Military guard of honour watches over Solzhenitsyn as Russians bid farewell

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Russians braved driving rain in Moscow to bid farewell to the writer and Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose body lay in an open coffin at Russia's leading scientific institute.

Perhaps partly due to the weather, no long, snaking queues of people waited to pay their last respects, as happened last year after the deaths in quick succession of Boris Yeltsin and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Most mourners at the Russian Academy of Sciences were elderly Russians who had read Solzhenitsyn's works in samizdat (secretly published) form during the 1970s and 1980s.

"He was a great man, one of the few honest people of those times," said a 62-year-old English teacher who had braved the weather to say goodbye to one of her icons. She was clutching an English-language copy of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's work chronicling the horror of the Soviet camp system, that had been smuggled into the Soviet Union in the late 1970s inside the cover of a cheap science-fiction novel.

Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel laureate whose other works included A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle, died late on Sunday at his home outside Moscow, aged 89. He spent two decades in exile in the West after his writing fell foul of Soviet censorship, and he returned to the new Russia in 1994.

Younger Russians were mainly absent from the hall yesterday. The ageing writer and his crusade against Soviet tyranny have diminished in relevance in a new Moscow flush with cash and where the authorities have promoted a more rosy view of the Soviet past.

It was during his years in exile that Solzhenitsyn was at the peak of his fame and influence. Then, it would have been hard to imagine his final resting place would be Moscow, and that his body would be surrounded by a military guard of honour while a former KGB operative paid his last respects.

But that is what happened. The current Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin, who joined the KGB shortly after Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, laid roses by the casket yesterday and gave a hug and proffered condolences to Solzhenitsyn's widow, Natalya. Mr Putin later called for Solzhenitsyn's works to become part of the Russian school curriculum. "Together with the entire nation, he lived through a great tragedy of repressions," he said. "By his works and his entire life, he innoculated our society against tyranny in all its forms."

Stanislav Govorukhin, a prominent film-maker and member of parliament who made a documentary about Solzhenitsyn in the early 1990s, said the writer had been a figure of "world significance" and had been instrumental in paving the way for Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. After paying his respects, he said only three other people had exerted such influence in Russia – Lenin, Stalin and Pyotr Stolypin, the Tsarist-era prime minister.

The funeral takes place this morning at Moscow's Donskoi monastery.