Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 1 March 2024

 

Large Crowd Gathers for Navalny’s Funeral in Moscow

Police presence appeared heavy for the service. Allies and family members of the opposition leader blamed the authorities for difficulties arranging the funeral.

A crowd of people, some holding flowers, stands near a metal barricade while several police officers walk past.
Gathering outside the Moscow church where the funeral for Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, was scheduled to take place on Friday. Credit... Reuters
Valerie Hopkins

Huge crowds of people, some holding flowers, turned out in Moscow on Friday for the funeral services for Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, two weeks after his mysterious death in a remote Arctic penal colony.

The service was taking place under tight monitoring from the Russian authorities, who have arrested hundreds of mourners at memorial sites since Mr. Navalny died. Police presence was heavy around the church where funeral services began shortly after 2 p.m. local time.

People chanted Mr. Navalny’s last name as his coffin was taken into the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, a Russian Orthodox church in southern Moscow. Images on social media showed attendees lining up, but also security cameras that the local news media reported had been recently installed, and signs forbidding mourners to take pictures or video in the church.

Ivan Zhdanov, who, like many of Mr. Navalny’s closest associates, is in exile outside Russia, encouraged people to come to the church, saying that the police had not been arresting mourners, as many had feared.

“People are coming to say farewell, and no one is touching them,” Mr. Zhdanov said. “Those who want to come to say farewell can do so.” Mr. Navalny’s supporters also created a website for supporters to light a virtual candle in his memory.

Almost 250,000 people were watching a livestream of the event organized by Mr. Navalny’s allies, while about 150,000 watched coverage on YouTube by the independent TV Rain, according to figures provided by the streaming platform.

Opposition politicians including Boris Nadezhdin, who sought to run against President Vladimir V. Putin in elections this month on an antiwar platform, and Evgeny Roizman of Yekaterinburg were in attendance, according to videos of the event. The United States ambassador to Russia, Lynne M. Tracy, was also seen in videos of the site outside the church.

The Death of Aleksei Navalny

The anticorruption activist, who led the political opposition in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, died in a Russian prison. He was 47.

When asked on Friday whether he could comment on Mr. Navalny’s political legacy, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said, “I can’t.” He suggested that the Kremlin would crack down on anyone who sought to protest during the funeral. “Any unsanctioned gatherings will be in violation of the law,” Mr. Peskov told reporters during a daily phone call.

The funeral was not mentioned among the top stories on the state news agencies RIA Novosti or TASS.

Hours before the planned mourning rites, Mr. Navalny’s family had not received his body from a Moscow morgue, a spokeswoman said. But the body was eventually handed over around 12:30 p.m. local time, she said.

In the past two weeks, members of Mr. Navalny’s team complained repeatedly about the difficulty of negotiating with the Russian authorities to have Mr. Navalny’s body released to his family, which took days, and agreeing on a place to hold the funeral services.

Mr. Navalny looks outside while sitting on a windowsill in an office
Mr. Navalny in 2014. He died in a remote Arctic penal colony two weeks ago. Credit... James Hill for The New York Times

Members of his team described difficulty persuading a church, a cemetery and even a hearse to take part in the burial, saying that the authorities wanted to prevent Mr. Navalny’s funeral from becoming a flashpoint for dissent.

On Thursday, allies of Mr. Navalny, who was 47, described systemic pressure on all hearse operators, saying that several that had agreed to take Mr. Navalny’s body from the church to the cemetery had pulled out at the last minute, citing threats. His team and his wife blamed the Kremlin and Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. Their assertions could not be independently verified.

“Two people are to blame for the fact that we do not have a place for a civil memorial service and farewell to Alexei — Vladimir Putin and Sergei Sobyanin,” Mr. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, wrote on the social platform X on Wednesday.

“People in the Kremlin killed him, then they mocked Alexei’s body, then they mocked his mother, and now they mock his memory,” she added. “We don’t want any special treatment — just to give people the opportunity to say goodbye to Alexey normally.”

While Mr. Navalny opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the church where he will be buried has shown public support for it. Photos posted on its VK social media page on Monday showed priests in front of the church with a Lada car bought for soldiers participating in what Russia calls its “Special Military Operation.”

Two days before, a post showed letters sent by young parishioners to soldiers for “Defenders of the Fatherland” day, a holiday celebrating veterans.

According to Mr. Navalny’s spokeswoman, the official medical report concluded that the cause of death was “natural causes,” which his family, supporters and human rights watchdogs dispute. In the past year and a half, Mr. Navalny was ordered to spent 296 days in a punishment isolation cell, known in Russian as “SHIZO.” It is considered the most severe form of legal punishment for inmates in Russian prisons.

“They tortured him with hunger, they tortured him with cold,” his aide Leonid Volkov said during a livestream of the funeral on Mr. Navalny’s YouTube channel. For half a year, he was suing to get access to a dentist, which was eventually denied.

Several mourners outside the church.
Mr. Navalny’s funeral was planned during a period of intense crackdown, and less than three weeks before President Vladimir V. Putin seeks another six-year term in elections scheduled for mid-March. Credit... Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Kremlin has rejected the family’s accusations of its involvement, and Mr. Putin has not commented publicly on Mr. Navalny’s death. But the Russian leader authorized an order promoting the deputy director of the country’s Federal Penitentiary Service, Valery Boyarinev, just three days after Mr. Navalny’s death.

And Mr. Putin appeared defiant on Thursday in an annual speech, threatening the West with nuclear escalation and praising Russia’s political system as “one of the foundations of the country’s sovereignty.”

Mr. Navalny’s funeral takes place during a period of intense crackdown, and less than three weeks before Mr. Putin seeks another six-year term in elections scheduled for mid-March.

At least 400 people have been detained since Mr. Navalny’s death, according to the watchdog OVD-Info, including some for simply laying flowers at improvised memorials to him. A priest who sought to hold a funeral prayer for Mr. Navalny in St. Petersburg was detained while leaving his house.

One of Russia’s most respected rights activists, Oleg Orlov, whose organization Memorial shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison over a piece he wrote condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

The local news media reported on Friday that the police were examining the passports of every attendee at Mr. Navalny’s funeral during a security check before entry to the church. Those reports could not be independently confirmed.

There was a fear that anyone who came to the funeral could be added to a database and possibly penalized at a later date, a rights lawyer, Evgeny Smirnov, told TV Rain. Mr. Navalny’s organization shared information offering legal consultations to people planning to mourn him.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

Valerie Hopkins covers the war in Ukraine and how the conflict is changing Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the United States. She is based in Moscow. More about Valerie Hopkins


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