mercoledì 25 aprile 2007

Russia bids bittersweet farewell to Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin was laid to rest in Moscow's Novodevichy cemetery today after a final emotional kiss from Naina, his wife of more than 50 years.

Russia's first popularly elected president had early become the first Kremlin leader to receive a traditional Orthodox funeral since Tsar Alexander III in 1894, although in a mark of his reputation as a maverick he was buried not in Red Square but alongside his country's artists and writers.

A host of Russian and foreign dignitaries attended the funeral to pay their final respects to the man who helped kill off Soviet Communism, including George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton, the two US presidents whose terms coincided with his time in the Kremlin.

Also bidding farewell to Yeltsin were Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's final leader who became a bitter political rival, and Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's handpicked successor.

The dignitaries greeted Yeltsin's widow, Naina, and two daughters, Tatyana and Yelena, who sat beside his open coffin at in the gold and marble splendour of Moscow's Christ the Saviolur cathedral to receive condolences.

A sombre-looking Mr Clinton, one half of what was known as "the Bill and Boris show", stooped to put his right arm around Naina’s shoulder, pulling her tightly towards him and then patting her gently on the back.

But the farewell from Yeltsin's compatriots was at best ambivalent, and the funeral appeared to have become a rallying point for opponents of President Putin.

A moment of silence in Russia's lower house of parliament was marred by the refusal of Communist deputies to get to their feet. "We will never give honour to the destroyer of the fatherland," said Viktor Ilyukhin of the former Communist party boss from the Ural mountains.

An estimated 20,000 people attended Yeltsin's lying-in-state at the Christ the Saviour cathedral, blown up by the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and rebuilt under Yeltsin as a symbol of Russia's rebirth.

But even though Mr Putin had declared a day of national mourning, there was no outpouring of national grief and no massive crowds. Millions of Russians just got on with their daily lives.

"My mum thought Yeltsin was great because he gave us democracy. My dad hates him because he thinks he ruined a great country. I came here to have a last chance to see this man," said Marina Shestakova, a Moscow student who joined the mourners.

"He gave us a choice - not just a choice between cheese and ham, but the possibility to think for ourselves," added Alla Gerber, another mourner. "He took us out of the claws of that terrible regime."

Throughout the night, mourners filed past Yeltsin's coffin, many carrying flowers or portraits of the late president as white-robed Orthodox priests chanted hymns.

Several hundred mourners were turned away as the cathedral was closed off to the public at midday precisely and the dignitaries arrived for Yeltsin's funeral.

After an 85-minute service, the funeral procession moved on to Novodevichy, the traditional resting place of eminent Russians including writers such as Anton Chekhov.

The coffin was brought to the cemetery on a gun carriage guarded by goose-stepping soldiers and followed in procession by bishops clad in white robes, family members and guests including Mr Putin and Sir John Major, the former British prime minister.

As the coffin arrived, the Russian tricolour flag covering it was removed and kissed by Yeltsin's widow. While a choir of nuns sang funeral chants, she went over to her husband’s coffin and bent over him, stroking his face and kissing him.

The coffin lid was then screwed down before it was slowly lowered into the ground to the accompaniment of the Russian national anthem and three salvos fired from a row of cannons positioned nearby.

The cemetery has a section set aside for public figures but the Izvestiya newspaper reported today that Yeltsin's family had wanted him buried alongside artists, not Soviet-era apparatchiks.

His final resting place was in a plot near the graves of a Soviet-era illusionist, Igor Kio, the ballerina Galina Ulanova and actor Yevgeny Urbansky, best known for playing a construction boss in a film called Communist.

The Russian flag hung at half-mast at the White House, where Mr Yeltsin had stood upon a tank in 1991 to defy the putsch by Communist hard-liners and bring the Soviet regime to an end.

Later, he ordered tanks to fire on the same building, part of the complex legacy of the man whose presidency continues to divide opinion in the country. Most of those who turned out to pay their respects regard Mr Yeltsin as the man who liberated them from Communism.

But millions of Russians hold him responsible for the social and economic chaos that engulfed the country in the 1990 as the Soviet state collapsed. They look back bitterly at the era of "wild west" capitalism that enriched a tiny class of oligarchs and plunged so many into poverty.

The times, april 25, 2007