Solzhenitsyn Laid to Rest at Monastery

ReutersMedvedev throwing earth into Solzhenitsyn's grave as Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, left, watches Wednesday.
It was as though someone had suddenly removed the stopper from an overturned bottle. As the great man's body, hoisted high by a military procession, made its final turn on the path toward the cemetery, a sea of mourners poured down the church steps like water down a rocky crag.

The crowds had to be held back as a salute was fired. They had to be held back as the choir, chanting a hymn about eternal life, hovered over the freshly dug grave. They had to be held back as Alexander Solzhenitsyn was returned to the Russian soil that he loved so much.

Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize-winning author and Soviet-era dissident, was laid to rest at the cemetery in Donskoi Monastery in central Moscow on Wednesday. The author, who revealed the horrors of Stalinist repression in his landmark works, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago," died on Sunday at age 89 from heart failure.

More than 1,000 mourners, including President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, traveled to the grounds of the 16th-century monastery to pay their respects to one of the 20th-century's towering literary and political figures.

Many of the mostly elderly attendees, milling about the path leading from the church to the cemetery grounds where Solzhenitsyn was interred, spoke at length about what the author's works had meant to them personally.

Edmund Akapov, 75, used to tune in to shortwave transmissions of the BBC World and Voice of America in his native Tbilisi. Despite the danger of being caught listening to banned broadcasts, he continued to search the airwaves for information about the beloved writer, whose works he discovered as a young man.

"About 40 years ago, I already knew about him and was reading his books in samizdat," he said, watching a military honor guard walk into the church. "Frankly speaking, I never thought his funeral would be as organized as it is now."

There was something odd, he said, about seeing Solzhenitsyn, a symbol of protest for so many, surrounded by the trappings of authority.

Medvedev, who returned from his summer vacation to attend the funeral, arrived in his presidential motorcade just before noon. Unlike Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who attended Solzhenitsyn's wake on Tuesday, Medvedev entered the building through a side door and attracted little attention from the assembled crowd.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who restored Solzhenitsyn's citizenship in 1990, attended the funeral, as did Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Filmmaker and State Duma Deputy Stanislav Govorukhin, whose groundbreaking 1990 interview with Solzhenitsyn helped to reintroduce him to the Russian public, also attended.

Throughout the morning, Solzhenitsyn's body lay in state, covered in flowers left by mourners and admirers. Despite the high-domed ceilings and soaring gilded walls of the church, the feeling was more intimate than at Tuesday's wake, held at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Compared with the moderate turnout on Tuesday, the funeral was well attended. A stream of mourners filed in and out of the monastery's grand cathedral in a steady procession all morning.

Inside the church, visitors lit candles and offered prayers as they shuffled past the body. The smell of incense, carried through the grand hall together with the strains of religious chanting, hung heavy in the air. Family members, including Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalya, and son Stepan, kept a silent vigil beside the coffin.

At one point, because of the heavy turnout, the path through the church became backed-up, leading to a momentary panic.

"Everything is blocked," shouted a panicked young novice to the head priest. Calmly, the elder priest smiled and, seemingly with a wave of his hand, cleared the path of stragglers.

Putin and Medvedev have studiously avoided referring to Solzhenitsyn's dissident works in the wake of his death. It was fitting then, perhaps, that politics could not be altogether banished from the funeral of a man whose life was defined for so many by his political courage.

The appearance of Eduard Limonov, a harsh Kremlin critic and founder of the banned National Bolshevik party, caused a small stir in the crowd. Although many of the aged attendees appeared unaware of his presence, their grandchildren pointed and whispered as Limonov mingled with a small group of supporters.

The normally talkative Limonov declined a request for a brief interview, citing the timing and nature of the event.

Despite the state-approved narrative, praise for Solzhenitsyn the radical has poured in from foreign leaders since his death on Sunday.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, at loggerheads with Russia over the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, took a veiled swipe at his country's former imperial master on Wednesday in the form of a letter to the Solzhenitsyn family.

Like so many in attendance, Saakashvili thanked the author for his work in fighting totalitarianism and speaking truth to power.

"That the Georgian people are free today is a merit of the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn," he said, Interfax reported. "All of Georgia grieves together with you."

It is hard to imagine that Solzhenitsyn, who struggled for the freedom of others his whole life, would have minded that sentiment as his epitaph.