‘A necessary evil’ Navalny’s mother’s resolve was the deciding factor in the Russian authorities’ decision to allow a funeral, Meduza’s sources say


While the long-term impact on Russian politics remains to be seen, the large number of people who showed up for Alexey Navalny’s funeral left little doubt that a significant contingent of Russians sympathized with the country’s opposition. It was the fear of these kinds of expressions of support that led authorities to do everything they could to prevent the public commemoration – from threatening Navalny’s mother to banning venues from hosting the event. The Kremlin clearly hoped that Navalny’s funeral would resemble that of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose plane crash two months after he launched an uprising against the Russian military was followed by a clandestine funeral in St. Petersburg. But ultimately, the unwavering determination of Navalny’s mother, who publicly pushed for authorities to release her son’s body, forced the Kremlin to back down. Special correspondent of Meduza Andrei Pertsev spoke to internal sources about what happened in the Putin government during the standoff.

It is no surprise that the Kremlin wanted Alexey Navalny’s funeral to be as peaceful as possible. However, strong opposition from the politician’s family and the publicity campaign led by his associates and supporters forced them to conclude that a public ceremony for Navalny would be a “necessary evil”, a source close to the government’s political team said -Putin. A second source familiar with the situation in the Kremlin confirmed this story.

In the authorities’ ideal scenario, Navalny’s funeral would have been similar to that of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2023. Prigozhin, who died when his private jet crashed in Russia’s Tver region on August 23, was buried in Porokhovskoye in Saint Petersburg. Cemetery in the presence of his family, without the military honors to which he was entitled as ‘Hero of Russia’. The location of the ceremony was not announced to journalists in advance, and the press service of Prigozhin’s Concord company mentioned the funeral only afterwards.

Russian state media, citing their own source, reported that Prigozhin’s ceremony was held privately “at the request of the family.” However, according to sources who spoke to The Moscow Times, the decision to close the funeral to the public did not come from Prigozhin’s relatives, but from the heads of Russia’s security services and the Kremlin’s political team. “Prigozhin, with his calls for justice and his sharp and often true statements, aroused the emotions of Russians and became not an official hero of Russia, but a kind of folk hero. And do we need heroes marching on Moscow? No,” a government official told the newspaper.

Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin, however, declined to say authorities feared the public show of support for Navalny’s funeral would entail. “Prigozhin was on the rise, his popularity was rising, he was gathering a following – and he had broken every possible rule. [by launching an insurrection in June 2023],” said a source. “Navalny is not a very relevant politician at the moment,” he claimed. “Although it was clear that people would come [to his funeral]. Lines from people supporting the opposition were the last message they wanted to convey during Putin’s election campaign.”

The Kremlin soon realized that it would not be able to strike a deal with Navalny’s relatives as it had done with Prigozhin’s family, to whom it had given some of the mercenary leader’s assets, two said sources close to the Russian government to Meduza. So instead of seeking a compromise, the authorities decided to use blackmail and intimidation to achieve their goal.

Nine days after Navalny’s death, investigators refused to hand over his body to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, insisting that she first agree to hold his funeral in secret. According to Navalnaya, on February 22 she spent almost 24 hours in the office of the Russian Investigative Committee in the city where her son’s body was being held. Her lawyer was not allowed to come with her for the first half of the day. Meanwhile, Navalny’s associates led a global media campaign to demand authorities release the body. Finally, on February 24, Navalny’s press secretary reported that authorities had agreed to release the body without strings attached.

“Busy [the family] didn’t work, so they chose the option that would have predictable consequences [for the Kremlin’s image] but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. Refusing to let an elderly mother bury her son would have been a blow to the family [Kremlin’s] image, even in the eyes of loyal people,” a source close to the Russian government told Meduza.

But Navalny’s family continued to face obstacles until the day of the funeral itself. They couldn’t find a venue willing to host a civil funeral for the opposition leader and ended up having to hold a small ceremony in a church. Numerous funeral homes refused to provide them with a hearse and the ceremony itself was abandoned, probably due to pressure from the authorities.

Despite these obstacles, Navalny’s funeral and subsequent funeral ceremony became the country’s largest street protest since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine (Russian authorities have effectively banned all protest rallies).

According to Meduza’s sources, the Kremlin did not expect so many people to show up at Navalny’s funeral. There are no reliable figures on the exact number of Russians who went to the cemetery to pay their respects, but the number is at least in the tens of thousands and could reach hundreds of thousands (mourners continued to line up around Navalny’s grave to visit). two days after his funeral). And that doesn’t include events honoring Navalny in other cities around Russia, where people brought flowers and candles to makeshift memorials and to monuments honoring the victims of political repression.

A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the long lines at the Borisovskoye cemetery came as a “surprise to the authorities,” although he said the crowd was still “very small” for Moscow. Even during Russia’s safest periods for protests, however, the largest street rallies attracted no more than 100,000 people — and the country’s pro-government rallies, where citizens are bribed or coerced to attend, rarely have that many attendees.

“We are also talking about saying goodbye, about the past,” said the source. “Prigozhin was on the rise – he symbolized the future [to the authorities]. People came [to bid farewell to Navalny], leaving flowers behind. They will continue to do this. But overall there is little danger [to the Kremlin] here.”

Since Navalny’s death, pro-government Russian media and Telegram channels have been spreading distorted and false information about the opposition leader’s family. This disinformation campaign even continued throughout the day of Navalny’s funeral. For example, media outlets like Kommersant noted that Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, and his children, Dasha and Zakhar, “were not seen at the funeral,” but failed to provide the context that the family would face major security risks would receive if they traveled to India. Russia. Before the funeral, multiple Telegram channels shared a fabricated audio recording in which a voice resembling that of Navalny’s mother Yulia accused Navalnaya of exploiting her son’s name, as well as accusations that Navalnaya had had an affair.

The Kremlin’s handling of Navalny’s death

Two political strategists working with the Putin administration’s political team characterized these attacks as “risk management efforts.” “She [Yulia Navalnaya] could become the leader of much of the opposition. That must be prevented,” said one of them.

Both sources claimed that despite these attempts to damage her reputation, Navalnaya currently poses no threat to the Kremlin. However, another political strategist working with the Kremlin said the increase in activity among Navalny’s followers after his death has created a risk for authorities. According to him, Russia “has people who are clearly dissatisfied with the government and are capable of action.” These same people, he said, “were standing in line [barred presidential candidate and anti-war politician Boris] Nadezhdin.” He continued:

There are people who wanted to say goodbye [to Navalny] but those who didn’t go – there are certainly more. And no one [in the Kremlin] even tries to talk to these people. This was the same thing that led to the Bolotnaya Square protests.

A source close to the Putin government said security officials “may visit protest participants identified by surveillance cameras for prevention purposes,” adding that only “people who were active” at the funeral are at this risk, “not people who just stood there with flowers .” On March 5, the first media reports of police visits to people attending Navalny’s funeral appeared. “There is no opposition [to these preventative visits among Putin administration members]. And besides, who would object? That would be suicide,” he said. “Although it would be better for all this [Navalny’s death and funeral] to be forgotten and left behind as quickly as possible.”

Reporting by Andrei Pertsev. Translation by Sam Breezeale.

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