April 17th, 2024

Putin foe Alexei Navalny is buried in Moscow as thousands attend under a heavy police presence

By Dasha Litvinova And Katie Marie Davies, The Associated Press on March 1, 2024.

Under a heavy police presence, thousands of people bade farewell Friday to opposition leader Alexei Navalny at his funeral in Moscow after his still-unexplained death two weeks ago in an Arctic penal colony.

Navalny was buried at a cemetery in the snowy southeastern outskirts of the capital after a short Russian Orthodox ceremony, with vast crowds waiting outside the church and then streaming to the fresh grave of President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic with flowers and anti-government chants.

Although riot police set up barricades at both the church and cemetery, no detentions were reported. When his death was announced Feb. 16, police in cities in Russia detained hundreds who tried to leave flowers at impromptu memorials.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia, who was not seen at the funeral but has vowed to continue his work, lovingly thanked him for “26 years of absolute happiness.”

“I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try to do it in a way that you up there are proud of me and happy for me,” she wrote on Instagram.

The funeral followed a battle with authorities over the release of his body. His team said several Moscow churches refused to hold the funeral for the man who crusaded against official corruption and organized massive protests. Many Western leaders blamed the death on the Russian leader, an accusation the Kremlin angrily rejected.

Navalny’s team eventually got permission from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, which was surrounded by crowd-control barriers.

As his coffin was removed from the hearse and taken inside the church, the crowd waiting outside broke into respectful applause and then chanted: “Navalny! Navalny!” Some also shouted, “You weren’t afraid, neither are we!” and later “No to war!” “Russia without Putin!” and “Russia will be free!”

Western diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy, were among the mourners. Also paying respects were Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova, anti-war politicians who wanted to run against Putin in this month’s presidential election but were not allowed on the ballot.

Inside the church, Navalny’s open casket showed him covered with red and white flowers. His parents, Lyudmila and Anatoly, sat beside it.

Navalny’s closest associates live outside Russia and offered commentary on a livestream of the funeral on his YouTube channel, their voices occasionally cracking with emotion.

“Those people who follow what is happening, it is of course obvious to them that this man is a hero of our country, whom we will not forget,” said Nadezhda Ivanova of Kaliningrad, a mourner who was outside the church. “What was done to him is incredibly difficult to accept and get through it.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged those gathering in Moscow and other places not to break the law, saying any “unauthorized (mass) gatherings” are violations.

After the short church service, thousands marched to the nearby Borisovskoye Cemetery, where the police were also out in force.

With the casket again open, Navalny’s mother and father stroked and kissed his head. A large crowd gathered at the cemetery’s gates, chanting: “Let us in to say goodbye!”

The coffin was lowered into the ground. In keeping with his irreverent sense of humor, music from the “The Terminator 2” was played, a movie his allies said he considered “the best in the world.”

Mourners streamed by his open grave, tossing handfuls of soil onto the coffin as a large crowd waited at the cemetery’s entrance. As dusk fell, workers shoveled dirt into the grave while Lyudmila Navalnaya watched. A mound of flowers, funeral wreaths, candles and a portrait of Navalny sat nearby.

She had spent eight days trying to get authorities to release her son’s body following his Feb. 16 death at Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow.

Even on Friday, a Moscow morgue delayed releasing the body, according to Ivan Zhdanov, Navalny’s close ally and director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Authorities near the penal colony originally said they couldn’t release the body because they needed to conduct post-mortem tests. Lyudmila Navalnaya made a video appeal to Putin to release it so she could bury her son with dignity.

Russian authorities still haven’t announced the cause of death for Navalny, who was 47. His team cited paperwork that Lyudmila Navalnaya saw that listed “natural causes,” although the day before his death he had appeared in court via video link joking with officials.

At least one funeral director said he had been “forbidden” to work with Navalny’s supporters, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on social media. They also struggled to find a hearse.

“Unknown people are calling up people and threatening them not to take Alexei’s body anywhere,” Yarmysh said Thursday.

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. His Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his regional offices were designated as “extremist organizations” by the Russian government that same year.

Yulia Navalnaya accused Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of trying to block a public funeral.

“We don’t want any special treatment – just to give people the opportunity to say farewell to Alexei in a normal way,” she wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Moscow authorities refused permission for a separate memorial event Friday for Navalny and slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, citing COVID-19 restrictions, according to former presidential hopeful Duntsova. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, was shot to death as he walked on a bridge adjacent to the Kremlin on the night of Feb. 27, 2015.

Yarmysh also urged Navalny’s supporters around the world to turn out.

Hundreds brought flowers and candles at the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi in a rally organized by those who fled Russia since the start of the war with Ukraine. In a rainy Rome, a delegation from the Italian Radical party went to Moscow’s embassy for the Kremlin critic.

“Everyone who knew Alexei says what a cheerful, courageous and honest person he was,” Yarmysh said Thursday. “But the greater truth is that even if you never met Alexei, you knew what he was like, too. You shared his investigations, you went to rallies with him, you read his posts from prison. His example showed many people what to do when even when things were scary and difficult.”

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More AP coverage of Alexei Navalny: https://apnews.com/hub/alexei-navalny

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