MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia buried Soviet-era dissident and author Alexander Solzhenitsyn at a 16th-century monastery on Wednesday after a religious ceremony attended by President Dmitry Medvedev which bore all the hallmarks of a state funeral.
Hundreds of elderly Russians came to bid farewell to the deeply religious Nobel literature prize laureate whose body lay wrapped in cloths and red roses for several hours in an open coffin in the Russian Orthodox ceremony in Moscow.
Solzhenitsyn was buried on the Donskoi monastery grounds after the service, which was broadcast live on state television, featured a military band.
Medvedev, who cut short his vacation to attend the service, looked solemn as he gazed at Solzhenitsyn’s ashen face before offering condolences to his widow Natalia at the church, its high red ceilings decorated with paintings of Russian saints.
As priests chanted prayers and hymns, Natalia, her three sons and grandchildren silently wept and crossed themselves at the foot of Solzhenitsyn’s coffin.
Medvedev’s eyes welled up with tears when the coffin was lowered into the grave. Rifles were fired in salute and a tribute was played by a military band.
Solzhenitsyn, a prominent critic of the tyranny of Soviet rule and Josef Stalin’s labor camps, died of heart failure in his house near Moscow on Sunday. He was 89.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, leader of the banned National Bolsheviks party Eduard Limonov, diplomats, several members of the Russian literary elite and ordinary Russians held thin gold candles and chanted prayers during the service.
“He had a passionate personality. He picked Russia up from the dirt of the Communist hole,” writer Ekaterina Markova, who was friends with Solzhenitsyn and his family, told Reuters.
For more than 20 years, Solzhenitsyn, a bearded World War Two veteran who spent eight years in labor camps for criticizing the Soviet government, became a symbol of intellectual resistance to Communist rule.
Solzhenitsyn attracted international attention after the publication in 1962 of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, which chronicled the life of a labor camp prisoner.
The Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship in 1974 and he moved to Europe and then on to the United States.
“Solzhenitsyn served only God. Not the government, not democracy, not even America. Only God, that’s why he was a free person,” Markova said.
After the funeral, Medvedev signed a decree asking Moscow authorities to rename one of the capital’s streets after Solzhenitsyn. The government is also considering naming a street after him in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, where the writer grew up.
Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and later wrote “The Gulag Archipelago”, a monumental chronicle of his own and thousands of other prison camp experiences.
He refused to return to Russia until after the Soviet Union collapsed, marking his comeback with a long train journey from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Moscow.
Since his return in 1994, Russian leaders have treated him with great deference.
“Truth is difficult to come by, and a lot of us don’t hear it enough. We’re probably not brave like him (Solzhenitsyn),” said Nadezhda Petrovna, 69, adding that she came to the funeral to pay respect to “one of the world’s greatest men”.
In recent years Solzhenitsyn became increasingly critical of corruption in modern Russia, which has grown rich over the last decade due to high energy and commodity prices.
The Donskoi monastery, close to the city centre and nestled between Soviet-era housing blocks and greenery, is the resting place of many prominent Russian thinkers.
Solzhenitsyn was buried next to pre-revolutionary Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky.