Updated March 1st, 2024 at 17:16 IST

Foreign Diplomats Arrive at Church in Moscow to Attend Funeral of Putin's Rival Alexei Navalny

The Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows was encircled by crowd-control barriers on Friday.

Alexei Navalny's dead body arrives at church in Moscow. | Image:Telegram
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Hundreds of people gathered to bid farewell to Alexei Navalny at a funeral Friday in Moscow under a heavy police presence, following a battle with authorities over the release of his body after his still-unexplained death in an Arctic penal colony. His supporters said several churches in Moscow refused to hold the service before Navalny’s team got permission from one in the capital’s Maryino district, where he once lived before his 2020 poisoning, treatment in Germany and subsequent arrest on his return to Russia.

The Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows was encircled by crowd-control barriers on Friday. Hours before the funeral was set to start, hundreds waited for outside the church under the watch of police who deployed in big numbers. Western diplomats such as U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy and French Ambassador Pierre Levy were spotted in the queue. 

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Navalny died in mid-February in one of Russia’s harshest penal facilities. Russian authorities haven’t announced the cause of his death at age 47, but many Western leaders have already blamed it on Russian President Vladimir Putin. His widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of trying to block a public funeral. “We don’t want any special treatment — just to give people the opportunity to say farewell to Alexei in a normal way,” she wrote on X, previously Twitter. 

Yarmysh described the difficulties his team encountered in trying to find a site for a funeral, saying that most venues claimed they were fully booked, with some “refusing when we mention the surname ‘Navalny,” and one disclosing that “funeral agencies were forbidden to work with us.” Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said the funeral was initially planned for Thursday –- the day of Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address – but no venue would agree to hold it then. 

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“The real reason is clear. The Kremlin understands that nobody will need Putin and his message on the day we say farewell to Alexei,” Zhdanov wrote on his messaging app channel. In an interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza on Wednesday, Zhdanov said authorities were pressuring Navalny’s relatives to “have a quiet family funeral” and move the burial to the Khovanskoye cemetery on Moscow’s southwestern outskirts. 

“They are again blackmailing relatives and saying: either hold a quiet family funeral, or nothing will really work out for you,” Zhdanov said. He said Navalny’s lawyer, Vasily Dubkov, who helped Navalny’s mother retrieve her son’s body, was briefly detained on Tuesday “as some kind of suspicious person” when he went to visit the morgue, where Zhdanov said there currently is a strong police presence. 

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Zhadov declined to comment on the circumstances of Navalny’s death, but repeated claims by close Navalny associate Maria Pevchikh that there had been negotiations for a possible prisoner exchange involving Navalny before his death. The exchange “was at the final stage” and would have taken place “with the mediation of the United Arab Emirates and Roman Abramovich,” Zhdanov said. 

Claims about negotiations for a prisoner exchange, which were repeated on social media by other Navalny aides, could not be independently confirmed. Shortly after the announcement of the funeral plans, Navalny’s widow addressed European lawmakers in Strasbourg. Speaking at the European Parliament, she confirmed that her husband would be buried on Friday and expressed fears that the police might interfere. 

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“I’m not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or whether police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband,” Navalnaya said. Appearing tearful at some points amid applause from lawmakers but largely resolute, Navalnaya said her husband’s death “showed everyone that Putin is capable of anything, and that you cannot negotiate with him.” 

She appealed to the European Parliament to be “innovative” in its approach to the Russian president and those close to him. “You cannot hurt Putin with another resolution or another set of sanctions,” she said, urging lawmakers instead to “apply the methods of fighting organized crime, not political competition.” She asked the parliament to investigate “financial machinations” and “mafia associates” in their countries and “discreet lawyers and financiers who are helping Putin and his friends to hide money.” 

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Navalnaya and Navalny were married for more than 20 years, and she was at his side as he helped lead the biggest protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In introducing Navalnaya, the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, paid tribute to Navalny. “For many in Russia and outside, he represented hope. Hope in better days. Hope in a free Russia. Hope in the future,” she said.

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Published March 1st, 2024 at 17:16 IST