RUSSIA: Navalny, a cumbersome corpse for the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church

Navalny, a convert from atheism to Orthodoxy, remains a source of disarray after his death

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers


HRWF (2002.2024) – The unexpected death of Alexei Navalny at the age of 47 in a Siberian prison plunges the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate into disarray because they do not know what to do with this cumbersome corpse.


The Kremlin’s delaying tactics aimed at not showing his body to his loved ones and even not having access to it at all are raising all sorts of suspicions about the real causes of his death.


There is no doubt that the Kremlin does not want to see the grave on Russian soil of a fierce opponent of Putin become a place of pilgrimage for those who disapprove of his policies.  Moreover, the situation is also very embarrassing for Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who always fully supports Putin even in his war against Ukraine, as Navalny, a former atheist, would certainly have wanted to be buried religiously. No doubt it will also be the wish of his wife and their two children. An Orthodox priest will then have to be brought in to deliver his eulogy and bless him. Very embarrassing. The next few days or weeks should show us how Putin and Patriarch Kirill will try to fare out of the game.

Navalny was serving a 19-year sentence for alleged extremism and years of criticism of the authoritarian Putin in a harsh penal colony north of the Arctic Circle.


Navalny: an atheist converted to Orthodoxy

In an interview with Open Democracy, he declared:

“I am a believer; I like being a Christian and a member of the Orthodox Church, I like to feel part of something large and universal. I like the fact that there is a distinctive ethos and certain asceticism. But at the same time I am quite happy to live in a predominantly atheist milieu. Up to the age of 25 or so, when I became a father, I was such a rabid atheist that I was ready to grab any priest by the beard.”


Navalny, the Russian Orthodox Church and freedom of religion

In the same interview with Open Democracy, he said:

“Orthodoxy is the principal religion of Russia, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves by trying to insist on absolute equality. The Russian Orthodox Church’s special role is understandable and reasonable.


Over 80% of Russian citizens consider themselves to be Orthodox (even if they do not go to church). Christmas is a public holiday. It is clear that any attempt to pay as much attention to Russia’s Buddhists as to Orthodox believers is doomed to failure.


If Buddhists wish it, their religion and priests can have a special role to play in traditionally Buddhist areas such as Kalmykia or Buryatia. And it’s fine if Tatarstan and Bashkiria have public holidays linked to Islamic festivals.


We should not, however, deny the obvious fact that the religion of Russia is Orthodox Christianity. This does not, I repeat, imply any discrimination against anyone else. Any limitation on the rights of members of other confessions, or of atheists, should be punishable by law.


The subject of the ‘coalescence’ of the Patriarchate and the government is a sensitive one. The position of the Orthodox Church on this is that all power comes from God, so they will support whoever is in power. You have to be philosophical about this. (…)


A few days ago I read an intriguing article in the ‘Vedomosti’ newspaper, on the subject of the peaceful removal of dictators from power. Interestingly, in almost all cases the church acted as main intermediary between the dictator and protesting citizens.  Would this be possible here? It’s very unlikely.


But I would like to see the Orthodox Church occupying a position in society where the parties in any conflict would seek and accept its mediation.”

The European Court brought justice to Navalny

On 6 June 2023, in the case of Navalnyy v. Russia No 3 (Application no. 36418/20) concerning the attempted poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 2 (right to life/investigation) – procedural aspect – of the European Convention on Human Rights.


The case concerned the refusal of the Russian authorities to open criminal proceedings into Aleksey Navalnyy’s alleged poisoning in August 2020 which led to his falling into a coma and being put on life support. Forensic examinations carried out in Russia concluded that no potent, poisonous, narcotic or psychotropic substances had been found on samples taken from him or on other items submitted for analysis. After he was flown to Germany for medical treatment, the German Government announced that the results of tests they had carried out revealed definite proof of the presence of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group of substances prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention.


The Court found in particular that the inquiry conducted by the Russian authorities had not been open to scrutiny and had made no allowance for the victim’s right to participate in the proceedings.


Furthermore, it had failed to explore the allegations of a possible political motive for the attempted murder, as well as possible involvement of State agents, and had not followed up on the reported use of a substance identified as a chemical weapon prohibited by international and domestic law. As such, the inquiry had not been capable of leading to the establishment of the relevant facts and the identification and, if appropriate, punishment of those responsible. It therefore could not be considered adequate.

On 17 October 2017, in the case Navalnyy v. Russia (Applications nos. 29580/12 and 4 others), the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Navalny’s conviction for fraud and money laundering “was based on an unforeseeable application of criminal law and that the proceedings were arbitrary and unfair.”

The Court found that the domestic court’s decisions had been arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable. ECHR found the Russian courts’ decisions violated articles 6 and 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. On 15 November 2018, the Grand Chamber upheld the decision.

Photo: Memorial 

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