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Crowd chants anti-Putin slogans as thousands gather for Alexei Navalny’s funeral

Thousands of people gathered in Moscow on Friday to pay tribute to Alexei Navalny during his funeral, defying a heavy police presence and warnings from the Kremlin of arrests.

Navalny, 47, was Vladimir Putin’s chief opponent and was pronounced dead on 16 February at the Arctic prison where he was serving a decades-long prison sentence on what many believe were trumped-up charges.

Western leaders have lined up to lay responsibility for Navalny's death. His wife, Yulia, has directly called out the Russian leader for killing him.

Outside the Soothe My Sorrows church in southeast Moscow, people began to gather hours before the funeral. Among the large crowd, many clutched bunches of flowers and some joined in a series of chants: “Russia will be free”, “No to war”, “Russia without Putin”, “We won’t forgive” and “Putin is a murderer”.

“There are more than 10,000 people here, and no one is afraid,” Kamila, a young woman in the crowd said. “We came here in order to honour the memory of a man who also wasn’t afraid, who wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Kirill, another member of the crowd, said: “It’s very sad for the future of Russia... We won’t give up, we will believe in something better.”

People walk towards the Borisovskoye cemetery during the funeral of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny (Reuters)
People walk towards the Borisovskoye cemetery during the funeral of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny (Reuters)
Police detain a person near the Borisovskoye cemetery (Reuters)
Police detain a person near the Borisovskoye cemetery (Reuters)

Showing up was a brave act, given that the Kremlin has outlawed Navalny’s movement as extremist and cast his supporters as US-backed troublemakers out to foment revolution. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said before the funeral that he had nothing to say to Navalny’s family. Mr Putin has yet to comment on Navalny’s death and has for years avoided mentioning him by name.

Hundreds were detained in the days following the announcement of Navalny’s death – for seeking to lay flowers or pay their respects at vigils across the country. A rights group, OVD-Info, reported six people had been detained in Moscow on Friday and at least 39 in other parts of Russia.

The thousands gathered for the funeral, and the later burial at a cemetery, marked a rare show of dissent in a country that is going through a time of severe repression. More than 20,000 people have been detained in the past two years, with long prison sentences handed out over criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started in February 2022.

While Mr Navalny’s mother and father, Lyudmila and Anatoly, were present in the church, parts of the opposition leader’s family, his wife, Yulia, his son and daughter and his brother all stayed away. They live outside Russia and returning to the country would bring the risk of arrest.

Yulia, who has pledged to continue her husband’s work, thanked him for “26 years of absolute happiness” in a heartfelt tribute.

She posted on X, formerly Twitter: “I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try my best to make you up there happy for me and proud of me. I don’t know if I’ll manage it or not, but I will try.”

Ambassadors from the US and Germany and Britain’s chargé d’affaires, Tom Dodd, attended the funeral. Russian officials shunned the event, but anti-politicians Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, both of whom were recently barred from running against Mr Putin in the presidential elections later this month, paid their respects.

Navalny decided to return to Russia from Germany in 2021 after being treated for what Western doctors said was poisoning with the nerve agent novichok – an attack he blamed on the Kremlin – only to be immediately taken into custody. He faced a number of cases in the wake of that arrest, eventually ending up at the “Polar Wolf” penal colony.

Tributes at a makeshift memorial outside the cemetery (AFP)
Tributes at a makeshift memorial outside the cemetery (AFP)
Navalny’s  coffin is carried out of the church (Reuters)
Navalny’s coffin is carried out of the church (Reuters)

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, 69, had travelled to the “Polar Wolf” penal colony after his death and battled with authorities for a week to get them to release his body. She accused them of putting pressure on her to bury him without a public funeral. Even on the day of the funeral, Navalny allies had warned of possible delays.

The service in the church was brief. Lyudmila was pictured seated and holding a candle as priests in white robes stood over her son’s coffin.

“This is a photograph that is very hard to look at,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov, co-host of a livestream of the event on YouTube by Navalny aides now based outside Russia. They struggled to contain their emotions as the pictures and footage rolled in, watched by hundreds of thousands. The channel is blocked inside Russia. Allies of Navalny outside Russia 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.

After the 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!”.

Supporters outside the church in Moscow (EPA)
Supporters outside the church in Moscow (EPA)
Navalny’s wife shares touching tribute to husband ahead of funeral (Yulia Navalnaya)
Navalny’s wife shares touching tribute to husband ahead of funeral (Yulia Navalnaya)

Showing the sense of humour that even prison could not suppress, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and music from The Terminator 2 was played as the coffin was lowered into the ground. It is a film that Navalny’s 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.

“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 said. “What was done to him is incredibly difficult to accept and get through it.”