Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Russia Profile
The Holy Touch
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

The last contribution that Boris Yeltsin made to building a new Russia was that he inadvertently gave the country a new ritual of state funeral. What we all saw on Wednesday was an important step in the formation of a new canon. Future leaders may introduce some changes to it, but the precedent and the frame of reference are now set.

No longer will Russian leaders lay in state at the Hall of Columns of the House of the [Trade] Unions Moscows former Nobility Assembly, where Lenins body was first displayed in 1924 and where all subsequent Soviet leaders lay in state. And no longer will they be buried near Lenins Mausoleum in Red Square in the necropolis of the Soviet elite whose future is at present being debated.

Instead, on Wednesday the whole world watched the solemn beauty of the Orthodox Christian burial service, with CNN and BBC commentators using epithets like grandiose and majestic to describe the proceedings. Everybody has pointed to the fact that the funeral service was taking place in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was rebuilt under Boris Yeltsin as a symbol of the extraordinary revival of Russia and the Orthodox Church after the demise of the Communist era.

Similarly to Yeltsins own life and rule, the reconstruction of the cathedral was a controversial venture, and far from everyone was happy with it. But today it stands as a monument to our recent history and the desperate attempts to reconnect, however inconsistently, with our non-Soviet past.

Boris Nikolayevichs fate reflected the dramatic history of the 20th century, Patriarch Alexy II wrote in a message read out in the cathedral before the service. Yeltsin felt the peoples will for a free life and helped to make it happen, the patriarch wrote, recalling Yeltsins kind treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church and his own personal relationship with the former president. For the first time in more than 100 years, we are sending off the head of the Russian state in a church, with prayer, he wrote.

Yet, despite their long-standing personal relationship, Patriarch Alexy chose not to interrupt his treatment in Switzerland to give Yeltsin the last blessing. The fact that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church goes several times a year to an unidentified Swiss clinic is never publicly announced, but it is widely known in church circles. He telephoned Yeltsins widow, Naina, and sent two official messages. But the funeral itself was led instead by three senior bishops: Metropolitan Yuvenaly, who presided and read the patriarchs message, and Metropolitans Kirill and Kliment, who are both seen as potential successors to the patriarch.

It is hard to say whether the reason behind the patriarchs absence was just his state of health and the importance of the ongoing treatment after the exhausting Lenten and Easter services and ahead of the historical reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad scheduled for May 17. Perhaps. But the fact remains that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was away at a historical moment, when the eyes of the whole world were fixed on his church. Or maybe this decision added a subtle detail to the ritual being formed today that a funeral conducted personally by the sitting head of the church is reserved only for the royals and possibly a head of state who died in office, not in retirement?

Much has been said about the monarchist instincts of most Russians and the authoritarian character of Yeltsins 1993 constitution, which made the Russian presidency more powerful than Tsar Nicholas II was after 1905. Yeltsin himself was rumored to refer to himself as Tsar Boris and was depicted as such by many cartoonists. Interestingly, this monarchist tendency was delicately reflected in the service, too.

While thousands of Russians filed past the casket to pay their respects, the Book of Psalms was read overnight, as befits laymen, over Yeltsins coffin by Moscow seminarians and not the Gospels, as tradition prescribes for priests and the emperor.

But in a laymans funeral service broadcast worldwide on Wednesday (the last rites for clergy are different), the priests prayed not for the repose of the soul of Boris, the servant of God, which would be the case in an ordinary funeral, but, using a formula that sounded odd to the ears of Orthodox Christians, for the first President of Russia Boris Nikolayevich. I dont know if those who prepared the service were thinking about it, but the use of the patronymic form of the name in Russian Orthodox liturgy used to be reserved solely for royalty. Thats how the emperor and his immediate family were commemorated in the liturgy before the revolution by their name and patronymic. It has never been done since then.

The honor guard and the gun carriage recalled the past funerals of Soviet leaders. But the site was not Red Square, but Novodevichy Cemetery the countrys most esteemed place of internment, where Nikita Khrushchev was buried in near secrecy in 1971, seven years after he was ousted from the countrys top post. Priests, family members and the sitting president followed the carriage, not Politburo members. And the carriage itself was draped not in Communist red, but in the white-blue-red tricolor of present-day Russia. It was a new ritual, yet a very organic one.

Watching Yeltsins funeral, I recalled the only time I saw Boris Nikolayevich up close, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on Easter in 1996. It was Easter Vespers, a short festive service in the evening on Easter Sunday, which that year fell on April 14, and was the first service conducted on the main floor of the cathedral just two years after its reconstruction had begun.

The walls were already up, but none of the decorations were in place. Carpets were placed on concrete floors and, amid the immense grey walls and iron rods sticking out, the continuous chant of Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! sounded with particular joy.

For me, it was also the day of my engagement. As my wife-to-be and I were leaving the church, the bodyguards were making way for a giant man with a heap of white hair. He was indeed a head taller than the crowd around him. Look, Yeltsin! I told my bride. She couldnt believe it.

Much has changed in Russia since then for better and for worse. The cathedrals interior, reconstructed according to the old designs, shines today with marble, paintings and gilded decor. Two empty thrones are the latest addition for the tsar and tsarina. And in the middle of it stood the coffin with Yeltsins body, covered by the traditional shroud depicting Golgotha and the Russian national flag, brought back by Yeltsin in 1991. The choir intoned Christ is Risen! and Memory Eternal! Eternal indeed!