Navalny told them not to give up – and they didn’t
People across Russia risked arrest to pay their respects to the dead opposition leader during a 'climate of terror'. We spoke to some of those who attended memorials
08 Mar 24

People attending memorials for Alexei Navalny risk being arrested and tortured. Photo: United States Mission Geneva via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

“Don’t go over there,” a woman warned Yaroslav Smolev – artist and musician – as he was approaching the monument to victims of Soviet-era repression in St Petersburg. He then saw the police arresting people who, like him, came to lay flowers. One of the men had his arms twisted by the officers. This was on 16 February, the day Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died, and hundreds of people came to honour him at improvised memorials.

Smolev, who spoke to Index four days later, said that the police were pushing mourners away from the monument. We found ourselves standing [at a distance], not knowing what to do or where to go from there,” he said.

But despite the brutality of the police, he recalled seeing “mountains of flowers” at the memorial.

The next day Smolev staged a solo protest in the city centre holding a sign which read “Navalny was killed because we didn’t care.” He felt that he had to speak up, remembering Alexei Navalny who “always stood up for what he believed in – in a peaceful way”.

“I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to stand there for a long time,” Smolev said. Some people walking by gave him sympathetic looks. One woman approached him and said: “Thank you for speaking up.”

Shortly afterwards, he was taken to the police station. The officers threatened to forcibly take his fingerprints and measurements. According to Smolev, they didn’t have the right to request these. “They said: ‘If you refuse, we will put you upside down, and get all the prints we need, from the top of your head to your heels’,” he told Index.

An officer threatened to throw him in a detention cell for “disobedience”. He told Smolev: “Handsome men like you are always in high demand [among the inmates in jail].”

Smolev had to advocate for himself as all the lawyers were busy that day. He refused to give in and was released three hours later. He would have to pay a fine of about 4,000 rubles ($44) for “violation of anti-COVID measures” – for standing on a sidewalk with a sign.

Smolev said that above all he fears that his home will be targeted now, like was the case after his peaceful protests in the past.

According to Dmitri Anisimov, a spokesman for OVD-Info, an organisation monitoring repression in Russia, at least 462 Navalny mourners were detained across the country, almost half of them in St Petersburg alone. No less than 78 were jailed up to 15 days. In some cases, people were not allowed to see their lawyers. Echoing Smolev’s story, Anisimov told Index that if the detained found themselves face-to-face with the police officers, anything could happen to them. At least six people were beaten up during their detention. Anisimov said that the police also handed out draft notices to some men who came to the improvised memorials for Navalny. Later these papers turned out to be fake. It’s one of the various intimidation tactics used by the authorities, he said.

At least 15 mourners were detained days after they came to the memorials, at their homes or on public transportation. Many of them were “in a state of shock” because they were unprepared for this, Anisimov said. According to him, they had been tracked through a system of surveillance cameras. Some of the people Index was going to speak to got scared off after these “delayed detentions”.

During the days following Navalny’s death, dozens of volunteers provided support for those detained and given jail time. Ekaterina, a 28-year-old democracy activist, was one of them.

Talking to Index from St Petersburg, she said that many people were placed in remote detention centres. She brought food for the detained: “Some bread, sausages, cheese, a little bit of sweets and water.”

She has been doing this volunteer work for two years, since she was detained during the anti-war protests which followed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She told Index that people awaiting trial in detention centres are not fed properly – if at all – and are not always able to access tap water.

For Ekaterina, even though it may seem that with Navalny now gone all hope is lost, people “must continue searching for hope within each other”. “We need to help people who are still alive,” she added. “People such as political prisoners.”

When Navalny died on 16 February, she came to an impromptu memorial in St. Petersburg. There were no police around at that moment. “People came and came,” she recalled and she “got a chance to stand there and cry.”

The same day, a woman in Rostov-on-Don, around 1,800 km south of St Petersburg, also came to leave flowers in memory of Navalny at the monument to the victims of political repressions.

“There were so many police officers,” she said speaking to Index anonymously. The buses for the detained were parked next to the memorial and the police were filming people who brought bouquets. “I realised that nothing good would come out of it for me,” she said. “Call me a coward, but I decided to turn around and leave.”

Two days later the woman found out that the apartment where she is officially registered – but doesn’t live – was targeted. A police officer came to give her “some kind of warning”. She suspects that the authorities might have identified her by the car license plate while she was at the memorial – and now they are looking for her.

One of her friends, whom she had warned about the risks, came to the memorial for Navalny later that day. He was ordered by the police to write a letter of explanation stating reasons for his presence at the site.

“There are no mass killings by the authorities, nor people being hanged – but it feels that way,” the woman said. “We are so frightened that we don’t dare utter a single word, and I was too scared to even lay flowers!,” she added, outraged.

Despite this “climate of terror and fear”, as she called it, she empathised that there were many people at the memorial, who felt that it was their duty to honor Navalny.

“I think that Navalny was right when he said in a documentary about him that [if the authorities  decide to kill him it means that] we’re incredibly strong,” Ekaterina, the democracy activist, told Index.

In the film his main message to the Russian people was “not to give up”.

By Alexandra Domenech

Alexandra Domenech is a Moscow-born, Paris-based journalist specialising in women’s rights in Russia