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‘There is Something Deeply Soviet About Withholding Alexey Navalny’s Body’

The suspicious death of the Russian opposition activist and behaviour over his remains shows little has changed in the Kremlin

A memorial for Alexey Navalny in Chicago. Photo: David Jank/Alamy

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Yuri Galanskov was the first of the Soviet dissidents to die in prison. A young man inspired by the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Galanskov cut a dashing figure through Sixties Moscow as he sought to make the Soviet dream a reality.

Those hopes were crushed at the end of the decade, and he wound up in prison after a widely publicised trial for handling “illegal literature”. 

In 1972, Galanskov died after years of what he described in a letter as “eternal pain” from stomach ulcers. The Soviet prison system had, to put it mildly, not looked after him. And when he died, it refused to release his body to his family, allowing only a pauper’s burial outside the prison gates. 

It was a pattern that was to continue for other political prisoners who died in Soviet jails. 

When the brilliant Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus died while on hunger strike in 1985, the authorities refused access to his body. They permitted Stus’ body only to be buried outside the gates of the prison in Perm-36, the notorious hard-regime prison that housed dozens of political prisoners from across the Soviet Union. For some of these prisoners, it was their final home.

The sheer absurdity of Soviet control over dissident corpses drove other political prisoners to write public appeals to the authorities. “Do I have the right to dispose of my own body as I wish if I die?” one prisoner inquired sardonically in 1974. The message was clear: something fundamental had been broken, violated by the paranoid overreach of the KGB. And so underground poets made their own memorials, sketching out lyric paths to scrappy prison graves on the sheets of samizdat, the loose networks of self-publishing writers that allowed Soviet citizens to access banned information. 

Some 30 years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian authorities are repeating the same tactics with the body of Alexey Navalny. 

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It remains unclear how the opposition leader died while in his Arctic circle prison. The changing versions of Navalny’s death from the Russian authorities are not convincing. The fact that they will not issue Navalny’s body to his family is of grave concern given the previous attempt on his life. Indeed, Russian journalists have already identified the likely transfer of Navalny’s body. It appears that just like in the Soviet era, the Kremlin’s crackdown on public grief for a martyr is designed to prevent any public movement – especially ahead of the presidential election next month. 

In the case of Soviet dissidents, history and its participants had their revenge, though. For Stus, it was quicker: in 1989, comrades old and new organised their own “special operation” to retrieve his body from Perm-36, battering through the prison administration’s refusals with the help of a documentary film crew. They then returned Stus’ body to Kyiv, where they held a march and ceremonial reburial attended by tens of thousands – a key episode in Ukraine’s late 1980s civic history.

Galanskov had to wait until August 1991. At the very moment of Soviet power’s collapse, his friends left the streets and squares of post-coup Moscow to get his remains and bring them back to the Russian capital. 

Navalny’s death is a moment of strength for the Putin regime, there is no denying it. But time will still show it as a moment of weakness.

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