MOSCOW — Former President Boris N. Yeltsin, putting an end to Soviet practices in death as he did in life, was buried Wednesday with Russian Orthodox rites. The service marked the first time in more than a century that Russia bid a religious farewell to a deceased head of state.
Former Presidents Clinton and George H. W. Bush were among the dignitaries who gathered for a memorial at central Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was followed by burial at Novodevichy cemetery.
During the procession to the cemetery, the coffin was carried on a gun carriage pulled by an armored vehicle and followed by Yeltsin's family, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and dozens of dignitaries. Carnations were strewn on the pavement, while soldiers stood at attention along each side of the road.
At the graveside, Yeltsin's widow, Naina, stroked and kissed his forehead and face, then blessed him with the sign of the cross. The coffin was then closed, and an artillery salute was fired as it was lowered into the grave.
"The fate of Boris Nikolayevich reflects the entire dramatic history of the 20th century," Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, who was unable to attend because of medical treatment, said in a statement read out at the cathedral service. "At the turn of the 1980s and the early 1990s, he became a witness and a participant in a historic turnaround in the life of Russia. At that time the will of our people for freedom became manifest. Boris Nikolayevich sensed that will and helped for it to be carried out."
Putin later praised the man who elevated him to power as having "sincerely tried to do everything possible to make the lives of millions of Russians better."
The memorial looked like a reunion of some of the world's most prominent figures of the 1990s. Former British Prime Minister John Major and former Polish President Lech Walesa were also among those present.
A television camera providing live coverage lingered on former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, of whom Yeltsin was first an ally and then a rival, as he offered condolences to the widow.
Most current top Russian officials were present, as were many figures from the turbulent 1990s, when Yeltsin led this nation. Communist Party leaders, however, boycotted the service. On its website, the party declared that Communists "ought not to bow to the memory of the architect of ... thieving privatization."
The last time Russia held a religious funeral service for a national leader was when Czar Alexander III died in 1894. His successor, Czar Nicholas II, was executed with family members by the Bolsheviks in 1918, and their bodies were unceremoniously dumped in a pit. Remains believed to be those of Nicholas II, his wife and three of their children were reburied in a chapel of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg in 1998. Yeltsin, who was president at the time, attended the service.
Most Soviet leaders are interred in or near the Kremlin wall, although Nikita S. Khrushchev, who died after losing power, is buried at Novodevichy cemetery. Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, is also buried there.
Yeltsin, who died Monday of heart disease at 76, led Russia from 1991 to 1999. His years in power were marked by economic turmoil that caused millions of Russians to fall into poverty. But he played a key role in bringing a measure of democracy to the country.
Schoolteacher Lidiya Zhukova, 34, who was waiting near the cathedral for the funeral procession to pass by, fought back tears as she explained what Yeltsin meant to her.
"The main thing is that he burned the bridges that tied us firmly to our bleak past and opened a whole world of possibilities to us," she said. "This oxygen of freedom -- you get used to it so fast that you quickly forget, or can't even imagine, what it was like to suffocate every day of your life, before Boris stopped it."
Alexei Popov, 63, an art shop employee who also was waiting to see the procession pass, said he believed history would judge Yeltsin positively. But he said that his own family had suffered more than it gained.
"He destroyed a country in which we had free medical care and free education," he said. "He sold our resources to the West. When he realized his reforms were leading nowhere, he resigned and left us in the lurch. Yeltsin was good for the West, for Bush, for Clinton ... but he was not really good for me and ordinary people like myself."
Wednesday evening, after the gates of the cemetery were closed, Valentina Kraush, 25, and two friends appeared carrying red carnations, hoping to lay them at Yeltsin's grave. But the guard would not let them in.
"Many people chose to attack him for his mistakes," she said as she left the flowers by the gate. "But it takes time to truly realize what he accomplished for us and future generations. He gave us a new and real life."
The state-run Russian Television network ended its coverage of the burial by giving Yeltsin the last word, quoting the speech he made when resigning the presidency on Dec. 31, 1999.
"I ask to forgive me for not fulfilling the hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilized future in one go," Yeltsin said.
"I myself believed this," he continued.
"But it could not be done in one fell swoop.... In saying farewell, I wish to say to each of you the following: Be happy. You deserve happiness. You deserve happiness and peace."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.