Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

‘We are not afraid’: Russians gather for Navalny’s funeral

Mourners attend the funeral for Alexei Navalny, Moscow (Credit: Getty images)

Today is a sad day for Russia. Two weeks after his death in an Arctic penal colony, Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most vociferous opponent, has been buried in Moscow. Thousands of mourners lined the streets in southern Moscow to pay their respects, their sorrow compounded with a sense of anger and defiance that grew as the funeral wore on. Addressed quite clearly to Vladimir Putin, shouts of ‘We won’t forgive you’ intermingled with chants of Navalny’s name and ‘There are more of us’. The odd verse of harmonious Russian Orthodox sung funeral liturgy occasionally broke through the noise.

The funeral took place at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God ‘Quench My Sorrows’ in the south Moscow district of Maryino. The queue of mourners stretched to over three kilometres. Navalny’s team streamed the entire event on his YouTube channel, to which nearly 300,000 viewers tuned in.

In death, as in life, Navalny is recognised by Putin as a threat to his authority

Only close family and friends were allowed into the church itself. A photograph released by Navalny’s team shows the opposition leader’s open casket, as per Russian Orthodox tradition, surrounded by candles with just his head visible beneath a sea of roses. While his wife, Yulia, and children chose not to return to Russia due to the understandable threat to their safety, Navalny’s parents were present at the funeral.

The funeral was watched over by riot police patrolling the crowds. Despite fears that the authorities could lash out at the gathered mourners, the service itself passed peacefully. As it arrived at the church, his coffin was greeted by applause and chants of ‘Navalny, Navalny!’ and ‘You weren’t afraid and we are not afraid’ from the crowd.

Once the funeral was over and Navalny’s casket began to make its way towards the Borisov cemetery two miles away, the mood amongst mourners began to change. Phrases including ‘Russia will be free’, ‘No to war’, ‘Russia without Putin’ and ‘Putin is a murderer’ were loudly chanted by the crowds. The number of people who came out to mourn Navalny was undoubtedly the largest crowd Moscow has seen since his death was announced and shows the depth of feeling and emotion his death has triggered amongst Russians. It’s unclear how long the Moscow authorities will tolerate these chants, and whether the situation may indeed become violent later today or over the weekend.

Navalny’s funeral then continued at the Borisov cemetery: thousands made their way there carrying flowers on the 25-minute walk through snowy Moscow. The general public was stopped by police from getting close to the gravesite, allowing only those who had been inside the church to watch Navalny’s coffin being lowered into the grave to the tune of ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. Once it was over, the crowd of mourners began to chant ‘Let us through to say goodbye’.

From the moment Navalny’s death was announced, the Kremlin has done its utmost to prevent Russians from coming together to mourn or protest. Today was no exception: in death, as in life, Navalny is recognised by Putin as a threat to his authority. Yesterday a heavy police presence began to build up around the Borisov cemetery. Crowd-control barriers were quickly set up and surveillance cameras installed. On Wednesday, his wife Yulia acknowledged during her address to the European parliament that she was ‘not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or whether the police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband’.

The process of organising Navalny’s funeral was far from smooth for his family and team. After a battle with the authorities simply to take possession of his body that lasted nine days, his family faced many logistical stumbling blocks when it came to organising the funeral itself.

Until Wednesday, Navalny’s team struggled to find a church or venue that would allow them to hold a public funeral for the Kremlin critic. They also claimed that the authorities had placed pressure on venues not to let the funeral go ahead yesterday as it would clash with Putin’s state of the nation address. The official reason given to the family for why they had to move the date was ‘no grave diggers available on the 29th’. 

As late as yesterday afternoon, Navalny’s family were still encountering difficulties, saying they were struggling to find an undertaker willing to transport his body from the morgue to the church after many Moscow businesses received anonymous calls threatening them not to do so. This morning there also appears to have been a last-minute tussle when the authorities again temporarily refused to release Navalny’s body from the morgue.

That this funeral was able to take place at all is in large thanks to the bravery of Navalny’s mother, Liudmila, and his lawyer Vasily Dubkov. The pair travelled to the Polar Wolf colony the morning after the news of his death broke and doggedly stood their ground in the face of blackmail and intimidation by the authorities while trying to get his body released. Initially, they had been threatened that ‘things would happen’ to Navalny’s body if they refused to hold a private funeral. That didn’t stop the Russian authorities from detaining Dubkov on unspecified charges in Moscow on Tuesday.

The day is still young in Moscow. As the afternoon turns to evening, there are few signs of the crowds of chanting mourners dispersing of their own account. The independent Russian-language news site Mediazona is reporting that alleged saboteurs were operating amongst the crowds of mourners today, unsuccessfully trying to encourage people to ‘march on the Kremlin’. There is every chance that the atmosphere in the city will become more febrile as the weekend progresses. All eyes will be on Russia’s capital city, to see whether on the day his fiercest critic was buried, Putin cracks down on Navalny’s supporters once more.