Alexei Navalny's funeral held amid tight security as Russians chant outside

A photograph of Navalny released on social media showed his body lying inside a flower-laden coffin inside as his mother, wearing a black headscarf and with a candle in one hand, sat alongside his father nearby.
Last Updated 01 March 2024, 13:52 IST

Moscow: Thousands of Russians chanted opposition politician Alexei Navalny's name on Friday and said they would not forgive the authorities for his death as his mother and father attended a small funeral in a Moscow church surrounded by police.

A photograph of Navalny released on social media showed his body lying inside a flower-laden coffin inside as his mother, wearing a black headscarf and with a candle in one hand, sat alongside his father nearby.

An Orthodox priest presided over the short service, while outside, people queuing around the church who had been prevented from entering to say goodbye clapped and chanted "Navalny! Navalny!".

After his coffin had been carried out, some people chanted "Russia will be free", "No to war", "Russia without Putin", "We won't forget" and "Putin is a murderer."

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic inside Russia, died at the age of 47 in an Arctic penal colony on February 16, sparking accusations from his supporters that he had been murdered. The Kremlin has denied any state involvement in his death.

The authorities have outlawed his movement as extremist and cast his supporters as US-backed troublemakers out to foment revolution.

His funeral comes two weeks before a presidential election when Putin, Russia's paramount leader for over 20 years and in charge of all the levers of state, is expected to easily win another six-year term.

There was heavy security at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, an imposing white domed building in south-east Moscow where the service was held.

People carrying flowers arrived early to try to get in and mourners queued in an orderly fashion as they waited for the service to start.

"We're all here together. Nobody is afraid," one man, who did not give his name, told a reporter from the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. "I'm here to support his family and show that they are not alone."

Clutching red flowers, another man, who said he was 73, said he felt Navalny's death as a personal loss and had admired him for his lack of fear and plain speaking.

Another woman standing in the queue said Navalny was her hero, while a young man nearby hailed the late opposition politician as "a symbol of resistance" and said he had turned up to show that not everyone in Russia supported the authorities.

Navalny's body was then driven to the Borisovskoye cemetery, around 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away on the other side of the Moskva River. The cemetery was sealed off with crash barriers.

More than a quarter of a million people watched the events on Navalny's YouTube channel, which is blocked inside Russia. Messages, mostly expressing sadness but some also defiance, streamed down beside the video.

Allies of Navalny outside Russia have called on people who want to honour his memory but could not attend his funeral service to instead go to memorials to Soviet-era repression in their own towns on Friday evening at 7 p.m. local time.

The Kremlin said any unsanctioned gatherings in support of Navalny would violate the law.

"Just a reminder that we have a law that must be followed. Any unauthorised gatherings will be in violation of the law, and those who participate in them will be held accountable - again, in line with the current law," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He declined to give any assessment of Navalny as a political figure and said he had nothing to say to Navalny's family.

Rights groups offer advice to mourners

While Navalny's mother Lyudmila, 69, attended the funeral along with his father Anatoly, his wife Yulia and two children, who are living outside Russia, did not attend.

Rights groups had advised those who wanted to attend to take their passports and small bottles of water with them and told them to write down the details of lawyers who can help them in case they are detained.

Navalny was a Christian who condemned Putin's decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine as a crazy enterprise built on lies. The church that hosted his funeral has donated to the Russian army and enthusiastically advertised its backing for the war.

In the run-up to his funeral, his allies accused the authorities of blocking their plans to hold a bigger civil memorial service. The Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Navalny's funeral arrangements.

Navalny's allies have accused Putin of having him murdered because the Russian leader could allegedly not tolerate the thought of Navalny being freed in a potential prisoner swap.

They have not published proof to back up that accusation, but have promised to set out how he was murdered and by whom.

The Kremlin has denied state involvement in his death and has said it is unaware of any agreement to free Navalny. His death certificate - according to allies - said he died of natural causes.

Navalny, a former lawyer, mounted the most determined political challenge against Putin since the Russian leader came to power at the end of 1999, organising street protests and publishing high-profile investigations into the alleged corruption of some in the ruling elite.

But a series of criminal charges for fraud and extremism - which Navalny said were politically-motivated - saw him handed jail sentences of over 30 years and most of his supporters have either fled the country or are in jail.

Navalny decided to return to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for what Western doctors said was poisoning with a nerve agent only to be immediately taken into custody.

Putin has yet to comment on Navalny's death and has for years avoided mentioning him by name.

Though Navalny is well known in the West, state TV inside Russia did not mention him for years either and when it did it was brief and in a negative light.

(Published 01 March 2024, 13:52 IST)

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