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For Navalny’s Followers, a ‘Surge of Inspiration’ at a Sad Event

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For Navalny’s Followers, a ‘Surge of Inspiration’ at a Sad Event

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Elena Milashina, a daring Russian reporter beaten unconscious and doused in liquid iodine last year, said she has bid farewell to far too many journalists, activists and opposition figures who died an untimely death.

But never, she said in a phone interview from Moscow, had she seen anything like the scene on Friday on the streets of the sleepy Maryino neighborhood on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

“This was the most optimistic funeral I can remember,” said Ms. Milashina, 47, citing the large crowds and a palpable sense of unity. “There was no grief. There was this surge of inspiration that we are all together, and that there are many of us.”

The funeral of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny on Friday may come to be remembered as a seminal moment in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia. It was a day when the president’s decades-long nemesis was laid to rest, underlining Mr. Putin’s dominance; but it was also a day when an ocean of pent-up dissent re-emerged, if only for a few hours, on Moscow’s streets.

The hope for a better Russia “died the day that we all learned that they killed Navalny,” Ms. Milashina said. “But today, I felt — you could really see it — that it was resurrected.”

Mr. Navalny spent his last three years in prison, under increasingly inhumane conditions. But many opposition-minded Russians still saw him as their Nelson Mandela, poised to someday ascend as the leader of a democratic Russia.

His death on Feb. 16 seemed to represent a capstone to Mr. Putin’s 24-year consolidation of power, two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine accelerated the Kremlin’s turn toward authoritarianism.

More than 20,000 Russian protesters were detained in the weeks after Mr. Putin launched his invasion in early 2022. A new law allowed judges to mete out multiyear prison sentences for dissent as simple as an antiwar Facebook post. Opposition activists and independent journalists fled the country, and many of those who remained were jailed or have stayed silent to avoid that fate.

As a result, it was far from clear that Mr. Navalny’s funeral would draw large crowds. But a 19-year-old woman named Anastasia made the trip from the Siberian metropolis of Novosibirsk, and said she found “smiling and happy people” who had “realized that they were not alone.”

“We just stood next to each other and felt united,” Anastasia said in a phone interview, asking that her last name not be disclosed for her own safety. “Even if we were united by such a terrible thing.”

The vast majority of the thousands who came to mourn Mr. Navalny on Friday did not make it inside the church for the brief service nor to his gravesite. Instead, after they emerged from the neighborhood’s subway station, Mr. Navalny’s supporters were directed by police officers with megaphones through streets and alleyways to stand along the sidewalk in a line leading to the church.

There was no separate wake in a funeral hall that would have allowed members of the public to pay their respects one by one, as happened at the memorial service for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who died in 2022. Mr. Navalny’s aides claimed that the Kremlin blocked their efforts to arrange such a service because it feared an outpouring of dissent just two weeks ahead of the presidential election, from which any meaningful opposition to Mr. Putin winning another six-year term has been banned from participating.

Mr. Navalny’s supporters, in turn, feared large-scale arrests. Hundreds of mourners were detained across Russia at makeshift memorials to Mr. Navalny in the days after he died. But on Friday, the Russian authorities largely let the funeral run its course, perhaps calculating that they were better off avoiding scenes of police violence.

“Everyone was ready to be detained,” Ms. Milashina said. “Everyone was a bit surprised that no one was detaining them.”

But most of all, she said, people were surprised at the size of the turnout.

They tossed their flowers at Mr. Navalny’s passing hearse. Footage from the scene showed them chanting “No to war!” and “Peace for Ukraine, freedom for Russia!”

Another chant was “Hi, it’s Navalny” — the opposition leader’s catchphrase at the beginning of his popular YouTube videos. The message seemed to be that Mr. Navalny’s movement would live on, even with its leader’s passing.

Mikhail, 36, a history teacher from Moscow, said he saw “many, many more people” than he had expected. He said people in the crowd were discussing how to keep alive the struggle against Mr. Putin, recognizing that “we can no longer hide behind a big Navalny.”

But he said he had no illusions about what would come next: another crackdown by the Kremlin.

The authorities will “start coming up with some kind of retaliation, some kind of revenge,” he said. “They’ll try even harder to intimidate everyone.”

Ms. Milashina has already been in the cross hairs of the frequent violence meted out to critics of Mr. Putin’s rule. In the southern Russian region of Chechnya, where Ms. Milashina has repeatedly documented human rights violations, a beating by masked men last year left her with brain injuries and broken fingers. Six journalists at her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, have been killed since 2000.

But on Friday, Ms. Milashina — who has remained in Russia despite the risks — voiced confidence that her country would change. The large turnout at Mr. Navalny’s funeral, she said, underlined that hope.

“A country with this sort of history doesn’t change in one moment,” she said, predicting that Russia’s politics would sooner or later swing another way. “It’s a pendulum — a historical pendulum.”

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