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Navalny’s mother says Russian authorities ‘blackmailing’ her over son’s remains

Flowers and candles are left at a memorial on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, after the announcement that the Kremlin's most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, had died in an Arctic prison. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)  ((John MacDougall/AFP)
By Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko New York Times

Russian authorities have declared that opposition leader Alexei Navalny died of natural causes but are refusing to release his remains until his family agrees to a “secret funeral,” Navalny’s mother and his spokesperson said Thursday.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, Navalny’s mother, said she had been “secretly” taken to a morgue Wednesday night, “where they showed me Alexei.” She was shown a medical report on Navalny’s death that said he died of natural causes, according to the Navalny team’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh.

But Navalnaya, 69, said she now was locked in a grim battle with local authorities in the northern Russian city of Salekhard who, taking orders from Moscow, were not releasing custody of the remains. She said authorities warned that if she did not “agree to a secret funeral,” then “they will do something with my son’s body.”

“They’re blackmailing me,” Navalnaya said in a video posted on her son’s YouTube channel. “They are setting me conditions on where, when and how Alexei should be buried.”

The back-and-forth over Navalny’s remains reflects how pivotal a figure he is in Russian politics and around the world — even in death. Proving that, President Joe Biden met with Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, and his daughter, Daria, on Thursday in California, where Daria, who goes by Dasha, is a student at Stanford University.

The president expressed his admiration for Navalny’s “extraordinary courage and his legacy of fighting against corruption and for a free and democratic Russia in which the rule of law applies equally to everyone,” according to a White House statement. The president emphasized that Navalny’s “legacy will carry on through people across Russia and around the world mourning his loss and fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights.”

After his meeting, Biden told reporters in San Francisco that the United States would announce sanctions Friday against President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Biden said the Russian leader was responsible for Navalny’s death.

“We are not letting up,” Biden added.

The Kremlin appears to fear that a funeral drawing Navalny’s supporters could turn into a focal point for protest. There was no immediate comment from Russian authorities on Lyudmila Navalnaya’s assertions.

“They want to take me to the edge of a cemetery to a fresh grave and say, ‘Here lies your son,’” Navalnaya said in her video from Salekhard, the closest city to the Arctic prison where Navalny died last week. “I don’t agree with this. I want those of you who valued Alexei and take his death as a personal tragedy to have the chance to say farewell to him.”

As the drama played out, Putin stayed silent about Navalny and continued a publicity tour that seemed geared toward next month’s presidential election — a rubber-stamp affair Putin is assured to win, but one the Kremlin is expected to use to demonstrate Putin’s legitimacy.

On Thursday, Putin took a short flight on a supersonic bomber, a stunt that doubled as a conspicuous reminder to the West of his country’s status as a nuclear superpower. Earlier this week, Putin denied American officials’ warnings that Russia may be planning to place a nuclear weapon into orbit — but added that Russia’s new generation of nuclear weapons meant for earthbound targets are what “they really should be afraid of.”

Thursday’s flight took only 30 minutes, the Kremlin said in a statement, but the range of the wide-wing Tu-160M, also known as a White Swan in Russia, allows it to reach the continental United States with two dozen nuclear weapons aboard.

Russian state television showed Putin, 71, climbing up the stairs under the giant warplane, one of the largest and heaviest in the world, before it took off from the runway of an airfield in Kazan, a city east of Moscow. The Kremlin released a video of Putin’s flight that showed him sitting in a pilot’s seat.

Upon disembarking the plane, Putin told reporters that the flight left a good impression and praised the new modernized bomber as “very reliable.”

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, told state television that Putin made the decision to take the flight spontaneously Thursday when he visited an aviation factory in Kazan, where he inspected four modernized Tu-160M bombers.

But since he became Russia’s president more than two decades ago, Putin has become known for publicity stunts, designed to cast him as a strong leader of a great power. He has flown in a fighter jet, plunged into the sea in a submersible and steered Siberian cranes to their winter habitat in a motorized hang glider. In 2005, Putin took a flight in an older version of the Soviet-era bomber, the Tu-160.

Putin has said nothing in public about Navalny’s death last Friday, though Peskov said the same day that the president had been briefed.

Other Russian officials, however, have continued to attack Navalny’s movement after his death. On Thursday, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now the deputy head of Putin’s Security Council, trained his ire on Navalny’s widow.

Yulia Navalnaya, who had long shunned the spotlight, said after her husband’s death that she would work to carry on his legacy.

“Look at the smiling, happy face of Navalny’s widow,” Medvedev said in an interview released Thursday. “You get the feeling that she was waiting for this event all these years in order to unfold her political life.”

Yulia Navalnaya dismissed Medvedev’s comments on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, calling him a “nobody.”

But the biggest source of tensions Thursday centered on what would happen to Navalny’s body and his funeral.

Ivan Zhdanov, a top aide to Navalny, said that investigators had told Navalny’s mother that her son’s body needed to be stored outside Moscow before burial because they were afraid that a morgue in the Russian capital “would be stormed.”

In an interview posted to YouTube on Thursday, Zhdanov said that investigators, under orders from Moscow, tried to limit Navalny’s relatives in their choice of cemetery and funeral hall. Zhdanov compared the authorities’ demands to the funeral of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was laid to rest secretly in St. Petersburg after leading a 24-hour mutiny against the Kremlin and dying in a plane crash two months later.

“It is hard to surprise us,” Zhdanov said. “But it was hard to imagine that a mother would be blackmailed with a rotting body in order to bring it to Moscow and bury it in secret.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.