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The Funeral of Alexei Navalny: An Eyewitness Account

Published on: March 4, 2024
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Note from the Editors: We’ve written down the story given to us by Mary (the name has been changed) who was at the “Quench My Sorrows” Church in Mar’yino on the day of Alexei Navalny’s obsequies. It’s a survey of all that took place, through the eyes of a witness.

Funeral of Alexei Navalny

On March 1, early in the morning, I arrived at the Mother of God “Quench My Sorrows” Church in Mar’yino for Alexei Navalny’s funeral. The service was scheduled for 2 p.m., but I got there at 8:30 a.m. and easily walked into the church without any checks. Anyone coming in a little later, by 8:50 a.m., had to go through a full security check, emptying pockets and passing through a metal detector.

During all of the morning services, in the far corner of the church, a priest, who I think was also a monk, quietly prayed. Nobody knew him. Later, I saw video from the cemetery, where he kissed Alexei first, followed by Alexei’s mother. As is customary, he sprinkled soil onto the coffin.

The rector, Archpriest Anatoly, came into the church for a short while right before the Liturgy. This church has three sanctuaries; he entered the one on the right. Soon after, a G-Man in black followed in through a side door. The way he stood out, I couldn’t look away. He carefully scanned the congregation, while I took his photo. He then entered the sanctuary, spending time with the rector. They discussed something.

I asked the candle shop lady, who was that man in black in the sanctuary? “He’s no altar boy.” She just smiled, and said “He’s more than an altar boy.” Who could he be, well, just go ask him yourself…

I watched him again as he walked out into the congregation. He was crossing himself, like he just popped in for prayer. Except, this guy had his arms behind his back, car keys dangling and legs apart like some bodyguard. It looked so odd, and I moved over where I wouldn’t see him. Throughout the church, men in black appeared, birddogging it.

So then these men, along with city police, were talking things over with the church security guards and the candle ladies. In a moment, all the candle ladies covered their heads with white kerchiefs, like it was some “friend or foe” badge. I saw one bring out the kerchiefs from behind the counter and tell another to hand them all out. I suggested to the women around me, that if you bought yourself one of those kerchiefs, you’d be “undercover.” My thinking was, the police would leave all white heads alone, but I was wrong. I mean those women were without outside clothes, while the rest of us had our coats and jackets on.

Morning services began with Matins at 9:00. Afterwards was a long reading of the Hours.

Liturgy started around 11 a.m., followed by the blessing of water and a general panikhinda memorial service. Some took a knee during the memorial service. I think they were the ones praying for Alexei.

After liturgy, I asked the priest whether he would be conducting the funeral service. Answer: ”Probably.” I told him, he’s laying a martyr to rest. He didn’t answer.

At some point a security guard and another G-Man were busy over at the edge of the sanctuary and turned something on.

Right away, the internet went down. After I had communion, I couldn’t connect to my online prayer book to read Prayers after Communion. And there was no cell phone service. Text only.

Then we got chased out of the church. Everyone had to leave; the church needed to be cleaned, and those who wouldn’t comply were shoved out. A vacuum cleaner came to life, and the floor was being mopped. ”Church is closed for cleaning!”

I offered my services, willing to clean the candelabras or even wash the floor. Refused. I was asked to leave the building as well. I told them to remember that they’ll have to answer to God for everything. They came back with the usual: the rector didn’t give a blessing for this.

I and this other fellow brought a few prayer books to hand out. People were reading from them, saying, look, we’re just praying, why kick us out. We wouldn’t leave. Let’s be honest, we didn’t believe we’d be allowed back in.

Finally, the police showed up, rounded everyone up, and pushed us out. I have to say, they did promise we’d get back in, but no, we didn’t trust them.

So we’re in the churchyard. Behind the church fence and further away, behind the temporary fencing, are thousands of people holding flowers.

Obviously, those people would not be allowed in. I asked the priest: “Will my daughter still get in? She’s on her way from school.” He answered: ”Probably not.” That’s exactly what happened. Oh, before that, another churchgoer asked him if a lady, who’d just had an surgery, would be allowed in. Same answer.

A few minutes before the appointed time, Alexei’s family entered the church building. The church was empty of its worshipers. We were all standing on the church portico and didn’t even know they were already there. It was only when the crowds began clapping that we understood Alexei had been brought in. Behind the fences, thousands of voices sang “Alexei, Thank You!”

Only four members of the family were there: mom, dad, Julia’s mom, and over by the dad another woman, maybe an aunt. It was hard seeing them there alone, in an empty church.

Quickly, those of us who had been kicked out, were let back in. I can’t say the church was full; still, there was a lot of people.

Before beginning the funeral service, the priest reminded that this was a place of worship and peace. It looks like he was trying to tell people not to get carried away using recording devices. I have to say, in the end, no one was harassed for filming, notwithstanding stern warnings against it.

At the start of the memorial service, people would walk up to lay flowers in the coffin. Soon after, many of them were moved away, first by the priest, then by the funeral service workers. I didn’t understand any of it. Standing at the foot of the casket behind a row of people, I couldn’t see everything that was going on. I tried to get closer and facing the family, but didn’t manage to get there. Next to me stood a woman holding up a copy of Saint against The Third Reich (a biography of Saint Alexander Schmorell) and a picture of Navalny.

Following the service, the priest pronounced an incredibly short eulogy. Just a couple of simple sentences from a typical sermon. Nothing meaningful expected of such a solemn occasion was said. Truth be told, before the service, the priest crouched down beside Alexei’s mom and quietly spoke with her.

And then he said in a slurred voice, that only the family could approach the coffin to give a “last kiss.” This upset everyone. People started moving towards the coffin. I couldn’t tell what it all meant and pleaded we be allowed to approach our loved one last time! I was able to reach the coffin lid when he was whisked away. The family had left already.

Alexei’s mother… she was so quiet and looked very tired. She so wanted to—and openly talked about—letting all those who loved Alexei, to have a chance to say goodbye.

The flowers that lay around and in the coffin were left on the floor of the church. A woman grabbed some of the flowers, handing them to me, so I could get them to the cemetery. But it didn’t work out. She managed to get past the gate, but I wasn’t able to. City Police kept us in for another ten minutes. The gates stayed shut. When they finally let us out, I promised the police I’d see them all at the next Nurenberg trials.

Everywhere you looked, there were undercover cops filming. They would shove their cameras in your face, wearing masks covering everything but their eyes.

After the coffin was taken to the cemetery, you couldn’t even text anymore. I stayed by the church gates. Even though my daughter was close by in the crowd, we didn’t find each other.

It was slow going all the way to the cemetery; I finally got there at half past nine. Undercover cops continually filmed everyone lined up outside the cemetery gate. And they were standing right behind the local police.

The next day, when I brought my daughter to that church, I made eye contact with the same candle shop lady. There was a weighty sensation as if she recognized me and again found reassurance that we were expelled from the church the day before for fitting reasons.

Then my daughter and I walked to the cemetery. I so wanted her to see all the flowers, candles, cards, poems, pictures, at the spontaneous memorials I saw there on Friday. Someone had put up a cross made of tree branches above the mound of flowers—but everything, overnight, was destroyed and removed.

At the entrance to the cemetery, there was a security check, metal detectors, and even water bottles were taken from people. My question as to why all the security was left unanswered by the police. Everyone coming in had their picture taken by another G-Man. I asked him who he’s operating for. He gave me a rude answer. Dressed in black, as usual.

Yesterday, on the way out of the cemetery I asked a National Guardsman (they stood by all along the procession to the cemetery) if he could visit Navalny’s grave when he goes off-duty. Of course not, he answered. It’s not allowed.

On the third day we came back to the cemetery. My daughter asked to do it again. The police are all gone, so are all the metal detectors. You could drive your car straight up to the cemetery.

And more, and more people keep coming…

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University