Published January 13, 2015
Hundreds of mourners — some weeping, many clutching flowers — filed through a soaring, gold-domed Moscow cathedral Tuesday, past the open casket for Boris Yeltsin, paying tribute to a man who brought epochal changes to Russia but left behind a tarnished legacy.
As public viewing began of the body of the first president of post-Soviet Russia, it was unclear how Russians would mark the passing of the man who transformed their lives for better or worse.
Foreign countries also seemed unsure — many of them designating second-tier dignitaries to come to the funeral, scheduled for Wednesday. From the United States, however, former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were to attend.
Yeltsin died of heart failure on Monday at age 76.
"I followed Yeltsin as soon as he appeared I followed him everywhere. ... He was the first honest and decent president," said Taisiya Shlyonova, a 75-year-old pensioner.
Russians queued under overcast skies to pass through metal detectors and through towering metal doors of the Christ the Savior Cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River. The gold-domed, hulking edifice is a replica of the original which was blown up by the Soviet authorities in 1931, just a few months after Yeltsin's birth.
Inside the church, white-robed Orthodox priests chanted prayers and swung incense censers. Yeltsin's widow, Naina, and his two daughters sat dressed in black alongside the casket, which was draped in the Russian tricolor in the center of the cathedral's nave. An honor guard stood nearby.
Most of those paying tribute were middle-aged and older. Though there were no overt signs of political protest, one woman lamented what many consider to be a striking erosion of democratic institutions under the man Yeltsin anointed to succeed him — Vladimir Putin.
"It's a complete retreat from democracy. Why do you think Yeltsin died? He couldn't handle that. Everything he fought for, nothing has been left of that," said Elena Mosolitina, a 65-year-old pensioner. "No freedom of expression, no freedom of protest, no real parliament, nothing."
Yeltsin, although he made appearances at church services, was not seen as an overtly pious man, but the Russian Orthodox Church credits him as a key figure in its changed fortunes.
"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's burial on Wednesday also resonates with Russia's changes. Unlike most Soviet leaders, he won't be interred in the cold formality of the burial ground at the Kremlin walls; instead, his grave will be at Novodevichy Cemetery, a leafy and comforting expanse next to Moscow's most famous monastery.
It is largely a burial site for dreamers and artists, rather than politicians; its graves include those of Anton Chekhov, Sergei Prokofiev and the Stalin-era author Mikhail Bulgakov, one of Russia's most beloved modern literary figures. But one political figure as vivid and complex as Yelstin already lies there — Nikita Khrushchev.
Khrushchev, like Yeltsin, was a maverick leader with often crude manners. Like Yeltsin he brought a wave of fresh air into the stifling atmosphere of monolithic Communism. Both leaders raised wide hopes for Russia's development. Both ended their careers divorced from power, both carrying the faint odor of disgrace.
Yeltsin is remembered not only for his bold and principled stand against the 1990 hardline Communist coup attempt and for launching Russia on the path to political pluralism, if not a full-fledged democracy.
He also is remembered for the economic torment that afflicted tens of million of Russians during his presidency, as the country sold off its industrial and natural resources wealth in shadowy auctions, for the disintegration of the public health care system and for pensions that turned to cinders in the fires of raging inflation.
"In modern Russian history there was probably no other person in whom people placed more trust and more expectations — and were more easily disappointed by — than Yeltsin," Vladimir Solovyov, a talk-show host on Serebrany Dozhd radio, said Tuesday.
Russia's deep ambivalence about the man has left many wondering here how many mourners will file past his coffin or line the city streets for the funeral procession. Even if there are crowds, it is likely they'll be smaller than for the funerals of Soviet leaders — when public viewings could last for days.
But one element reminiscent of the Soviet era will be in force. Putin called on broadcasters not to air any entertainment programs on Wednesday, which has been declared a national day of mourning.
A full list of foreign dignitaries attending the funeral has not been released, but many countries indicated they would send only middle-level officials — former prime ministers, foreign ministers or others. Japan was to be represented only by its ambassador and Germany was sending its largely ceremonial president.