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Supporters gather for Navalny funeral despite fears Russia will crack down

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Thousands of mourners gathered outside a church in southeast Moscow and later at a nearby cemetery today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Navalny, Navalny, Navalny.

MARTÍNEZ: They were there for the funeral of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died two weeks ago at a prison colony in the Russian Arctic. They chanted his name and slogans such as we are not afraid. NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes was in the crowd. Charles, tell us what you saw.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, you know, despite a really, really heavy police presence and fears of mass arrests, you know, this funeral today for Alexei Navalny largely went on without incident, at least in Moscow, and at least for now. You know, thousands lined the streets around this Orthodox church not far from Navalny's home in southern Moscow to pay their final respects to, really, what has been President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic for over a decade.

And while Navalny's parents attended the funeral rites service inside, crowds waited outside pinned behind police barricades, often chanting Navalny's name as we heard in that intro, as well as the political slogans that really made him famous. You know, ahead of the service, Navalny's family accused the government of scuttling plans to hold a public event, saying that the government feared it could turn into a protest against Putin, against the war in Ukraine. And yet that's what it turned out to be. It felt like an anti-government protest, even if supporters' defiance was mixed with grief.

MARTÍNEZ: So you mentioned how Navalny is Putin's fiercest critic, and it was an anti-government kind of protest. What's the reaction been from the Kremlin to his death and funeral?

MAYNES: Well, the Kremlin insists it has no interest in these proceedings at all, it had no role in trying to prevent this funeral service, just as they've repeatedly denied any role in Navalny's death. You know, the Kremlin spokesman today, Dmitry Peskov, said he had nothing to say to Navalny's family. But he called accusations by Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, that were given at the European Parliament, also accusations by some Western leaders that Putin - President Putin was somehow responsible for Navalny's death, he called that vulgar.

Meanwhile, President Putin hasn't said a word about Navalny since his death two weeks ago. But keep in mind, Putin never spoke about Navalny when he was alive. It was part of an attempt to treat him as a political non-entity here, even if this massive police presence and these crowds today tell a very different story.

MARTÍNEZ: Navalny was the face of Russian political opposition, so where does that go from here now that he's gone?

MAYNES: Yeah, that's been on the minds of many here. You know, in the days after Navalny's death, you'd hear people say that their - you know, that their hope for the future, for a different Russia, had died along with him. But they've also been quoting Navalny's own words of defiance, you know, not to give up, to keep fighting. And we heard many of those chants, in fact, today.

In fact, I would say despite this sad occasion, clearly people were - I don't know, not exactly happy, but certainly relieved to see this show of support for Navalny, for his family. Many clearly worried that they were coming out and might find themselves basically alone. So there was a sense here that, you know, they're sharing some kind of common value for a different Russia. And certainly, that sense of power was there as the mourners far outnumbered security forces.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.