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Pomp and artillery as Russia buries former president Yeltsin

The former Russian president was lowered into the ground to the boom of a six-gun salute.

world Updated: Apr 26, 2007 14:33 IST

Boris Yeltsin's sobbing widow stooped over his open coffin to kiss his face on Wednesday before the first president of independent Russia was lowered into the ground to the boom of a six-gun salute.

In an ironic twist for a man who tore up seven decades of Soviet rule, as Yeltsin was buried a military band played a few bars of the Soviet anthem: a tune he scrapped but which his successor Vladimir Putin restored as Russia's national anthem.

Watched by mourners including Putin, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, Naina, Yeltsin's wife of 50 years, lingered for at least a minute at the graveside caressing his face.

The coffin lid was then secured and as Russian Orthodox priests in elaborately embroidered robes wafted incense around Moscow's Novodevichye cemetery, Yeltsin was lowered into the grave by mechanised hoists.

Crowds of onlookers gathered outside the cemetery to see Yeltsin's coffin arrive, pulled on a gun carriage by an armored vehicle and flanked by goose-stepping soldiers.

But there were fewer than one thousand people there -- a reflection of Yeltsin's mixed legacy.

A bear-like man who had an easy rapport with ordinary people, Yeltsin became a hero to many Russians when he clambered onto a tank in 1991 to defy hardline Soviet coup leaders who wanted to roll back the perestroika reforms.

But in office he disappointed. His economic "shock therapy" turned peoples' savings into worthless paper, state assets were sold off to favored businessmen at a fraction of their true value and his government was in turmoil.

In his last years in office, heart problems -- and reported drinking binges -- made Yeltsin a bumbling and distant figure prone to embarrassing gaffes.

"My parents dislike him because they liked living in the Soviet Union," said Olesya, in her 20s, who placed a bunch of yellow tulips at the closed gates of the cemetery.

"I was also born in the Soviet Union but I like having a choice and that is what Boris Nikolayevich (Yeltsin) gave me."

Befitting a man who broke with Communism, Yeltsin became the first Russian head of state since Tsar Alexander III in 1894 to be seen off in a church funeral.

The service was in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a vast gold-domed building. Josef Stalin dynamited the original church but under Yeltsin it was rebuilt on the same site as a symbol of Russia's revival.

In a three-hour service, invited mourners filed past Yeltsin's coffin to pay their respects.

A somber-looking Clinton, one half of what was known in the 1990s for its public banter and bonhomie as "the Bill and Boris show", gave Naina one of his trademark hugs, pulling her tightly towards him and patting her back.

First Published: Apr 25, 2007 13:41 IST