Yeltsin lauded by Russians as their savior

Funeral draws wide range of citizens, dignitaries

April 26, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- They came with flowers and photographs or with empty hands, in business suits and faded jeans, some from around the corner and some from other continents. There were students and pensioners, current and former presidents of Russia and other nations, children too young to know who Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was and what he meant - for better and worse - to the nation.

The towering, gold-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River filled yesterday with thousands of mourners paying their final respects to Russia's first democratically elected president.

As Yeltsin had in life, his religious funeral broke with the traditions of the Soviet past. And, unlike most Soviet leaders, who are buried within the Kremlin walls, he was laid to rest at a cemetery outside the walls shortly after his widow, Naina, leaned into his casket and caressed and kissed his face while their two daughters looked on.

At the church, Yeltsin, who died Monday of heart failure at the age of 76, lay in state in an open coffin draped with the Russian tricolor flag. Four members of the presidential guard, in green uniforms and high black boots, stood around the coffin, two facing the altar and two with their backs to it.

Priests in long white robes, the color of the Easter season, chanted prayers. Roses, carnations and daffodils piled up on a long wooden table. So many candles were lit that church workers had to constantly wipe drops of wax from the base of the candle stands.

Just before the start of the official funeral ceremony, which was shown live on television, Naina Yeltsin, 75, received condolences from her husband's successor, Vladimir V. Putin; from the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail S. Gorbachev; from two former U.S. presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; and from hundreds of others, including prime ministers of other countries, Russian athletes and pop singers.

"Boris Nikolaevich's fate reflects the whole dramatic history of the 20th century," said Metropolitan Yuvenaly, reading a letter from the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Aleksei II, who was unable to attend.

"In the '80s and '90s, he became a witness and participant in a historical turning point in the life of Russia," Yuvenaly said. "In this time, the will of our people for a free life started to become more and more apparent. Boris Nikolaevich felt this will and helped realize it. Being a strong personality, he assumed responsibility for the fate of the country in a hard and dangerous time of radical changes."

More than 20,000 people visited Christ the Savior Cathedral yesterday, which Putin had declared an official day of mourning, and Tuesday, according to official estimates. Some cried and couldn't stop. Others, including an old man who wanted to see how Yeltsin's funeral compared with Josef Stalin's, came only because they were curious.

After climbing the church's 15 steps, most mourners crossed themselves and bowed slightly before entering the ornate building, a replica of one that was destroyed during the Soviet era under Stalin and was rebuilt during Yeltsin's time in office.

"Yeltsin's soul will always be in this cathedral," one of the priests said as mourners passed slowly by a framed portrait of a smiling, healthy Yeltsin and then his coffin. "This cathedral which knows no sorrow."

Lev Gitsevich, a 79-year-old veteran of World War II, which Russians call the Great Patriotic War, arrived in a czarist-era military uniform decorated with dozens of medals and ribbons. He held a battered copy of Yeltsin's book, Notes of a President.

"I knew Yeltsin personally. We were together with him on the barricades in 1991," he said, referring to Yeltsin's defense of the Russian White House during an aborted coup attempt by hard-line forces opposing Gorbachev. "I even kissed him on the cheek during those unforgettable events.

"Yeltsin was a man of strong will," Gitsevich said. "He saved Russia."

Gennady Argunovsky, 56, who teaches electrical-safety courses near Moscow, said it was his civic duty to come.

"I always prayed for Boris Nikolaevich," he said. "He was the one who was not afraid to give Russia freedom of speech, religious liberty, a market economy.

"He took Russia's problems very much to heart, and his heart couldn't stand it."

After the ceremony, the funeral procession headed to Novodevichy Cemetery, where Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, are buried. Some of the thousands who had come to watch threw flowers into the street as Yeltsin's coffin passed, drawn in an armored personnel carrier accompanied by soldiers marching in goose steps.

Naina Yeltsin said her final goodbye, then crossed her husband and herself.

The coffin was lowered into the ground, three shots were fired, and the Russian national anthem was played.

erika.niedowski@baltsun.com

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