Thousands of Russians Mourn Navalny at Funeral, Defying Kremlin

Police, right, observe as people walk toward the Borisovskoye Cemetery in Moscow for the funeral ceremony of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (AP Photo)

(Bloomberg News/TNS) — Thousands of people lined up to pay their final respects at the funeral of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on Friday, in defiance of a heavy police presence aimed at deterring protests against President Vladimir Putin.

Mourners chanted “Navalny” and “we won’t forgive” as his coffin was brought to a church in Moscow’s southeastern Marino district. Some shouted “Putin is a killer” as the Kremlin critic’s body was carried out after the service for burial at the nearby Borisov cemetery. 

Riot police were stationed outside the church and at the cemetery, as authorities threatened punishment for any unsanctioned gathering. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin had nothing to say about Navalny, in response to questions from reporters, the Interfax news service reported. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders have joined Navalny’s family and allies in blaming Putin for the activist’s Feb. 16 death in an Arctic prison camp. Ambassadors from the U.S. and a number of European states joined those gathered outside for the funeral.

The crowds turned out in defiance of an unprecedented Kremlin crackdown on dissent in recent years, in a display of discontent with Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule and as Russia is waging war in Ukraine. The funeral was held a day after Putin set out plans for his next six years in power, in an address to Russia’s Federal Assembly ahead of the March 15-17 presidential election.

The U.S. and Europe responded to the death of Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent by imposing sanctions on Russia that have had a largely symbolic impact. 

Russian police have arrested hundreds of people in Moscow and other cities for laying flowers at makeshift memorials to Navalny since his death. 

State media have almost completely ignored the fallout from Navalny’s demise. In contrast, it devoted extensive coverage to the death this week of former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, aged 94, who was also being buried on Friday following a memorial service at Moscow’s main cathedral.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia, didn’t attend his funeral after aides said it would be unsafe for her to return to Russia from Europe. She denounced Putin as the “leader of an organized, criminal gang” in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, and has said she plans to continue her husband’s fight against the Kremlin. 

Penitentiary officials said Navalny, 47, died after falling ill at the maximum-security prison where he was serving 19 years on extremism charges.

Officials kept the body for more than a week before handing it over to Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, who accused them of trying to pressure her into agreeing to a secret burial. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said Thursday the family had difficulties in finding a vehicle to transport the body to the church.

Navalny died as talks were underway that could have seen him freed as part of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. and Germany, a western official said.

The opposition leader, who was barred from running against Putin in 2018 elections, built up a huge following inside Russia with slick videos exposing high-level corruption and a campaign aimed at loosening the Kremlin’s grip on power. He helped lead protests that at their peak in 2011-2012 brought tens of thousands to the streets.

After a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia in 2020 that he and the West blamed on the Kremlin, which denied involvement, Navalny was taken to Germany for treatment. He was detained at passport control in Moscow when he returned in January 2021 and remained in prison until his death.

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