MOSCOW (Reuters) - Thousands of Russians filed past Boris Yeltsin’s open coffin on Tuesday to pay their respects to the former president who dismantled the Soviet Union and led Russia in its first chaotic years of independence.
To the strains of a choir singing Orthodox hymns, members of the public paused to lay flowers near Yeltsin’s coffin as he lay in state in the Christ the Saviour cathedral — a gold-domed church blown up by Josef Stalin and rebuilt under Yeltsin.
Late into the evening, mourners filed through the cathedral, which was due to stay open through the night. Earlier, about 1,000 people snaked round the outside of the building waiting to get in.
Yeltsin, who died of heart failure on Monday at the age of 76, is to be buried at a Moscow cemetery on Wednesday with full state honors. President Vladimir Putin, his successor, has declared it a national day of mourning.
A bear-like man from a peasant family who had a rapport with ordinary people, Yeltsin won tributes for bringing democracy to Russia after eight decades of communist rule.
But his eight years in office were marked by economic meltdown, political turmoil, a costly war against rebels in Chechnya and drink-fuelled gaffes.
His coffin was draped in a silk Russian flag and watched over by a ceremonial unit from the presidential guard, their hats held in the crook of their arms.
His face was swollen by years of ill health. His body had been dressed in a black tie and black suit. His widow Naina, wearing a black veil and her eyes puffy from crying, sat in a pew next to their daughter Tatyana Dyachenko.
“I am convinced that in 25 years, Russian society will realize that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was Russia’s greatest leader in its entire history,” Yegor Gaidar, an architect of Yeltsin’s economic reforms, told the Vesti-24 TV station.
Russia’s first democratically elected leader is to be buried at the capital’s Novodevichye cemetery. It is a break with the past as Kremlin leaders have traditionally been buried in Red Square, where a mausoleum houses the body of Vladimir Lenin.
Bill Clinton — whose good-natured verbal sparring with Yeltsin earned them the title “The Boris and Bill show” — and fellow former U.S. president George H.W. Bush are among foreign dignitaries who will attend the funeral.
Views on Yeltsin’s legacy differed sharply. His economic “shock therapy” cost millions of people their savings and his officials sold off state assets to politically connected businessmen for a fraction of their value.
“They say he gave people freedom but that is just not so,” said Igor Smirnov, 30, a physicist who was passing the cathedral. “He gave freedom to steal, he gave freedom to anarchy, freedom to lawlessness.”
In Chechnya, a southern Russian republic struggling to return to normal life after more than a decade of war, people have not forgotten Yeltsin’s 1994 order to send in troops.
“They also need to declare a day of mourning for those who have died at his hands, the Chechens and the Russians,” Ruslan Mantsaev, 30, said in the Chechen capital Grozny.
But Yelena, a pensioner outside the cathedral in Moscow, said the Yeltsin years were a high water mark for democracy.
“We fought for all these freedoms,” she said. “I respect Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) for what he did for Russia. I don’t see that he made any mistakes apart from one: the choice of his successor.”
Many critics say Putin, chosen by an ailing Yeltsin, has rolled back his mentor’s democratic reforms. (Additional reporting by James Kilner)