03/09/2024, 09.48
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Russia's funeral from Sakharov to Naval'nyj

by Stefano Caprio

Naval'nyy has once again succeeded in overcoming repression and with his death has brought a new 'flower revolution' to the streets. They bring a flower to the small grave in one of the capital's most peripheral and neglected cemeteries where the heart of Russia now stands, the counterbalance to Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square, in front of which the guns and cannons parade.

The mountain of flowers over Aleksej Naval'nyj's grave, just behind the entrance to the Borisovo cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, has now surpassed two metres in height and ten metres in length, after an uninterrupted pilgrimage lasting more than ten days, during which, according to the most reductive estimates, more than 30,000 people have come to honour the dissident who died in the lager.

Such well-attended funerals have not been seen since the funeral of Andrei Sakharov, who died at the age of 68 in December 1989, on the eve of Russia's momentous changes after seventy years of Soviet rule.

It seemed then a sad twist of fate that the main leader of dissent died prematurely just three years after his release from twenty-year confinement, but the demise of the 47-year-old Naval'nyj after three years in a lager re-proposes in a far more tragic way the fate of free men in the darkness of the inexorable repression that characterises every form of regime in Russia, from the Tatar yoke to tsarism, from communism to Putinism.

If Sakharov had been commemorated in a solemn and official manner, with the body being laid to rest in the Sportivnaja building near the centre of Moscow, with long queues of people waiting in the winter frost for their turn.

The procession to Naval'nyj was heightened by the restrictive conditions that prevented public funeral services, liquidating the church ceremony in a few minutes and only for close relatives, and forcing the many people who had come to the church of the icon of the Mother of God of the 'Relief of Sorrows' to walk to the small cemetery, again amidst the snow and frost of the still imposing winter.

In recent days, Borisovo's caretakers have struggled to keep to the closing times, made even stricter by orders from above, but people have continued to arrive day and night, throwing flowers even over the railings, heedless of the thousands of cameras that filmed every patron and led to the arrest of hundreds of people.

As some of those arrested commented, 'a week in a cell for Naval'nyj is like spending a few minutes with him in paradise', and many will still go to honour him, for days and years to come.

Naval'nyj once again managed to win over the repression, which had been preventing any protest demonstration in Russia for two years, and with his death brought a new 'flower revolution' to the streets, an event that will never again be forgotten in Russian history.

Bringing a flower to the grave without hiding one's face, answering questions from journalists or simply from passers-by, are actions of enormous symbolic value in a country where militant patriotism is exasperatedly tried to be celebrated alongside universal hatred.

The small tomb in one of the capital's most peripheral and neglected cemeteries is now the heart of Russia, the counterbalance to Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square, in front of which guns and cannons parade instead of flowers and candles.

In Borisovo there are no heroes of the fatherland or unknown soldiers, there is only a young man smiling in the photos brought by his mother, and thousands of brothers and sisters.

The funeral of Naval'nyj can be compared to that of Anna Politkovskaya, buried in the important Moscow cemetery of Troekurovo on 10 October 2006, with a thousand people pouring in with flowers.

At the time, the guarantor of human rights, Vladimir Lukin, intervened, calling on the authorities to defend journalists and freedom of information. That death was in some ways the real beginning of Putinism after a few years on the quiet, putting an end to the illusions of building a free country after so much oppression.

The liberal politician Boris Nemtsov was buried in the same cemetery on 3 March 2015, after a ceremony at the Sakharov Centre, reconnecting with the memories of dissent.

The former Dauphin of Yeltsin and friend of Naval'nyj had been assassinated by Chechen killers like Politkovskaya, but in an even more spectacular manner on the bridge behind the Kremlin, just outside the editorial office of the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Today, both the radio station and the Sakharov Centre were closed. Even at Nemtsov's funeral there was a queue hundreds of metres long, and even a representative of the authorities, Vice-Premier Arkadij Dvorkovič, showed up, trying to dampen the crowd's spirit of protest.

Less than two years ago, on 3 September 2022, Moscow's most important monumental cemetery in Novodeviči was the burial place of former secretary and president Mikhail Gorbačev, who came peacefully to the end of his days after having first ignited a light of hope almost forty years ago, which then became dimmer and dimmer and finally buried in the suburbs.

Even the funeral of the father of perestroika can in some ways be likened to that of the anti-Putin dissidents, with the symbolic image of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, Politkovskaya's companion and heir and now damned as a 'foreign agent', holding a photograph of the deceased leader in front of the tomb.

Even then, many people paraded with flowers, and the commemoration took on a clear character of protest against Putin's war, which the elder Gorbačev had commented on with a very explicit question: "but what good does it do him?". Putin in fact did not turn up at the funeral because he 'had too much to do'.

When Gorbačev died, Naval'nyj was still in the 'soft' lager in Vladimir, from where he could more easily disseminate his comments, and explained that 'my relationship with Gorbačev has evolved greatly over time, from a deep dislike to a painful respect'.

He recalled that the last secretary of the CCP, and first president of the 'new' USSR, had been the only man of power who had not sought to enrich himself, leaving office voluntarily and peacefully, and above all, 'it was he who had freed Sakharov and the prisoners of conscience'.

We therefore return to Sakharov in a historical inclusion of anti-Soviet dissent and today's dissent, which mark the passage of epochs: with Sakharov's death, opposition to the communist regime had ended, because it seemed that it was no longer necessary; with Naval'nyj's, opposition to the Putinist regime has ended, because there is no longer any possibility of opposition, and all that remains is to bring a flower to the grave.

From the Brezhnevian twenty-year period, during which the young Vladimir, now President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, grew up and trained in Leningrad alongside the dissidents, we have moved on to the Putinian twenty-year period in the same spirit of neo-Stalinism, stifling all forms of dissent and imposing war as the only form of expression of the identity of the people, and of relationship with the entire world.

The rhetoric of Victory and Unity (the sobornost) impose the identification of the enemy, internal and external, and the celebration of the unique and eternal Power, as will happen in the Putin presidential plebiscite in a week's time.

The festivities and fanfares awaiting Russia for the start of yet another presidential term will disproportionately increase the grotesque feeling of a return to bygone eras, when voting was bogus and purely decorative, and actually resembled much more like funerals of human conscience and historical truth.

Putin's re-election is actually his umpteenth funeral, the confirmation that there is no more life in the Kremlin, that present-day Russia is only associated with death, as is the case every day in Ukraine.

While death is a concept that cannot be applied to Aleksej Naval'nyj, to his smile and cheerfulness even in the most terrifying lager since Auschwitz, where sub-zero walks are reminiscent of gas chambers and the worst tortures.

The macabre face of Putin, a walking corpse spouting world war in front of the inanimate beings gathered in the Senate hall, is today obliterated by the sunny gaze of Naval'nyj, eternally young and ever more alive, flourishing every day thanks to the love of the true Russian people, those who live in the suburbs and not in the palaces of power, who invoke the Mother of God in their sorrows instead of using the Trinity as a banner of war.

An era is over, a new Russia must be born, and the seed has been sown: the Russian soil has been fertilised, even under the frost, under the mountain of flowers in a small cemetery on the edge of everything.

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