Final farewell to Yeltsin

Several thousand people queued under grey skies outside Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral to pay their last respects to the first post-Communist leader, who lay in an open coffin draped in the Russian tricolor flag and surrounded by red candles.

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"It's my era and now it's over," Lyubov Martenyanova, 58, said outside the gold domed landmark.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush and the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were to pay their own respects before Yeltsin's widow, Naina, and the Yeltsin family were left for a private funeral.

Mr Yeltsin, who died Monday of a heart attack, aged 76, was then to be taken for burial at the 16th century Novodevichy convent, alongside the likes of playwright Anton Chekhov.

About 20,000 people attended the lying-in-state starting late Tuesday and continuing throughout the night.

They filed slowly past the coffin carrying flowers and portraits of Yeltsin as Orthodox priests in white robes chanted hymns in the huge cathedral.

Christ the Saviour cathedral is a replica of a church blown up by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and reconstructed under Yeltsin as a symbol of post-Soviet Russia's religious rebirth.

The Kremlin declared a day of mourning and flags were lowered nationwide.

State-run television broadcast almost continuous coverage of ceremonies.

However, huge crowds were not expected, reflecting widespread dislike for the larger-than-life leader, who took Russia through the trauma of the 1991Soviet collapse, economic shock therapy, a savage war in Chechnya, and often corrupt privatisation of state property.

"Yeltsin freed me from the Communist disease. He gave me back my property," said doctor Nikolai Churyumo, 57, clutching a bunch of red carnations outside Christ the Saviour.

"Now there's a drift from Yeltsin's policies. People have forgotten what he achieved."

In addition to the former US presidents, foreign dignitaries at the funeral were to include Britain's former prime minister John Major and German President Horst Koehler, as well as leaders of former Soviet republics freed from Moscow's grip.

The Novodevichy cemetery is already the resting place for many celebrated Russians, including Chekhov and Nikita Khrushchev — the Soviet leader who in the 1950s turned his country from the horrors of Stalinism.

Yeltsin is remembered as a hero in the West for dealing the coup de grace to the Soviet Union in December 1991 and embracing Western-style democracy and capitalism.

US President George W. Bush hailed a "historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change". British Prime Minister Tony Blair applauded a "remarkable man who… played a vital role at a crucial time".

However, a large majority of Russians now have mostly painful memories of Yeltsin's rule, according to polls.

His reforms led almost overnight to economic turmoil, spiralling prices, and the wiping out of pensioners' savings, while a handful of businessmen raked in vast fortunes.

Even some liberals are critical of Yeltsin, pointing to his disastrous decision to launch a war in rebel Chechnya, his alliance with corrupt business tycoons, and his handing over of power in 1999 to Putin, an ex-KGB officer who has restored stability but undermined democratic institutions.

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