MOSCOW – Russia bid a solemn farewell Wednesday to Boris Yeltsin, its first post-Soviet leader, in a funeral presided over by some two dozen white-robed priests and a crowd of dignitaries including President Vladimir Putin and two former U.S. leaders.
Before the funeral in central Moscow, more than 20,000 people had filed through the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to view the body of Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76. After the viewing ended, dignitaries including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush arrived and offered condolences to Yeltsin's black-clad widow Naina.
• Click here for images from today's procession
Many of the mourners said they admired Yeltsin for breaking the grip of monolithic Communism and moving the country toward full-fledged democracy — and said they fear his successor Vladimir 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 that has become increasingly marginalized during Putin's seven years in office.
He suggested that Yeltsin may have expected Putin to continue his policies when he resigned and turned over the presidency to Putin on New Year's Eve 1999. "We all make mistakes," Belykh said outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
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.
Yeltsin is to be buried in Novodevichy Cemetery, which holds the graves of many prominent Russian authors, musicians and artists.
Many countries sent lower-ranked retired politicians and diplomats to the funeral — a reflection of the funeral's quick timing but also perhaps of Yeltsin's uncertain legacy as unsteady democrat, Communist scourge and incomplete reformer.
The Soviet Union was an atheist state, so it seemed fitting Russia's first post-Soviet president was accorded religious rites. Though he made appearances at church services, Yeltsin was not regarded as an overtly pious man, but the Russian Orthodox Church was grateful for his support.
"By his strength, he helped the restoration of the proper role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the life of the country and its people," church spokesman Metropolitan Kirill said in a statement.
Yeltsin is widely remembered for his bold and principled stand against the 1990 hardline Communist coup attempt against Gorbachev and for launching Russia on the path to political pluralism.
"He gave us a choice — not just a choice between cheese and ham, but the possibility to think for ourselves," said mourner Alla Gerber, the head of Russia's Holocaust Foundation. "He took us out of the claws of that terrible regime."
But Yeltsin disappointed Russians by failing to bring political, economic and social stability to the nation. Many were outraged, as well, by his sale of the nation's industrial might and natural resources in shadowy auctions, by the disintegration of the public health care system and by pensions that turned to cinders in the fires of raging inflation.