Why the Kremlin Tried to Obstruct Alexei Navalny’s Funeral

On Feb. 16, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison. It took eight days for authorities to release his body, and they initially sent his mother Ljudmila Navalnaya on a wild goose chase in the Arctic Circle. Then, they threatened the possibility of a state burial in a prison colony unless she consented to a private funeral. She held her ground and insisted the government follow the law.

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Navalny’s team posted countless videos from Russian luminaries, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dmitry Muratov, Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, and many others, denouncing the government’s actions for violating the law — as well as common decency — and demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin release the body of his loudest domestic critic. The public outcry succeeded, and on Friday, Navalny’s family will host a public memorial service in Moscow.

Many, including Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya, have said they believe the Kremlin is responsible for Navalny’s death, and his death has demoralized the Russian opposition, which fears that this untimely loss renders prospects of political change even bleaker. Given the damage to the opposition cause, why would Putin — who has eliminated anyone who poses even the slightest political threat — be so concerned with a funeral?

The answer lies in the long history of Russian funerals serving as moments for expressing displeasure with authoritarian regimes. Individuals mourn the loss of the deceased, but they also lament their own lives in authoritarianism. And such a display memorializing Navalny could be destabilizing, showing that despite his tight grip on power, Putin is by no means beloved.

Read More: ‘Over 400 Detained In Russia’ as Country Mourns Death of Putin Critic Alexei Navalny

Heavily politicized funerals have a long history in Russia. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, students and anti-government revolutionaries used funerals, particularly funerals of anti-government figures, as opportunities for public demonstrations and protest. When famous writer Leo Tolstoy died in 1910, the authorities panicked that the funeral would stir an anti-government demonstration. One of Russia’s better-known writers, the excommunicated Tolstoy never shied away from speaking out against the government or Russian Orthodox Church officials. 

The authorities’ fears were well-grounded. Although the author’s family planned a funeral at his estate in Tula, hours from Moscow, 8,000 students rallied in Moscow to commemorate the death. Seeking to minimize potential demonstrations, the secret police helped create train delays that caused many of Tolstoy’s supporters to arrive at the estate after the funeral had already taken place. Secret police officials also dispatched a contingent of officers to the funeral. 

Even so, several thousand students made it to the funeral, and sang in the author’s honor, while complying with the family wishes for no speeches. This funeral — which had no church involvement because of Tolstoy’s excommunication — as well as the rallies that followed calling for the government to denounce capital punishment in honor of the pacifist author, showed the conservative church and government establishments how Russia was changing. It served as a flashpoint for fomenting national discontent. It foreshadowed the growing unrest that eventually produced the 1917 Russian Revolution. 

Though the ideology of Russia’s leaders shifted after 1917, the ruling regime remained brutally repressive. And dissidents continued to see funerals as a moment to express discontent with this authoritarianism. They recognized that such outpourings were harder to repress than more overtly political actions. 

In 1960, thousands attended the funeral of Soviet luminary and Nobel Laureate Boris Pasternak, ostracized in the USSR for winning the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature in the West. Although Pasternak did not ultimately accept the prize, he was broadly attacked in the USSR for his criticism of Soviet life and idealization of an old-world intellectual lifestyle in Doctor Zhivago. He was also thrown out of the Soviet Writers’ Union.

Except for a brief and offensively bland notice in the main publication of the Writers’ Union (Literaturnaya gazeta), official Soviet channels made no formal mention of the author’s passing from lung cancer. Nevertheless, fans and supporters passed out handwritten notifications of the location and time of the funeral in the Moscow subways, directing those interested to the train line for Peredelkino where Pasternak would be buried. Several thousand people attended the funeral, and although the regime felt the event had been well-contained, students recited many of Pasternak’s banned poems until the night hours, while the KGB took photos of those in attendance. The size of the crowd would have certainly made the notoriously private author uncomfortable. Yet this clear public demonstration of support and respect for Pasternak served as a powerful indictment of the Soviet government, which had viciously criticized and threatened to exile him.

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The Soviet government fared worse with the 1989 funeral of Nobel Peace Prize winner and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. Known for research in physics and as the overseer of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, Sakharov also advocated for human rights, individual liberties, the environment, and nuclear non-proliferation. That put him at odds with the Soviet establishment. He was internally exiled within Russia but eventually became a member of parliament and leader of a growing opposition movement. 

His funeral drew close to 50,000 people and went on until 11pm. One observer described it as a “frightening10 hour procession with an average of 5,000 people per hour.” The Soviet government refused to declare a day of mourning, although the parliament was eventually forced to interrupt its proceedings for a few hours on the day of the funeral. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev — whose Perestroika reforms liberalized the Soviet Union and who brought Sakharov back to Moscow from exile — even made an appearance. Sakharov’s reputation as a dissident who called for accountability for the Soviet regime’s moral failings and human rights transgressions meant that the massive outpouring at his funeral signaled the popularity of these critiques. It illustrated just how ready the country was for more seismic political change.  

Funerals have proved such fertile ground for protest and politicization because the repression of Russian governments has often foreclosed most other avenues for political expression. The regimes punished protests and open political opposition, but it was harder to crack down on funerals. That presented an opportunity to express displeasure under the ambiguous cover of mourning. 

The same conditions remain true in 2024. Russia is a police state, where protest and challenges to Putin are brutally repressed. Navalny was arrested and imprisoned for challenging the regime. Ironically, while in prison, he was awarded the 2021 European Parliament Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. 

In many ways, Navalny’s funeral is more overtly political than others from the past. He attempted a presidential run against Putin in 2018 and many Russians saw Navalny as the leader of the opposition — one who dared to imagine a democratic Russia after Putin, a “beautiful Russia of the future.” Additionally, unlike the cases of Tolstoy, Pasternak, or Sakharov, it’s hard to imagine that Navalny died of natural causes. The documentary Navalny traces the extensive Federal Security Service (FSB) conspiracy to poison him in 2020.

In today’s Russia, where any form of political opposition is punished with a prison sentence or police beatings, a funeral demonstration could provide hope for the opposition and offer up a significant display of solidarity letting those displeased with Putin know they are not alone in their anger over the status quo. Navalny’s funeral could produce an unsurmountable ocean of people denouncing Putin for his corruption, authoritarianism, and cruel war in Ukraine. Such an outpouring could be hard to control and would reflect a real “state of the nation” that dramatically differs from the patriotic spectacles projected by Russian propaganda. That possibility explains why the government stalled in returning Navalny’s body to his family and why they’ve already cracked down on those mourning the opposition leader. Many have been arrested across Russia for laying flowers at monuments honoring victims of political repression, and for creating makeshift memorials. 

Putin’s regime has been trying to prevent a spontaneous uprising, but that would be a perfect way to honor Navalny — one deeply rooted in Russian history.

Ani Kokobobo is professor of Russian studies and chair of Slavic, German, and Eurasian studies at the University of Kansas. She teaches and writes about 19th- and 20th- century Russian literature, culture, and society.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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