Reporter's Notebook: A Final Farewell for Yeltsin

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There's something anti-climactic about watching the funeral of Boris Yeltsin today. I can't say I am personally touched by his death, except for those heart-wrenching moments watching his widow Naina grieve. Professionally I find it a bleak moment.

It's bleak because even during Yeltsin's worst days of drinking and long stays in hospitals with ailments (which the Kremlin always sought to minimize or cover up), I had a sense he was a great and historic figure to cover as a reporter.

Yeltsin, at 6 foot 2, filled a room like a bear. He had charisma even at the end of his presidency.

It seems to me Yeltsin was an emotional person, able to shed a tear or bang his fist in anger.

I remember my first interview with his successor Vladimir Putin, who even to this day manages to appear an understated grey figure (that's what you get from a KGB colonel I guess). In Putin there is little obvious passion. It's business or duty.

Yeltsin had soul. You could see it in his eyes and body language.

His biographer tells a story of Yeltsin's first visit to an American food store in Houston. Later, on a flight to Miami, Yeltsin held his head in his hands and said "What have [the communists] done to our poor people?"

In his own memoirs Yeltsin said, "I put my whole heart and soul into running my presidential marathon. I honestly went the distance. If you think you can do better just try."

As a correspondent for NBC News during Yeltsin's time, I was never allowed to physically leave Moscow, not even to go to the country right outside the city. That's how worried the network was that Yeltsin would die and the communists would storm back to power to restore the Soviet Union.

Every few weeks a rumor would spread that Yeltsin had died or had fallen ill again. The phone would ring with my worried foreign editor on the line: "What happened? Is he alive? Can we confirm something?"

Yeltsin surprised everyone on New Year's Eve 1999. It came as we stood outside the Kremlin walls waiting to do a live report on the story that wasn't — Y2K computer disasters. Yeltsin announced he was stepping down, handing the reins of power over to a little-known figure — Vladimir Putin.

There was relief for the Russian people and for us, that finally someone more stable would be in charge of things. But as a reporter, I soon started to miss him.

He was always full of surprises.

I remember an incident during the NATO bombing of Kosovo. At an awards ceremony for scientists at the Kremlin, he suddenly threatened America with nuclear weapons. "Just let Bill (Clinton) fire one missile and we'll respond," he said.

The Kremlin tried to cover it up. It did not make the news in Russia, but we got the tape and aired it that night on the evening news.

There was the trip to Central Asia, where, while watching a military parade, he suddenly almost fell over and had to be supported by his bodyguard.

His spokesman later told me over a beer that he got into a lot of trouble for not shutting down the satellite transmission of the event. Yeltsin, with his finger on the launch button of some 5,000 nuclear warheads, was not a comfort to anyone and hardly the strong image Russia sought to project.

Yeltsin was a roller coaster and he took Russia's future on a wild ride.

He fired four prime ministers in a year and a half. Everyone was to blame for Russia's tough times but him it seemed.

But I think Yeltsin is deserving of respect, too. It was he who brought Russia out of communism to democracy.

Yeltsin's former Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin reflected: "Yeltsin took us through a revolution with no bloodshed -- that's a great achievement."

Unlike his successor, Yeltsin could take a punch.

He so believed in democracy and free speech that he watched silently as the Russian newspapers and independent TV savaged him. They were relentless in their coverage of him. They even reported on allegations of corruption in the Yeltsin family.

Today the Kremlin has silenced the press and broadcast media here. Yeltsin couldn't have been pleased that Putin turned the clock back on openness he fought for in those early days.

A lasting image is that of Yeltsin standing on a tank demanding that the hardliners release Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and set the country free.

Russia was chaotic and corrupt but never more free than under Yeltsin. That's why I think President Clinton and President Bush Sr. came to say goodbye. President Bush, who is 82 years old, stood for more than 3 hours and walked the long road to the cemetery for a final goodbye.

And to his credit, President Putin also paid his respects to Yeltsin today. Not only going to the funeral, but ordering the TV channels to cover the funeral and give him all the respect deserving of the first democratically election president of Russia.

Yeltsin's death is more than a footnote to history. It's an important time for reflection for the Russian people and for us all about the future of Russia.

And like I said, here in Moscow today, it seems like a bleak moment. Boris, goodbye and thanks — you were a great story to cover.