MOSCOW (Reuters) - Clutching a bunch of blood red roses, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined hundreds of elderly Russians on Tuesday laying flowers at the foot of Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s open coffin.
Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel laureate who won international fame by showing the world the horror of Soviet labor camps through his books, died of heart failure on Sunday aged 89.
Four Russian soldiers stood to attention at each corner of his coffin in the Russian Academy of Sciences, the hallmark of an official lying-in-state. A large portrait of Solzhenitsyn and a Russian flag completed the backdrop.
Outside the mammoth white building overlooking the River Moskva, a steady trickle of mainly elderly Russians shrugged off heavy rain to mourn their hero.
Solzhenitsyn’s widow Natalia and his sons looked on as mourners brought small bouquets of white or red flowers to lay before his coffin.
“Solzhenitsyn was one of the most important people in the history of Russia; he wrote exactly what he thought and needed to be remembered,” said maths professor Alexander Romanov, 60.
“It’s a shame that not all young people understand how important he is.”
At around 1 p.m. Putin, a former agent of the KGB security service that led the persecution campaign against Solzhenitsyn, strode into the hall flanked by burly security guards.
He laid flowers at the foot of the coffin, quickly looked at Solzhenitsyn’s white, waxy face, crossed himself and turned towards the family.
Putin then spoke to Solzhenitsyn’s widow for about five minutes before walking off.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to attend the funeral on Wednesday.
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.
Josef Stalin’s forced collectivization of farmers and purges in the 1930s, followed by fierce repression after World War Two, killed millions of people in the Soviet Union.
Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and later wrote “The Gulag Archipelago,” a chronicle of his own and thousands of other prison camp experiences.
The Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship in 1974 and he moved to the United States until the fall of Communism.
Since his return, Russian leaders have treated Solzhenitsyn with great deference, though he became increasingly critical of corruption in modern Russia, which has grown rich over the last decade due to high energy and commodity prices.
His influenced waned as he grew older, and for most young Russians Solzhenitsyn had already become a historical figure.
“The young know he wrote important books about the camps and that he received the Nobel prize, but that’s all we really know. He’s more important for the older generations,” said football trainer Alexander Selemenev, 27, on his way to work.
He said he respected Solzhenitsyn because he was not afraid to tell the truth. “But recently in politics, for Russia, it’s not clear what he has done,” he said.
Russia’s main television channels ran lengthy reports on their news programs and documentaries on Solzhenitsyn’s life.
But not all media reports remembered Solzhenitsyn kindly. The Communist party newspaper Pravda called him a radical critic who produced one-sided accounts of Stalin’s rule.
“He became one of the main battering rams in destroying both the state and nation ... that is why he is being applauded so rapturously by both Russian President Medvedev and U.S. President Bush!” it wrote in a commentary.
Reporting by James Kilner, writing by Conor Sweeney; editing by Robert Hart