Navalny’s funeral to go ahead Friday, despite pressure

A picture of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the lettering ‘We believe in Alexey’ is pictured at a makeshift memorial in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on February 29, 2024. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

(MOSCOW) — The funeral of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny will take place in Moscow on Friday, as his team accused authorities of still trying to disrupt it and prevent people from gathering to pay their respects to Vladimir Putin’s most potent critic.

Navalny’s team has accused authorities of trying to block a public funeral, fearing protests, but his colleagues on Thursday insisted anyone wishing to say farewell should come regardless of threats.

The funeral service will be held at a small church in the southern suburb of Marino. Navalny will be buried at the nearby Borisov cemetery, according to his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.

“Despite all the resistance, the farewell to Alexey will definitely take place tomorrow,” Yarmysh wrote Thursday on X, formerly Twitter, adding that the service will begin at 2 p.m. local time and the burial will take place two hours later. “If you are in Moscow — come,” she said.

Navalny’s team has also called on people outside Moscow to go to memorials for Navalny in their respective cities.

It’s likely police could try to prevent crowds from reaching the service, and Friday could see mass arrests. Since Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison colony two weeks ago, police have detained hundreds of people trying to lay flowers at monuments to political repression to honor him.

Photos circulated by local Russian social media news channels Thursday evening appeared to show police stacking barricades near the church where the funeral service will be held.

After authorities initially refused to hand over Navalny’s body to his mother, his team accused them of continuing to try to disrupt the burial, alleging that funeral homes and cemeteries were pressured not to help them. Russian authorities gave Navalny’s body to his mother more than a week after the opposition leader’s Feb. 16 death.

Yarmysh on Thursday said they were struggling to find a hearse to carry Navalny’s body because undertakers were allegedly being threatened. Moscow authorities on Thursday evening also refused to authorize a request to hold a memorial march on Saturday of up to 50,000 people.

Yekaterina Duntsova, a liberal opposition activist, posted a photograph of the refusal from the Moscow mayor’s office, which cited COVID restrictions as justification for blocking the march, despite Moscow not enforcing restrictions in the city since the early months of the pandemic in 2020.

Navalny’s family and allies have accused Russia of killing the Putin critic in prison. Navalny had been previously poisoned and nearly died in an assassination attempt blamed on the Russian president.

Some Western countries, including the United States, have said Putin bears responsibility for Navalny’s death. “We don’t know exactly what happened but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was the result of something that Putin and his friends did,” President Joe Biden said.

The level of repression in Russia means it’s difficult to predict how many people will try to attend Navalny’s funeral. After the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin in 2015, around 50,000 people marched through the center of Moscow for his funeral. Navalny likely has an even stronger following, but the environment is now vastly different in Russia, where there’s currently almost zero tolerance for dissent and virtually all independent opposition figures are driven into exile or jailed.

Navalny, who was 47, for most of the last decade emerged as the unrivaled opponent of Putin’s regime.

He built a millions-strong following through innovative anti-corruption investigations that exposed the ill-gotten wealth of Putin and senior Russian officials, publishing them as humorous, viral videos. He sought to run for president and built up a grassroots political movement, leading protests and conducting tactical voting campaigns aimed at undercutting Putin’s rule.

Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent while on a plane to Moscow in August 2020. He was flown to Germany, where he received treatment and doctors confirmed he’d been poisoned. The U.S. later sanctioned four Russians it said were involved in the poisoning and who were members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or the FSB — the main successor agency to the Soviet Union’s KGB.

Despite the assassination attempt, Navalny returned to Russia in early 2021 and was immediately imprisoned on fraud and extremism charges that were widely dismissed as politically motivated. Put on trial again while in prison, Navalny continued to mock and criticize Putin’s regime and organize peaceful efforts to weaken it.

In life, Navalny led many peaceful demonstrations throughout Moscow in defiance of bans by authorities, denouncing official corruption and calling for free elections. Police arrested thousands of people at the protests, taking an ever harder line. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, virtually no public protest has been permitted, with even those holding single-person pickets holding blank pieces of paper being detained.

Still, it appeared likely people would attempt to reach Friday’s funeral.

Navalny’s death has devastated Russia’s already beleaguered anti-Kremlin opposition. His wife, Yulia Navalnaya, has vowed to continue his fight, making public appearances and continuing to call for action against Putin. In a speech at the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday, she called Putin a “bloody monster” and urged countries to treat him as the head of an “organized crime gang” and to find innovative ways to target his and his circle’s assets in their territory.

Navalnaya has lived in exile for several years and would likely face arrest if she returned to Russia.

She accused Putin and Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, on Wednesday of trying to prevent a public ceremony for Navalny.

“People in the Kremlin killed him, then they abused Alexey’s body, then abused his mother, now they are abusing his memory,” she wrote on X. “We don’t want any special treatment — just give the opportunity to people to say goodbye normally to Alexey. Just don’t interfere, please.”

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