Russians risk arrest for mourning Alexei Navalny with vigils and flowers

Svetlana, a scholar of Russian literature, knew she risked arrest when she emerged from the Moscow subway to join hundreds of other people drawn to the Solovetsky Stone to mark the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“I will never forget how I hid the flowers under my jacket, walking out of the subway station surrounded by police vans,” Sveltana said, declining to give her full name for fear of potential retaliation.

On Saturday evening, the monument to the victims of political repression was buried under a pile of flowers, with queues forming outside the nearest flower shops. Police allowed mourners to approach the stone one by one before demanding they leave immediately.

“Most people didn’t talk; there was a dark silence. At most they laid flowers, took photos, crossed themselves, cried and left. But it is already a lot and courageous in today’s times,” Svetlana said.

At least two of those who came to the memorial to pay their respects to Navalny, who died on Friday in an Arctic penal colony, have been arrested, human rights group OVD-Info said.

The small, unauthorized gathering in Moscow was just one of many spontaneous vigils for Navalny that took place in hundreds of cities over the weekend, from Russia’s Far East to European, Asian and American capitals.

In Russia, vigils led to mass detentionsa sign that even in death Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s greatest antagonists, remained a threat to the Kremlin.

“Navalny is a name. It’s a brand. It is a set of ideological constructs. It will not disappear with Navalny’s death and this will be a problem for the authorities,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Now they will start to crush everything that emerges.”

Protesters mourn Alexei Navalny in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin © CLEMENS BILAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Across Russia, more than 340 people were arrested at Navalny memorials in the 24 hours after his death, OVD-Info reported.

Social media channels showed plainclothes men desecrating memorials to the late opposition leader around Moscow and stuffing bouquets of flowers into black garbage bags, sometimes as police watched.

In Omsk, a Russian man said he was forced to provide his passport details when he left flowers at a makeshift memorial for Navalny.

Further west, in St. Petersburg, Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko, an Orthodox priest, was arrested after announcing he would hold a memorial service for Navalny, his wife said on Facebook on Saturday.

The atmosphere at Navalny’s memorial in Russia was in stark contrast to a demonstration of more than 50,000 people who marched through central Moscow in February 2015 with flags and huge banners to commemorate Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader assassinated on the next bridge in the Kremlin.

Compared to larger rallies outside the country, the Russian vigils underlined how effective Putin’s regime has been in strangling political dissent. He also underlined the degree to which the anti-Putin opposition now resides outside Russia’s borders.

In Tbilisi – one of the focal points of the new wave of Russian emigration triggered by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago – many of those attending the memorial admitted that they simply “wanted to be among the people”.

As in other cities, people carried candles, flowers and posters with slogans ranging from anger – “Putin, die” – to hope – “Don’t give up”. A girl, her voice strained, shouted alternately: “Putin is a murderer” and “I’m fed up!”

In Berlin, hundreds of people gathered outside the Russian embassy in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, laying flowers in Navalny’s memory and brandishing signs accusing the Kremlin of his murder.

“All the red lines have been crossed,” said Olga Smirnova, 50, a former Muscovite, fighting back tears. “For the past three years the activities of the Putin regime have been bringing catastrophe across the world and unfortunately I see no end to it.”

A man lights a candle during a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia © DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

There was both sadness for Navalny and his family at the rally and a deep-rooted cynicism about how little his death would likely change Russia.

“Many people in Russia continue to support Putin. I have many acquaintances who support this. My parents support him, or rather feel neutral towards him,” said Alexei Zhurvalyov, 34, who emigrated to Berlin from Russia last year and came to the memorial with his two young daughters. “Many people who could influence things are gone.”

However, many said they find comfort in seeing others, however limited. “People were hugging each other, some were crying. It was obvious that at first we had come there just to see each other,” said Viktoria Kokareva, 31, originally from the Russian city of Voronezh, who attended a funeral ceremony in Naples.

Svetlana, the literary scholar, said she was surprised by the courage to participate in the vigil in Moscow, describing herself as “a weak person, not at all courageous”.

“Usually, I am afraid to participate in demonstrations, fearing beatings and detention,” he added. “But this time I was overwhelmed and couldn’t stay at home.”

After the commemoration he felt better. “I don’t feel so shy and helpless. It’s unbearable to be alone with myself right now.”

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