HomeWorld NewsAlexei Navalny’s Russian mourners also grieve for a democratic future

Alexei Navalny’s Russian mourners also grieve for a democratic future

MOSCOW — In the weeks since Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died suddenly in an Arctic prison, the simple act of laying flowers — at his graveside or makeshift memorials — has turned into an act of political defiance.

Wartime Russia brooks no dissent. But on Saturday, one day after Navalny was laid to rest at a Moscow cemetery, mourners, many of them carrying bouquets, were still lining up to pay their respects.

Thousands of Russians mourn Alexei Navalny despite police presence

“I want to scream in anger,” said Tamara, 34, who visited the grave Saturday, only to be quickly shooed away by police. “But I have hope,” she said, declining to give her full name out of fear of reprisal by authorities. “Of course there is hope.”

Navalny, who died in prison on Feb. 16 at age 47, was a prominent anti-corruption crusader and pro-democracy activist who mobilized a younger generation to campaign for a free Russia. As such, he was despised by President Vladimir Putin and ultimately jailed on vague charges of extremism.

For many of those who trekked to his graveside Friday and Saturday, Navalny was Russia’s last democratic hope, at least at a time when the country was plunging deeper into authoritarianism.

In the two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, initiating a bloody war against its neighbor, the state has grown increasingly repressive as it cracks down on dissent, sending thousands fleeing abroad and terrifying most of the rest of the population into silence.

Navalny, a middle-class Russian from a Moscow suburb, had galvanized a mass movement under the simple slogan, “Russia is free.” He led nationwide street protests in an extraordinary challenge to Putin, who has ruled Russia either as president or prime minister for 25 years.

For Putin nemesis Alexei Navalny, long-feared death arrives in Arctic prison

But now, Navalny is gone, dying mysteriously at one of Russia’s most isolated prisons, where authorities suggested he died of natural causes. Navalny’s friends and family say the state is responsible for his death.

“I do not see any light in this darkness,” said Anna, 47.

She was working Friday and could not join the procession, so on Saturday, she made her way to the Borisovsky Cemetery, preparing a backpack of water, snacks, warm clothes and a passport in case she was detained.

“It is even more difficult to live in Russia now without him,” she said, also declining to give her full name out of fear of reprisal by authorities. “Nobody wants to talk about how bad the situation is, everyone is scared, and they are trying to maintain a fragile balance within themselves.”

After a strong show of force at Navalny’s funeral on Friday, where they hemmed in mourners and thwarted crowds, police were back at the cemetery Saturday. They had rearranged their barricades, and set up metal detectors fitted with cameras — a signal to mourners that their faces would be logged in the government’s sprawling surveillance system.

Masked police officers manned the entrance, checking people’s bags. Plainclothes security agents hustled the procession along and anyone standing for longer than a couple of minutes was ordered to leave.

“No, you can’t light candles here, they will cause a fire,” one police officer barked at a mourner.

Most people there were openly weeping, some breaking down upon seeing Navalny’s smiling portrait on his tombstone, submerged by heaps of roses and carnations. One couple held each other. Another person wiped away the tears of a friend, making sure her makeup didn’t smudge.

One older man stood to the side with his face to the wall, hiding his sobs.

“Everything is getting worse and worse,” said Anna. “We need a miracle.”

But others wouldn’t give in to total despair. Irina, 30, went to the cemetery Saturday to lay flowers for both Navalny and her mother.

“Alexei was all about hope, about the beautiful Russia of the future,” she said. “And look at how many people there are here.”

Tamara, who said she wanted to scream in anger at the police, said she was also proud of what she said was the bravery of her fellow Russians in turning out to grieve a man hated by the state.

“For the longest time, propaganda told us that the majority only care about their basic needs — putting food on the table and that’s it,” she said. “What we saw yesterday showed that so many people still have their heads … they still have a bit of bravery, the kind of bravery that Alexei tried to teach us.”

“As it turns out,” she added, “we are still alive inside.”

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