MOSCOW - Thousands of Russians braved a pelting rain Tuesday to pay tribute to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, attending a formal mourning for the author, dissident and patriot that had all the trappings of an official lying-in-state ceremony.
A military honor guard stood next to Solzhenitsyn's open casket, placed in a hall at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Mourners filed by and placed long-stemmed flowers at the foot of the bier for the Nobel Literature Prize winner.
Solzhenitsyn's wife, Natalia, struggled to contain tears as she stood watch over her husband's coffin with her sons and grandchildren. At one point, she bent at the coffin and kissed its edge.
Vladimir Putin, now prime minister after eight years as president, was among the mourners who stopped to express his condolences.
Putin later called for Solzhenitsyn's works to become an important part of Russia's school curriculum.
"Together with the entire nation, he lived through a great tragedy of repressions," Putin said in a televised meeting with Russia's education minister. "But he not only lived through it, but ... by his works and his entire life, he inoculated our society against tyranny in all its forms."
Solzhenitsyn - who died Sunday at his home outside Moscow at age 89 from a chronic heart condition - is to be buried Wednesday at the Russian capital's Donskoi Monastery.
"He is a great citizen of Russia and my favorite writer," said Yevgeny Bystrov, 56, who held up a large black umbrella with one hand and red carnations in the other as the rain poured down.
"My favorite novel is 'Cancer Ward.' There is so much optimism in it, so much life affirmation. He never forces his ideas upon you, but rather asks you to meditate - and you come to understand its seriousness and greatness yourself," Bystrov added.
Most of the mourners were in their 50s and older, Russians who had read Solzhenitsyn's books when they were first published in the 1960s and 1970s.
"People with his understanding of life were our last hope," said a gray-haired woman who refused to give her name and described herself as a teacher. "Today young children are growing up and they don't know anything."
For Russians today, Solzhenitsyn is a stern figure from an age gone by, a man whose legacy was as thorny and complicated as his personality.
Solzhenitsyn's nonfiction trilogy, "The Gulag Archipelago," published in the 1970s, shocked the Soviet elite, helped destroy lingering support for the Soviet experiment in the West and inspired a generation of dissidents inside the Soviet Union.
Still, the response to Solzhenitsyn's death was muted here. The author, who spent 20 years of exile in the West following his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1974, evoked little sympathy among those with fond memories of the Communist era.
Solzhenitsyn had also estranged himself from liberal reformers with his embrace of Putin's efforts to roll back democratic reforms in Russia.