troubles that persisted afterward.
“Someday,” Alexy said in the letter read at the funeral, “history will give the deceased an impartial appraisal.”