Steve Rosenberg: What Navalny's funeral tells us about Russia today

  • Written by Steve Rosenberg
  • Editor of Russia

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Alexei Navalny has been one of Putin's most outspoken critics

We witness events, and we report on them. But in the age of 24-hour news, there is often precious little time for journalists to stop, take a breath, and absorb the magnitude of what has happened.

In the hours following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, I was ceaselessly reporting to TV, radio and the BBC News website.

Only at 2 a.m. the next morning, after my last television broadcast of the day, was I able to stop and try to reckon with the enormity of the moment. It was the same with Alexei Navalny.

She talked about the problems his family faced while trying to recover his body; I've talked to Muscovites giving him flowers.

On Friday, I watched Navalny's coffin being transported to a church in Moscow. I saw thousands of Russians lining up to pay their last respects.

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WATCH: 'No one is afraid' – Defiant crowds at Navalny's funeral

I saw his supporters throwing roses and carnations onto the burial cart before it headed to the cemetery.

But once I saw the dramatic images of his coffin being lowered into the grave, I finally understood Navalny's death more fully.

Tributes continued today, as Russians – including Navalny's mother Lyudmila – came to Borisov's cemetery and laid flowers on his grave.

I've been thinking about the extraordinary scenes I witnessed yesterday and what they tell us – if anything – about Russia today.

Given the current wave of repression against dissenting voices, it was not clear how many Russians would come out to bid farewell to the Kremlin's harshest critics.

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A steady stream of people placed flowers on Navalny's grave at the Borisovskoe cemetery

In recent days, police have arrested hundreds of people across Russia during events commemorating Navalny.

When I spoke to people, young and old, lined up outside the church, they spoke of the hope Navalny gave them for a better, brighter future for their country.

They spoke in support of freedom, democracy and peace.

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Lyudmila Navalnaya, mother of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, mourns near her son's grave in a cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow.

Later, the crowds chanted slogans not heard on Russian streets since the invasion of Ukraine, such as “Freedom for political prisoners!” And “No to war!”

It astounds me that Russia has been absent from public view for two years; A Russia that does not support Vladimir Putin, or the war in Ukraine, and wants to be a democratic country.

It stands in stark contrast to the Russia shown on state television: a rabidly anti-Western, pro-Putin Russia, behind the “special military operation” in Ukraine and embracing authoritarianism at home.

The question I am left with is: Were yesterday's scenes the dying embers of liberal democracy in Russia, or a “last hello” to freedom of expression before it is completely extinguished?

Maybe those in power here think so.

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Russians gathered to try to pay respects to the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny during his funeral

They have certainly been working hard to achieve this, adopting repressive laws designed to silence and punish dissent.

In two weeks, President Putin will face no serious challenge in the Russian presidential election – his harshest critics have not shown up to the polls.

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President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win a fifth term in office, as Russians head to the polls in the country's presidential election.

After what is expected to be declared a “landslide” victory, the authorities will portray President Putin and his policies as very popular, and dismiss his critics as a small minority of the Russian people.

But, here's the thing. Russians who vote for him often tell me that they are not doing so because they are enthusiastic about his policies or his vision for Russia: they simply see no alternative.

This is precisely what the Kremlin sought to achieve by removing all serious competitors from the political arena.

What I saw on the streets of Moscow, on the day of Navalny's funeral, was completely different: a real outpouring of support for the politician who inspired a section of the Russian public with an alternative vision for Russia.

Mr. Navalny is dead. But for these people, their desire for a different Russia is still very much alive.

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