Kremlin is trying to derail Navalny’s burial, allies say

Plans to hold a funeral for Alexei Navalny on Thursday have been thwarted because it would clash with an address by President Vladimir Putin, according to the former opposition activist’s foundation.

Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday that the team had struggled to find a venue for the funeral and was blocked from hiring a hall so people could pay their respects to the popular anti-corruption campaigner. Navalny’s team encouraged people to do so anyway, despite not having a central venue.

Russia, which has become increasingly repressive under Putin’s rule, suppressing free speech and political opposition, already faces a surge of support for Navalny since he died in an Arctic penal colony on Feb. 16 at age 47. 

Tributes To The Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny In Amsterdam
Tributes to Alexei Navalny are laid in Amsterdam this week.Paulo Amorim / Sipa USA via AP

Hundreds were arrested after his death as people with flowers and candles streamed to ad hoc memorials, as well as monuments to other victims of political repression, rights groups said. And campaigners say the Russian government is eager to limit further dissent in his name.

“I am not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or the police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband,” Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday.

Along with other supporters, Navalnaya has blamed Putin for her husband’s death, alleging that he was poisoned on Putin’s orders with the nerve agent Novichok and that his body was held until traces of the poison had disappeared. The Kremlin has denied the accusation of poisoning.

“Putin killed my husband, Alexei Navalny,” Navalnaya said in her speech to European lawmakers, which was punctuated by regular applause and ended with a prolonged standing ovation. On Putin’s orders, “Alexei was tortured for three years, he was starved in a tiny stone cell, cut off from the outside world and denied visits, phone calls and then even letters — and then they killed him,” she said.

Even after his death, “they abused his body and abused his mother,” Navalnaya said, in an apparent reference to claims by her mother-in-law, Lyudmila Navalnaya, 69, that officials had tried to blackmail her by insisting on a quiet, nonpublic funeral while holding the body for so long that it started to decompose.

Her husband’s death showed “Putin is capable of anything and you cannot negotiate with him,” Navalnaya said.

Putin Critic And Russia Activist Dies In Prison
Russian police on Wednesday guard the Borisov cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, where Alexei Navalny is expected to be buried this week.Getty Images

Hours before Navalnaya spoke, Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s foundation, posted a message to social media giving details of what he said were attempts to thwart the funeral plans. 

He said his team could not find anywhere to host the funeral and bury Navalny on Thursday, when Putin is due to deliver his annual address to Russia’s parliament, the Federal Assembly.

“The Kremlin understands that, on the day of farewell with Alexei, no one will be interested in Putin and his address,” Zhdanov wrote. “We don’t care about the address. Alexei needs to be buried.”

Zhdanov said that his team did manage to find a church and a cemetery on Friday but that its attempts to find a large hall have been unsuccessful.

“They again put forward the condition of ‘a quiet family funeral with farewell at the Khovanskoye cemetery,’” Zhdanov said, referring to a cemetery outside Moscow. He did not specify who made the demand. 

“In general, there will be no hall,” he said, adding: “They don’t give a date. They don’t provide a hall.” He encouraged supporters to “say goodbye to Alexei anyway.”

Navalny memorial Moscow
People lay flowers at a makeshift memorial to Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Feb. 17.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Russian officials, as well as Ritual, the state company that has a monopoly on funeral services, have been asked for comment.

Russian authorities reported that Navalny, who had survived at least one previous poisoning attempt, died in custody at a Siberian prison. According to the Russian Prison Service, he fell ill after a walk and almost immediately lost consciousness.

He died as a deal to free him was in the works, five sources told NBC News on Tuesday, although the swap was not thought to be imminent when Navalny’s death was announced. Two of the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said the proposed deal would have included the releases of reporter Evan Gershkovich and former Marine Paul Whelan.