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Russians risk arrest to mourn Alexei Navalny with vigils and flowers

Svetlana, a Russian literary scholar, knew she was risking arrest when she emerged from the Moscow metro to join hundreds of others drawn to the Solovetsky Stone to mark the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“I will never forget how I hid flowers under my jacket, exiting the metro station that was surrounded by police vans,” said Sveltana, declining to give her full name out of fear of potential retribution.

By 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 gloomy silence. At most, they lay flowers, took photos, crossed themselves, cried and left. But it’s already a lot and courageous in today’s times,” Svetlana said.

At least two of those who came to the memorial to pay tribute to Navalny, who died in an Arctic penal colony on Friday, were detained, human rights group OVD-Info reported.

The small, unsanctioned Moscow gathering was just one of the many spontaneous vigils for Navalny that sprung up in hundreds of cities over the weekend, from the far east of Russia to European, Asian and American capitals.

In Russia, the vigils led to mass detentions, a 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 is going to be a problem for the authorities,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “They will now start to crush everything that emerges.”

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

Across Russia, more than 340 people had been arrested at memorials for Navalny in the 24 hours following his death, OVD-Info reported.

Social media channels showed men in plain clothes desecrating memorials for the late opposition leader around Moscow and shoving bouquets of flowers into black garbage bags, sometimes under police supervision.

In Omsk, a Russian man said that he had been forced to provide his passport details when leaving flowers at a makeshift Memorial for Navalny.

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

The mood at the Navalny memorials in Russia was in stark contrast to a rally of more than 50,000 people who marched through the centre of Moscow in February 2015 with flags and huge banners to commemorate Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was murdered on the bridge next to the Kremlin.

Compared with the bigger gatherings outside the country, the Russian vigils underscored how effective the Putin regime has been in strangling political dissent. It also emphasised the degree to which the anti-Putin opposition now resides outside Russian borders.

In Tbilisi — one of the focal points for the new wave of Russian emigration sparked by Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago — many of those gathered at the memorial admitted they simply “wanted to be among people”.

As in other cities, people carried candles, flowers and posters with slogans, ranging from anger — “Putin, drop dead” — to hope — “Don’t give up”. A girl, with a strained voice, alternately shouted, “Putin is a killer” 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 holding signs accusing the Kremlin of his murder.

“All red lines have been crossed,” Olga Smirnova, a 50-year-old former Muscovite, said, choking back tears. “The last three years the activities of Putin’s regime are bringing catastrophe to the whole world and unfortunately I don’t see an end.”

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

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

“A lot of people in Russia continue to support Putin. I have a lot of acquaintances who support him. 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. “A lot of the people who could influence things left.”

Still, many said they found comfort in seeing others, however limited. “People were hugging each other, some were crying. It was obvious that in the first place, we came there just to see each other,” said Viktoria Kokareva, a 31-year-old native of the Russian city of Voronezh who attended a memorial service in Naples.

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

“Usually, I’m afraid to attend rallies, fearing beatings and detentions,” she added. “But this time I was overwhelmed and I couldn’t stay at home”.

After the memorial, she felt better. “I don’t feel so timid and powerless. It’s unbearable to be alone with myself right now.”

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