In Life As In Death: Let Them See That Many Remember


  • March 4, 2024
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In the days leading up to Navalny’s funeral, the Kremlin had warned “unauthorized gatherings” would violate the law, and across the country they arrested hundreds of people for laying flowers at makeshift memorials. Still, at Friday’s ceremony, up to 10,000 people braved the threats and cold to join what became Russia’s largest opposition gathering in decades.

 

By ABBY ZIMET

Mar 03, 2024

Common Dreams

 

Defying fear, cold, threats of arrest, thousands of Russians came to pay their mournful respects to Alexei Navalny, long “living proof that courage is possible,” at his funeral this weekend. People chanted “No To War,” “Putin Is A Murderer,” and, hauntingly, “Navalny”‘ over and over as they waited in long lines amidst a massive police presence to honor a man “who was not scared of anything.” “You weren’t afraid,” they avowed to his memory, “and neither are we.”

 

For almost 15 years, Navalny, 47, a former lawyer turned blogger and unflinching activist, endured “a slow-motion assassination attempt” by a Russian government that sought to break him because he wouldn’t shut up, and by a leader who so pathologically reviled him he refused to say his name. Since 2010, when he posted leaked documents exposing a $4 billion embezzlement scheme by the state-run oil pipeline Transneft, Navalny endured some of the worst excesses of Russian repression as punishment for staying alive. He was harassed, detained, half-blinded, repeatedly jailed on fake charges; he was a fiery orator at protests, did “a dangerously good” job running for Moscow mayor, tried to run for president; his Anti-Corruption Foundation produced slick, stirring, deeply researched videos about Putin’s kleptocracy amidst his citizens’ dirt-poor lives, including the two-hour “Putin’s Palace: The Story of the World’s Largest Bribe” about a $1.3 billion Black Sea villa boasting a hookah bar, hockey rink, helipad and vineyard.

 

After collapsing from a poisoning by the lethal nerve-agent Novichok on a return flight from Siberia – he survived when the pilot spontaneously diverted the plane to get emergency treatment – he spent three weeks on a ventilator in Germany and five months in recovery. Then he returned to Russia in January 2021, honoring his long-held belief it would be hypocritical to be in exile and not share the abuses other Russians were living through. “Besides,” he said with his trademark grin and wit, “What bad things can happen to me inside Russia?” Before he left, he took part in the Oscar-winning documentary Navalny by German filmmakers; when they asked, if he was killed, if he had any message for the Russian people, he looked intently into the camera and soberly said, “You should not remain inactive.” Then, self-effacing, he turned away laughing. Putin denied any involvement in the assassination attempt, telling the media if Russian security had really wanted to kill the activist, they “would have finished the job.”

 

On his return, Navalny was quickly re-arrested, the start of a series of grim crackdowns. He was moved between prisons before being given a 19-year sentence at the Gulag-era, Arctic Circle “Polar Wolf” penal colony, with perhaps the most brutal conditions of Russia’s vast prison system – frigid cold, repulsive gruel for food, beatings, surveillance, solitary confinement and isolation aimed at “breaking the human spirit.” One former prisoner: “It was complete and utter annihilation.” Still, Navalny held on. “Few things are as refreshing as a walk (at) 6:30 a.m,” he joked in a letter of forced exercise at minus 26 degrees. “And you wouldn’t believe the lovely fresh wind that blows into the courtyard.” Even in his last, gaunt appearance at a hearing the day before he was killed, he smilingly razzed the judge for some of his “enormous salary” to get more books. The next day, his mother, who’d been visiting, was handed a note; it said Alexei had “felt unwell” after a walk and died of sudden death syndrome“. Doctors confirmed “the death of the convict.”

 

Hours later, Alexei’s wife Yulia made a poignant appearance at the Munich Security Conference, where she was scheduled to speak. “I thought, ‘Should I stand here before you or should I go back to my children?’” she said. “Then I thought, ‘What would have Alexei done?'” Still, Russia’s repression machine churned on. Alexei’s mother battled for days to retrieve his body, and to get permission for a funeral in Moscow, not the solitary tundra. The funeral of a Russian dissident, many noted, “always reflects the political moment.” In 1986, that of Anatoly Marchenko, the last political prisoner to die behind bars, was a dark time, said his son, but this is worse: Soviet officials “at least needed to pretend to look humane” to the west; in Putin’s regime, “They don’t care about the optics.” In 2015, when critic Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, he was due to hold a protest with Navalny, in jail for 15 days; the court refused him funeral leave, but he visited the grave his first day out, insisting, “There will be no let-up in our efforts – we will give up nothing.”

 

Russia’s “fiercest advocate for democracy” was mourned across Russia and around the world, where activists protested to show “we (still) exist…The idea of (Navalny’s) ‘beautiful Russia of the future’ hasn’t died.” Grotesquely, amidst the grieving, only a buffoon of America’s right seemed not to know that a hero had been lost. The day of Navalny’s death, useless idiot Tucker Carlson pranced and gushed through a Moscow grocery store, dazzled by the fresh bread, slick carts and low prices, part of a fawning propaganda tour of a city “so much nicer than any city in my country!” with its elegant, slave-laborbuilt subway, fast food many Russians can’t afford, tyrant-enforced lack of “filth and crime” or messy diversity that “will radicalize you against our leaders.” Jon Stewart masterfully ripped his ignorant cant, citing “the hidden fee to your cheap groceries and orderly streets – the literal price of freedom.” “Ask Alexei Navalny or any of his supporters,” he snapped. “I mean, liberty is nice, but have you seen Russia’s shopping carts?” (Or North Korea’s).

 

In the days leading up to Navalny’s funeral, the Kremlin had warned “unauthorized gatherings” would violate the law, and across the country they arrested hundreds of people for laying flowers at makeshift memorials. Still, at Friday’s ceremony in a quiet Moscow suburb near where Navalny lived until 2017 with his family, up to 10,000 people braved the threats and cold to join what became Russia’s largest opposition gathering in decades. Surrounded by bulky, armed, masked police who recorded their passports, a sea of mourners came in grief and rage, gravely standing in lines that stretched a kilometer, bearing candles, placards, armloads of flowers, remnants of hope, chanting “Russia without Putin!” “Russia will be free!” “Putin is a murderer!” and “Navalny! Navalny!” For every person there, many noted, there were likely 100 or 1,000 more who’d stayed home out of fear but were with them in spirit; allies in exile urged supporters to honor Navalny by going to local memorials to the victims of Soviet-era repression.

The Kremlin had tried to thwart efforts to hire a hearse to carry Navalny’s body to the church, the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows. When it finally arrived and pallbearers lifted out the coffin, people in the crowd began clapping, chanting and crossing themselves. Navalny was laid to rest in a brief Russian Orthodox ceremony attended by close relatives, including his parents and mother-in-law, holding candles. He lay in an open coffin, his body covered in red roses; a funereal chaplet, a paper ribbon with the image of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist, lay across his forehead. Despite enduring church ties to the Kremlin, many opposition figures, including Navalny, still count themselves among the faithfulThough Nalany rarely went to church, he said being an Orthodox Christian made him feel “like I am part of something big and shared.” After the ceremony, people streamed to nearby Borisovskoye Cemetery, where they lined up, often weeping, to pass by the fresh grave and toss in flowers or handfuls of dirt.

 

Navalny’s wife Yulia and two children, who are living outside Russia, did not attend. “I don’t know how to live without you,” Yulia wrote in a final tribute, thanking him for “26 years of absolute happiness” and vowing to continue his work. “But I will try to make you happy for me and proud of me up there.” His 23-year-old daughter Daria, a senior at Stanford University, also posted a tribute saying he had given his life for his family and for Russia. In 2021, she accepted the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for human rights advocacy on behalf of her father. “Ever since I was a child, you taught me to live by certain principles. To live with dignity,” she wrote.”You always were and will forever be an example for me. My hero. My dad.” Earlier, before the funeral, Vladimir Putin was asked if he had any message for the family Nalany had left behind. Putin said he had “nothing to say.”

With no coverage of the funeral allowed on Russian state TV, Navaly’s support team in exile broadcast it often tearfully on YouTube, where over a quarter of a million people watched; many sent messages of sorrow and defiance, which streamed alongside the images. Scenes from the funeral were also broadcast on Twitter and by some Western mediaincluding CNN, thoughat one point their Internet connection was blocked. On social media, several people posted footage of the final moments at the cemetery when Navalny’s coffin was lowered into the ground. In a flourish true to Navalny’s unflagging sense of humor, the coffin slowly dropped to the ending music for 1991’s “Terminator 2,” which Navalny called “the best film on earth,” maybe because it told the story of a small but impassioned group fighting back against a powerful enemy. The last scene sees Arnold Schwarzennegger being lowered into molten steel as he proclaims, “I’ll be back.”

 

“What did Alexei mean to you?” asked one journalist of an older woman at the funeral. She responded, “He was not afraid to ascend to Golgotha.” Many others echoed their respect for his fearlessness, resilience, tenacity. “We came just to honor the memory of the person who was not scared of anything,” said one. Also, “I loved this person, I loved this hero.” And, “It may be the only opportunity to say good-bye to Alexei. I may not be able to go inside, but at least I will give a part of my heart.” One woman quoted an online comment: “This man sacrificed himself to save the country, and the other man sacrificed the country to save himself.” “We act according to the behests left by Alexei Navalny,” she said. “His name will go down in history.”

Some media reports suggest Putin finally decided to kill Navalny amidst talk of a pending prisoner exchange that would have included Navalny, who as the noose tightened horribly around him had reportedly given up his opposition to exile. Putin, paranoid and power-crazed, could never accept his nemesis going free. But he also – see paranoid and power-crazed – likely panicked, and didn’t think through to the dangers of martydom. “Even behind bars, Navalny was a real threat to Putin, because he was living proof that courage is possible, that truth exists, that Russia could be a different kind of country,” writes Ann Applebaum in The Atlantic. “Now Putin will be forced to fight against Navalny’s memory, and that is a battle he will never win.”

 

The brave souls, sorrowful but firm, who made their daunting way to Navalny’s funeral seem to confirm that. Again and again, asked why they had risked their safety to be there, they said the same thing in different ways: “We had to.” “You can’t not come,” said one woman.” Let them see that many remember, many know. It’s not possible to silence it.” “It’s no longer scary,” said another woman. “There’s already such pain, such anger – it’s impossible to sit and be afraid.” Another pointed to the long line of fellow patriots where she stood. “It is good to be here in the company of like-minded people,” she said. “Nobody is scared. Everyone knows what they want. It is not scary when we are together.”

 

Abby Zimet is a longtime, award-winning journalist. She has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.

 

This article is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

 

Read the original article here.

 

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