Thousands of Russians paid their respects to Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday as he lay in state in a Moscow cathedral, honouring the controversial leader they said had ultimately won them freedom amid fears that his death came as that legacy was being undone.
Many in the queue snaking around Moscow’s vast Christ the Saviour cathedral had taken to the streets with the country's first freely elected president as he stood atop a tank to face down a coup on August 19 1991 and in doing so changed the course of history. One by one the intelligentsia, who came out in force in August 1991 but kept a low profile during the economic change of the Yeltsin years, came out to pay tribute.
Among them were those too young to take part in the events of 1991 and other citizens who in those times lived in the Soviet Union’s far-flung republics. But all said they had come to thank a man who had transformed their lives for the better despite the hardship of his eight-year presidency. His tenure saw much of the country plunge into poverty as a result of his “shock therapy” economic liberalisation, while a coterie of businessmen made vast fortunes overnight.
“He was a mere mortal but he achieved many great things,” said Viktor Edelshtein, an elderly man who said he had joined the demonstrations in August 1991. “He won freedom for us. When there is freedom, all other difficulties appear temporary. We got through those difficulties so that our children can live.”
“We were slaves under socialism,” said a middle-aged woman. “He freed us from that.”
“Maybe we weren’t ready for democracy. Maybe we were not mature enough,” said Sergei Murakhov, a former scientist, who also took part in the 1991 uprising. “There were too many people just looking out for themselves.”
Others said they feared his death marked the end of an era as his successor, Vladimir Putin, reins in the political and economic freedoms Yeltsin won. Officials in Mr Putin's Kremlin often describe the 1990s-era as a period of collapse and national humiliation. They say the political freedoms Yeltsin established such as a free press and a federal system of power with elected regional governors were no more than tools for billionaire businessmen abusing the system for their own gain. Mr Putin has called the break-up of the Soviet Union one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
Less than two weeks before Yeltsin's death, thousands of riot police suppressed opposition marches in Moscow and St Petersburg even though there were few taking part. This prompted critics to claim they had acted in breach of the constitution which guarantees freedom to gather and demonstrate.
“We got used to being free,” said Galina Moshkova, a translator waiting to pay her respects. “But now they are trying to hem us in again, saying we can’t do this and can't do that. The fear we had that Yeltsin lifted is starting to return.”
Inside the cathedral where Yeltsin lay in an open coffin draped with a Russian flag, his widow, Naina, sobbed in a nearby pew. She was accompanied by her family, including daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, and the Kremlin former property chief Pavel Borodin.
They were the closest members of the so-called Yeltsin “family” which, at the end of his presidency, became a synonym for the corruption of the clan of businessmen and relatives that directed the Kremlin, and controlled a swathe of the economy.
Many Muscovites stayed away from the cathedral on Tuesday. “No one asked Yeltsin to jump on the tank,” said Lilia Antipova, a translator standing outside a Moscow underground station. “His privatisation programme left the nation in poverty.”
Under Mr Putin, Russia has enjoyed seven years of economic growth under a new format of “state capitalism”, while under Yeltsin the country lurched from one crisis to another and even to a full-blown market meltdown in 1998. As a result Mr Putin's popularity ratings have been over 80 per cent, while Yeltsin's fell to the single digits.
But one former scientist who joined those waiting said the economic growth of the Putin era had only come because of the high oil prices during his presidency, while Yeltsin had ruled when the oil price was completely different. “Everything is only hinging on oil,” said Alexei Tsyplyonkov. “If the price falls below $50, then things will soon get worse. There are already two times more state officials than in Soviet times and they will need to feed them.”
“This is a very sad day,” Mr Murakhov said. “Yeltsin was who he was. He had certain personal qualities. He was a sportsman and he hated to lose. He was not an intellectual but he understood what needed to be done on the level of intuition.
“It is a shame that our current president is absolutely not like him. He is of a different nature. He cannot tear himself away from the values of the corporation he served,” he said, referring to Mr Putin's past as a KGB agent. “He is from a certain organisation and cannot act otherwise.”