Mourners File Past Boris Yeltsin's Casket

Tuesday, April 24th 2007, 7:13 am

By: News On 6

MOSCOW (AP) _ Hundreds of mourners _ some weeping, many clutching flowers _ filed past the open casket of former President Boris Yeltsin in a soaring cathedral Tuesday, paying tribute to a man who brought epochal changes to Russia but left behind a tarnished legacy.

The United States announced it would send former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to Wednesday's funeral for the first president of post-Soviet Russia. Yeltsin died Monday of heart failure at age 76.

Russians lined up under overcast skies to pass through metal detectors and into Christ the Savior Cathedral on the banks of the Moscow River.

Inside, white-robed priests chanted prayers and circled the casket through clouds of incense. Yeltsin's widow, Naina, and his two daughters sat dressed in black alongside the coffin, which was draped in the Russian tricolor in the center of the cathedral's nave. An honor guard stood nearby.

``I followed Yeltsin as soon as he appeared. I followed him everywhere. ... He was the first honest and decent president,'' said mourner Taisiya Shlyonova, 75.

Many of those paying tribute were middle-aged and older. Although there were no overt signs of political protest, one woman lamented what many consider to be a striking erosion of democratic institutions under President Vladimir Putin _ Yeltsin's hand-picked successor.

``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, 65. ``No freedom of expression, no freedom of protest, no real parliament, nothing.''

Although Yeltsin sometimes appeared at church services, he was not seen as overtly pious. Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church credits him as a key figure in its changed fortunes after decades of the Communist-era's official atheism.

``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.

Christ the Savior Cathedral is a sign of the changes under Yeltsin, a reformer who was elected president of Russia in 1991 as the Soviet Union was falling apart and helped hasten its demise.

The gold-domed, hulking Russian Orthodox church is a replica of the original that was blown up by the Soviet authorities in 1931, just a few months after Yeltsin's birth.

Sixty years to the month after Soviet authorities knocked the cathedral down, the Soviet Union collapsed, thanks in part to Yeltsin. Russia began to rebuild the church in 1994.

Yeltsin's burial Wednesday also will resonate 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 the writer Anton Chekhov, composer Sergei Prokofiev and the Stalin-era author Mikhail Bulgakov, one of Russia's most beloved modern literary figures. But one former Soviet leader as vivid and complex as Yeltsin already lies there _ Nikita Khrushchev.

Khrushchev, like Yeltsin, was a maverick 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 carrying the faint odor of disgrace.

Yeltsin is remembered not only for his bold and principled stand against the 1991 hard-line 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,'' said Vladimir Solovyov, a talk-show host on Serebrany Dozhd radio.

Television reports on Yeltsin on the day after his death were relatively brief and perfunctory for someone who played such an important historical role.

Russia's deep ambivalence about Yeltsin has raised questions about how many mourners will file past his coffin. Even if there are crowds, it's likely they will 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. State-controlled broadcasters have been ordered not to broadcast any entertainment programs on Wednesday, which has been declared a national day of mourning.

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