Several hundred Russians bid farewell Friday to Alexander Yakovlev, whom many hail as the architect of the Soviet-era reform program of perestroika. "Alexander Nikolayevich was a defender, a defender of our country, of democracy, of freedom of people, of specific people, and all of us," Andrei Illarionov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's top economic adviser, told mourners at a memorial ceremony held at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Politicians, rights activists and academics stood solemnly, shoulder to shoulder with some 200 mostly elderly Russian citizens as mourners lined up to place flowers near the dark brown wooden coffin where Yakovlev, who died Tuesday at the age of 81, lay in state.
His widow, Nina, in a black coat and a black hat, was flanked by former President Boris Yeltsin's wife, Naina, and family members. Besides Russians and several people from former Soviet republics, the ceremony was also attended by Swedish, Canadian and U.S. diplomats.
Yakovlev spearheaded former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms of openness and restructuring, known as glasnost and perestroika, and boldly exposed Communist crimes.
"This was a great man of the 20th century, one of those who had a huge and positive influence on what happened with our country in the course of recent decades," said Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister who conducted liberal economic reforms in the early 1990's.
"During the past 10 years Alexander Nikolayevich invested great efforts so that our country knew its own history, because it is only when we know our own history can we learn from our own mistakes," Gaidar said.
Critics have accused Putin of failing to condemn crimes and human rights abuses which took place under communism, and said that by imposing limitations on freedom of speech, civil society and the opposition, Putin was increasingly taking Russia back to Soviet times.
"The scale of the man to whom we are bidding farewell today in no way corresponds to the paltry scale of today's authorities," said opposition leader Garry Kasparov.
He said Russian leaders do not value "what he (Yakovlev) did for freedom and democracy in Russia, something which today's authorities are unable and unwilling to do."
Besides being the driving force behind reforming the Soviet economy and political life, Yakovlev was famed for launching a campaign to rehabilitate millions of innocent victims purged by Stalin and other Communist leaders.
"He is truly a great man, a titan, he led people to combat the evil of Communism," said Yevgeny Dubeykovsky, a 72-year-old Moscow pensioner who attended the ceremony. "His work on rehabilitating (the victims of political repression) gave thousands and thousands of people an opportunity to remove a stain from them and their relatives."