MOSCOW - Thousands of mourners filed past the open casket of former Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday as his body lay in state in Moscow's main cathedral, which was demolished in Soviet times and rebuilt under his rule.
Yeltsin's widow, Naina, and their two daughters sat together as a Russian Orthodox priest gave blessings and ordinary citizens placed flowers near the casket. A choir sang, candles were lighted, and incense burned.
"For every believer, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin will remain in memory as an outstanding state leader who did so much to overcome the heritage of lack of spiritual freedom," a presiding priest said during the service.
The televised ceremonies began with the afternoon arrival of Yeltsin's body in a black hearse. The coffin was carried past an honor guard up the stairs of the golden-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral, blown up in 1931 on the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as part of his drive against religion.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which Yeltsin helped to trigger, it was rebuilt as part of an Orthodox renaissance.
The cathedral was due to be open overnight for mourners. A memorial service with visiting dignitaries, including former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, was scheduled for today, to be followed by burial at Novodevichy cemetery, where many prominent Russians are interred.
"Boris Nikolayevich did so much for the country and the people," said Natalya Shestakova, 19, a student waiting in line to enter the cathedral. "Thanks to him our generation has lived in a new country, free and open to the world.
"We can read the books we want, we can watch the movies we want, we can go abroad and see the world. Our parents were deprived of all those things when they lived back in the Soviet Union, which Yeltsin destroyed."
Yeltsin, who died Monday of heart disease at age 76, left a mixed legacy. He played a key role in bringing a measure of democracy to Russia but failed to deliver on the promise of prosperity. His years in power saw many Russians fall into poverty and some become rich, often through the corrupt privatization of state assets.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, in a statement of condolences to Yeltsin's widow, praised the former president as someone who "devoted all his strength" to building a new Russia.
Many of those who came to honor Yeltsin yesterday said they were thankful for what he had given his country despite his flaws and failures.
"I am very grateful to Yeltsin for crushing the hateful Communist yoke," said Sergei Goncharenko, 54, a construction designer who was waiting in line. "For a while, he guided the country in the right direction, overseeing brave economic reforms and building real democracy. But then he got weak and tired, and began to make mistakes one after another. He plunged the country into a bloody war in Chechnya."
Andrei Shumsky, 35, a businessman standing in line, said he credited Yeltsin with making it possible for him to become an entrepreneur.
"Think about the tremendous transition," Shumsky said, "from a socialist economy to market relations that Russia has made in less than two decades."
The Bush administration is
willing to negotiate with Russia on limitations to proposed U.S. missile-defense bases in
Europe, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday in Warsaw, Poland.
No such negotiations have been set. But Washington is seeking
to allay Russian concerns about the proposed system, which would be an extension of a network of radars, interceptors and command posts in the western United States designed to shoot down a hostile long-range nuclear missile.
The system in Europe would be meant specifically to protect Europe from a missile launched from the Middle East.
The U.S. proposal has stirred controversy not only in Russia but also in Europe. The Russian military's chief of general staff warned that Russia might target elements of the system, if it is seen as a threat to the country's security.
Gates acknowledged that Russia had concerns not only about an advanced missile-tracking radar that the Pentagon wants to place in the Czech Republic, but also about the associated missile interceptors that it would install in Poland.
The Russians' questions about the radar, Gates said, "are questions that we can answer."
- Associated Press