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Thousands of people paid respects at Alexei Navalny's funeral in Moscow

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An enormous crowd turned out in Moscow today to pay respects to the late Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. Navalny's funeral came two weeks after he died under mysterious circumstances in a remote Arctic prison. It also followed what Navalny's family says was an extended battle with the state to hold the event. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes reports.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: In Russia's current climate of repression and fear, perhaps the most surprising thing about the funeral for Alexei Navalny was that it passed largely without incident.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Hundreds of police and riot troops were positioned around the Orthodox church near Navalny's home in the south of Moscow, in advance of a service no one was entirely sure was safe to attend without risk of detention.

DMITRY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Can you imagine this in your country," says Dmitry, a television writer who, like everyone in this story, asked their last names not be used. Dmitry compared the state's treatment of Navalny's family with something out of the Middle Ages and worried openly about his own impending arrest.

DMITRY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "I leave my house, and I'm not sure if I'll see my wife, my kids or even my cat tonight," he says. "I'm afraid, but I'm here because if I don't come, it means we already live in a dictatorship."

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Anna, a 59-year-old artist, came prepared. She had documents and a change of clothes in case she was detained and sentenced to a stint in jail, a chilling echo of the purges under Stalin.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "I wasn't always a fan of Navalny as a politician, but he became a martyr for truth," she says, "and I feel obligated to pay my respects."

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And she wasn't alone. Thousands turned out, lining the streets around the church despite yet another concern, whether the funeral would take place at all. In the weeks following Navalny's death in a remote Arctic prison, his family accused the government of repeatedly thwarting efforts to hold a memorial service for the late opposition leader, a charge the Kremlin denies. Yet even today Navalny's allies said mortuary services had all refused to transport Navalny's body from the city morgue. So when Navalny's coffin did arrive in a black minivan to the church gates, the crowd broke out in applause even as security forces pressed forward, pinning people behind metal barricades. As Navalny's parents attended the funeral inside, mourners on the street chanted Navalny's name and many of the political slogans that made him President Vladimir Putin's most famous critic for more than a decade.

MARINA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Marina, a designer, said she was attracted to Navalny's anti-corruption work, his investigations into government graft at the highest levels that she argued ultimately cost him his life.

MARINA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Too many good people who tried to help the country and not themselves are now dead," she tells me.

YULIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Yulia, a lawyer and young like so many here, says, despite the large turnout, it should have been bigger.

YULIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "To be honest, I look around and think how many more people would be here but were too afraid," she said, adding several of her own friends backed out at the last minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

MAYNES: An hour later, church bells rang out, signaling the end of the service. Navalny's coffin was about to emerge. Mourners threw flowers over the heads of riot police and onto the van that would take him to his final resting place, a nearby cemetery.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

MAYNES: Men in black, their faces covered in masks, photograph the crowd, a less-than-subtle sign the government was watching who was there. The Kremlin spokesman said President Putin had no interest in today's events and nothing to say to the family. Navalny's allies say authorities did not want a public memorial out of fear it could turn into a protest against Putin and the war in Ukraine. Yet an anti-government protest is, in fact, what this was, on a day of defiance mixed with grief. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. 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.

Charles Maynes