Near his coffin, white-robed Russian Orthodox priests holding candles presided over the ceremony in the the golden-domed 16th century building, which was blown up on Soviet leader
Joseph Stalin’s orders in 1931 and rebuilt in the 1990s during Yeltsin’s presidency.
Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church praised Yeltsin, who died at age 76 of heart failure in Moscow Monday, April 23, for enabling what he called "a religious revival" across the former communist country.
"In the new Russia, to the building of which the departed president directed his efforts, the Russian Orthodox Church was given the long-awaited opportunity to carry out its witness and
service without restrictions," wrote the Patriarch in a letter of condolence to Yeltsin’s widow, Naina Yeltsina.
"Boris Nikolayevich strove to maintain good relations between the state authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church," the Patriarch stated in comments published by Ecumenical News International.
Reverend Vladimir Vigiliansky, director of the Patriarch’s press service, reportedly said that Yeltsin had changed from being someone "who was very far from church life and prayer to someone who quite welcomed it". Another church spokesperson, the Rev. Mikhail Dudko, told a news agency it was symbolic that on a visit to Israel several weeks ago Yeltsin visited the River Jordan.
Yet human rights groups and evangelical Christians have said that Yeltsin also aimed to protect the Russian Orthodox tradition while not doing enough to allow newer churches.
He eventually signed a controversial Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations
a decade ago which the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki group said "establishes a highly discriminatory system dividing religious communities into "religious groups" and "religious organizations," said Human Rights Watch/Helsinki at the time.
"The law gives enormous discretional powers to local authorities to determine whether a religious community will be recognized as a "group" or an "organization," and mandates a fifteen-year waiting period for religious groups that seek to gain status as a religious organization," the group explained.
In addition, his years in office were also marred by economic chaos, political tensions and a costly, arguably humiliating war against Chechen separatists in the breakaway region of Chechnya. And, his family’s alleged involvement in shady business dealings was never investigated as his successor, Vladimir Putin, granted him full immunity from prosecution.
At the same time, Yeltsin will be remembered for challenging Soviet Communism when he opposed an August coup attempt of 1991 by hard-line Communists, bravely climbing on a Soviet tank in full view of television camera’s.
On Wednesday, April 25, thousands of Russians apparently briefly put aside the controversies
as they watched how the funeral cortege made its way from the 16th century convent, alongside the Moscow River. Red carnations, the traditional mourning flower in Russia, were strewn along the road leading to the burial site.
Earlier, thousands of emotional Russians paid their respects as his body lay in state.
Commentators were quick to point out that Yeltsin was the only Kremlin leader since Nikita Khrushchev, ousted in 1964, not interred by the Kremlin Wall on Red Square. At the family’s request, Yeltsin was laid to rest next to major Russian authors, musicians and artists, not alongside political or military leaders.
Artillery roared in a final salute as the coffin of the country’s first post-Soviet leader was lowered into the ground.
Ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev along with former British Prime Minister John Major, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush attended the memorial service, for a man they say changed history.
President Putin later paid tribute to Yeltsin saying he was a man who "tried to do everything possible to make the lives of millions of Russians better." Putin said his government will "continue to work toward these goals." But international observers have questioned the Russian leader’s democratic credentials amid reports of a crackdown on independent media and opposition groups, tensions that have overshadowed the post-Yeltsin era. (With BosNewsLife Monitoring and BosNewsLife News Center).