Russians to pay respects to Yeltsin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s former president Boris Yeltsin was to lie in state on Tuesday before a state funeral for the man who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia through its first uncertain years of independence.

Members of the public will be able to pay their respects to Yeltsin, who died of heart failure on Monday aged 76, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savour near the Kremlin, a church blown up by the Communists then rebuilt under Yeltsin.

“He will be lying in state in the second half of today,” said a Kremlin spokeswoman. “It will be open to the public.”

Russian newspapers were filled with tributes to Yeltsin, the country’s first democratically-elected leader. But they also noted his shortcomings: economic turmoil, his disastrous war against rebels in Chechnya, and his drink-fuelled gaffes.

“The man who gave people new life and new opportunities to pursue their dreams also -- and this was important for him -- removed fear from people’s hearts,” said a commentary in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

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“People saw their difficulties in adapting to a new way of life as the blunders of the country’s leader. And as people no longer had fear, the head of state was ostracized by just about everyone.”


President Vladimir Putin, whom the ailing and out of touch Yeltsin handpicked to succeed him before stepping down in 1999, issued a decree declaring Wednesday a day of national mourning.

In an address to the nation late on Monday, Putin said that thanks to Yeltsin, “a whole new epoch was born. New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world.”

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Putin’s decree instructed presidential chief-of-staff Sergei Sobyanin to take charge of funeral arrangements, and ordered the foreign ministry to invite world leaders. It was not yet clear who would be attending.

After a funeral service on Wednesday in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Yeltsin is to be buried the same day in Moscow’s Novodevichye cemetery, the Kremlin said.

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Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and composer Dmitry Shostakovich are also buried there.

Many of the newspaper tributes to Yeltsin viewed him through the prism of seven years under Putin who, critics say, has rolled back many of the democratic reforms his patron introduced.

“Boris Yeltsin said that he was leaving Russia to ‘a new generation of politicians’, under whom the country ‘will never go back to the past’. But over seven years of his presidency Vladimir Putin has proved that a return to the past is possible,” said the Kommersant newspaper.

There was also acknowledgement of Yeltsin’s shortcomings, including a privatization drive that handed state assets to loyal business moguls at rock-bottom prices.

“The malevolence of fate: everything he initiated turned out the opposite way round. He wanted to make many rich but only enriched a few,” said the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

Alluding to Yeltsin’s penchant for alcohol, the paper said: “He had one personal weakness, which is understandable and forgivable for Russia. And it wasn’t this weakness that ruined his authority but the war (in Chechnya) and privatization.”