World leaders bid farewell to Yeltsin

Dignitaries from around the world were among hundreds of mourners who filled a Moscow cathedral Wednesday to say farewell to former president Boris Yeltsin in Russia's first post-Soviet state funeral.

Dignitaries from around the world were among hundreds of mourners who filled a Moscow cathedral Wednesday to say farewell to former president Boris Yeltsin inRussia's first post-Sovietstate funeral.

Honour guards stand by the coffin of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin inside Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow Wednesday as Yeltsin's widow, Naina, gives a farewell kiss followed by daughter Tatyana and other family members. ((Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press))

The service, replete with symbols reflecting the epochal changes that transformed the nation during Yeltsin's eight years as president, began around1:30 p.m. local time inMoscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

The vast, gleaming church was destroyed by the Communists in 1931 and rebuilt during Yeltsin's stewardship. It remains the most potent sign of the Russian Orthodox church's revival after decades of Communist official atheism.

Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin,has declared Wednesdaya national day of mourning.

Putinwas joined at theservice byformer Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, formerBritish prime minister John Major and former Polish president Lech Walesa.

Former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien and former British prime minister John Major attended Boris Yeltsin's funeral on Wednesday. ((Dmitry Astakhov/Associated Press))

In a gesture of reconciliation, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev embraced the widow of his former rival and whispered words of condolence to his family before the service began.

Dressed in black, Naina Yeltsin and hertwo daughters sat beside the open casket as numerous political and military figures from both the Soviet and the post-reformeraspassed bytopay their final respects amid the sounds of amassive choir reverberating throughoutthe cathedral'sreconstructed chambers.

Following the ceremony, a large procession ofmourners followed an armoured vehicle bearing Yeltsin's caskettoMoscow's famedNovodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia's most prominent figures are interred, including ousted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

At the burial site, the coffin was reopened so thathis widowcould gently caress his cheek one last time and kiss his face before the coffin was then lowered into the earth.

His relatives made the sign of the cross, the Russian national anthem played and a cannon fusillade rang out.

Mixed legacy

Many of the mourners said they admired Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76,for breaking the grip of monolithic communism and moving the country toward full-fledged democracy.Some said they fear his successor Vladimir Putin is reversing the progress.

"I came here to pay respect to Boris Nikolayevich for everything he has given us: freedom and the opportunity to realize ourselves," said 73-year-old Svetlana Zamishlayeva. But now, she said, "there is a certain retreat from freedom of the press, from fair elections, from all kinds of freedom."

More than 20,000 mourners, some weeping and holding pictures of the late Russian leader, faced lineups of several hours Tuesday to file through the cathedral to pay their respects to the man who led Russia out of the collapse of the Soviet Union and into a turbulent era of shock economic reform and free elections.

Yeltsin took office in June 1991 on a wave of high expectations, as he quickly guaranteed the rights to free speech, private property and multi-party elections, and opened the borders to trade and travel.

But Yeltsin's economic reforms devastated the living standards of much of Russia's population as per capita income fell about 75 per cent during his rule.

Communist legislators have expressed resentment of Yeltsin's role in bringing an end to the Soviet Union. They refused to stand for a moment of silence called in Yeltsin's memory at the opening of the Wednesday session of the lower house of parliament, news agencies reported.

"We will never give honour to the destroyer of the fatherland," Communist deputy Viktor Ilyukhin was quoted as saying by the RIA-Novosti news agency.

Church praises Yeltsin's rejuvenating role

Yeltsin sometimes appeared at church services, but was not seen as an overtly pious man.

Nevertheless, 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.

With files from the Associated Press