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Russian authorities hand Navalny’s body to mother for burial

People leave flowers during a vigil for Alexei Navalny in front of the Russian Consulate General on Feb. 16 in Munich, Germany.  (Johannes Simon)
By Robyn Dixon Washington Post

RIGA, Latvia – Russian authorities on Saturday handed the body of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to his mother after she struggled for a week to recover it, according to his political team.

Dozens of Russian celebrities, artists, activists and journalists had recorded video appeals to President Vladimir Putin in recent days to hand over Navalny’s body to his family, and more than 98,000 Russians signed a petition organized by the legal rights group OVD-Info.

Earlier Saturday, Navalny’s daughter, Dasha Navalnaya, 23, also joined the campaign, posting on X, formerly Twitter, “Give my papa’s body to grandmother.”

Announcing the breakthrough, Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, said it was unclear whether authorities would interfere in the funeral arrangements.

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, has said that her wish is for him to be flown to Moscow for a public farewell service, as is tradition in Russia, and for his funeral and burial to take place at the Troyekurovskoye cemetery, where many prominent Russians, including opposition figures, have been laid to rest.

Navalnaya said earlier that Russia’s Investigative Committee, its main federal investigating authority, had pressed her to agree to a small private funeral, with only family members present.

“The funeral is still to come. We don’t know if the authorities will prevent it from being held the way the family wants and the way Alexei deserves. We will report information as it becomes available,” Yarmysh said. She thanked the thousands of Russians who supported Navalnaya’s campaign to recover her son’s body.

Navalny, 47, was Putin’s most formidable rival and one of the nation’s most prominent political prisoners. He was jailed for his campaign for a free and democratic Russia and died on Feb. 16 in the “Polar Wolf” prison in the Yamalo-Nenets region north of the Arctic Circle.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, had accused Putin of murdering her husband and delaying handing over the body to cover up the cause of death. The death certificate issued later in the week listed his cause of death as “natural causes.”

By Friday, it appeared that Russian officials might not give the body to the family at all, instead threatening to bury it in icy ground in the remote northern prison colony, according to the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov.

Doing so would have denied his family and supporters the right to a funeral and farewell ceremony and would have prevented his gravesite becoming a place where Russians could pay homage to Navalny and his courage in opposing Putin.

After Lyudmila Navalnaya traveled to the prison Feb. 17 to recover the body, she faced an eight-day, Kafkaesque battle with Investigative Committee officials to take her son for burial.

At the outset, she and her lawyers faced a brick wall, with officials barring them from entering the morgue and refusing even to tell them where the body was being held.

One prison official initially told her that her son had died of “sudden death syndrome.”

Days later, with the official cause of death listed as “natural causes,” Investigative Committee officials showed her the body late at night. But with no lawyers present, they pressured her intensely to agree to a small private funeral, threatening that his body would be allowed to decompose if she did not accept their conditions.

On Thursday, she released a video saying that officials “are blackmailing me, setting conditions on where, when and how Alexei should be buried. This is illegal.”

On Friday, she was given a three-hour ultimatum and told that Navalny would be buried without her permission in the prison colony unless she agreed to a private burial, according to Zhdanov.

But still, she did not agree.

The decision to give Lyudmila Navalnaya her son’s body marked a rare victory for an individual confronting Russian officialdom, but it also indicated the extent to which the unseemly public standoff was damaging the Kremlin.

Earlier Saturday, Yulia Navalnaya, clad in black, recorded a somber video message attacking Putin’s professed religious piety as a sham, blaming him both for the “murder” of her husband and refusal to hand over the body for burial.

“But murder was not enough for Putin. Now (Navalny’s) body is being held hostage. He mocks his mother and forces her to agree to a secret funeral,” she said. “… They threaten to bury him right in the colony where they killed him.”

She said officials had “tortured” Lyudmila Navalnaya for days with lies and threats. The order to “break” Navalnaya’s mother would have come directly from Putin, not from an Investigative Committee official in Salekhard, the town 33 miles from the prison where he died, she continued. Navalny’s body has been held at the Salekhard morgue since the night of his death.

Yulia Navalnaya said Putin was now exposed as a fraud.

“We already knew that Putin’s faith was fake. But now we see it more clearly than ever before,” she said. “No true Christian could ever do what Putin is now doing with Alexei’s body.”