Yazov is a veteran of World War II. But he also took part in the failed August 1991 plot to topple Mikhail Gorbachev and reverse the former president's path of democratic reforms.
Analysts and politicians say the decision to decorate the former Soviet defense minister is controversial and raises questions about Putin's attitude to the recent Russian history.
Nikolai Petrov is an analyst of Russian domestic politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He told RFE/RL that the move does not indicate Putin is trying to whitewash the August conspirators or take their side. Rather, he said the matter is subtler.
"It is too strong to say that the move indicates justification of the [August] conspiracy. However, it is clearly seen in recent, and not so recent, moves by President Putin some kind of wish to be above the barricades still dividing different sides. It says that the Soviet Union and its government besides bad things and mistakes had many merits and made many achievements," Petrov said.
Yazov is still respected among Russia's military brass, veterans, and a large part of society that is nostalgic for Soviet power. On the other hand, Petrov said the respect publicly shown by Putin to the former conspirator raises some concern.
Petrov said Putin has long shown a liking for the Soviet Army and its former top brass. He said Putin wants to make a clear distinction between professional military people and "not so professional" Soviet politicians. "Yazov is just one example of this tendency," Petrov said.
But there is a larger trend visible in Putin's actions, Petrov said. Under his rule, authorities have not only given medals to former conspirators but also encouraged building monuments to former Tsarist generals.
Petrov said Putin takes everything that he sees as good in Russian history and puts it in one place, "turning current Russian history into a kind of post-modern mixture."
"I think there is a clear tendency to divide the society as little as possible, make no divisions on complicated historical or cultural problems. [Russian] history is very complicated. On the whole, these attempts should be viewed positively because it is not clear where divisions between 'good and bad,' 'red and white' might take the country," Petrov said.
However, Petrov said there is a danger that Russian history might turn into a falsification -- a triumphal march that ignores negative historical facts.
The August 1991 conspiracy is among the darker chapters of recent history. Then-senior officials -- including Yazov, Vice President Gennadii Yanaev, and the heads of the Interior Ministry and KGB -- detained Gorbachev at his holiday villa in Crimea. The move appeared to be intended to quash reforms in the Soviet Union. Three days later, however, the conspirators were arrested following popular resistance in Moscow led by Boris Yeltsin.
Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister of Lithuania and the leader of the Lithuanian Conservative party, said he remembers that August very well. Kubilius told RFE/RL that giving the medal to Yazov indicates that Russia is longing for its lost power and status as an empire. "We have seen these tendencies when Russia legalized the Soviet anthem and did other similar things," he said. "By doing this, Putin clearly indicated he did not want to renounce this imperial spirit of the Soviet Union. He tries to restore this spirit, to use and to manipulate it."
Kubilius said that as a member of the EU and NATO, Lithuania no longer feels directly threatened by these tendencies. But he added that it is disconcerting to see Soviet nostalgia on the rise in Russia, a trend he said Putin actively encourages by rewarding people such as Yazov.