Yeltsin died Monday from heart failure at the age of 76.
The service and burial were attended by various international dignitaries, including former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, and Polish solidarity leader Lech Walesa. Former Yeltsin rival Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was present, as was Yeltsin’s hand-selected successor, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As Russia’s first democratically elected leader, Yeltsin was instrumental in leading his country through the transition from communism, starting in 1991. His time in office, however, was tumultuous and marred by the invasion of Chechnya in 1994 and an economic crisis in 1998.
He surprised many of his followers when he stepped down from office on New Year’s Eve 1999, clearing the way for Putin to take his place. Some analysts say the economic problems under Yeltsin caused Russians to welcome Putin’s more stringent regime.
“I came here to pay respect to Boris [Yeltsin] for everything he has given us: freedom and the opportunity to realize ourselves,” said 73-year-old Svetlana Zamishlayeva, according to the Associated Press. Now, she said, “there is a certain retreat from freedom of the press, from fair elections, from all kinds of freedom.”
Before the funeral, over 20,000 supporters paid their respects to an open casket in the cathedral. In addition, the 85-minute funeral service, replete with choral performances and a short speech by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, was broadcast live on Kremlin-controlled national television.
“The whole dramatic history of the 20th century was reflected in the fate of Boris Nikolayevich,” said the patriarch, using Yeltsin’s traditional patronymic name. “Being a strong individual, he took upon himself responsibility the fate of the country at a difficult and dangerous time of radical change.”
After the service, Yeltsin’s body was transported to the cemetery in a caisson and was buried near other Russian luminaries, both political and cultural. Ousted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev lay about 200 yards from Yeltsin’s burial plot, and composer Sergei Prokofiev and poet Anton Chekov also are buried in Novodevichy Cemetery.
As his body was lowered into the ground, he was honored with a six-gun salute and the playing of the Russian national anthem.