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Alexei Navalny's funeral shows his legacy will live on in Russian politics

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Navalny, Navalny.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Crowds outside a church in Moscow for the funeral of Alexei Navalny. The Russian opposition leader died just two weeks ago in an Arctic penal colony. Mourners chanted, Putin is a murderer. Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School in New York City, and she joins us now. Professor, thank you so much for being with us.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Good morning. Thank you.

SIMON: Despite the risk of arrest, thousands of mourners turned out yesterday for Alexei Navalny's funeral. What does this say about him and the legacy he leaves?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Tens of thousands, actually. There was a lot, a lot of people. We thought that there would be many people, but that really toppled all the expectations. It says that Russia is not as monolithic as it is being presented, at least for the last two years, that 80% support Putin and people for the war. It's not the case. I mean, if you are in Russia, you will see that cracks to the system are visible everywhere. And once in a while, when it's safer than protests individually because safer - it was officially sanctioned funeral, allowed funeral - and therefore people came out. And the legacy of Alexei Navalny is a hero. He's the Andrei Sakharov, the human rights oppositionist in the 1970s and '80s. And now he's the hero of - against the regime. And Putin's legacy is that he will always be a killer, direct or indirect, of Alexei Navalny.

SIMON: At the same time, does Alexei Navalny's death and the deaths of so many opponents of the Putin regime discourage the opposition from showing up, from taking action?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, it's difficult. The opposition is not discouraged. It's just really impossible to be that because the minute you are recognized or even potentially suspected to be an opposition leader, you are going to end up in prison. Your property will be confiscated. And we saw it before Navalny last month with presidential candidate Nadezhdin, who gathered many, many signatures in his support. And what happened next? The system immediately forbade him from running for president. So it is difficult. But the point is that there is a very serious protest underneath. Silent - I don't know if it's majority - but silent force that is absolutely clear that they are not a fan of what's going on in the country.

SIMON: Yulia Navalny (ph), Alexei Navalny's widow, has indicated that she would like to kind of pick up the mantle and continue the work of her husband. She and her children did not attend the funeral. Is it dangerous for her to return to Russia and try and become active?

KHRUSHCHEVA: It is dangerous for her. And she has to pick up the mantle. Otherwise, Alexei Navalny - and she said it herself - will have died in vain. So it's very important that she speaks up. But how successful she could be in really galvanizing the opposition inside the country - I'm not that sure because Navalny himself understood that in order to be an opposition leader in the - an opposition leader about the country, you have to be in the country. And that's why he returned after poisoning, recuperating in Berlin. He returned to Moscow in January 2021, knowing what the consequences would be for him. So it would be difficult for her. But it's better than she speaks up than she doesn't.

SIMON: Professor Khrushcheva, you know Russia so well - its leaders, its history. Is there a way for people opposed to the Putin regime to challenge his rule and survive?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, so far, they are surviving. But it's very difficult to challenge his rule and have it results. At least it doesn't seem to be happening in the near future. But what's important is to recognize that the opposition - as I said, the opposition is there. One of the Western ambassadors who came to the funeral yesterday, said, oh, we finally saw the human face of Russia. Well, you know, what was he doing as an ambassador? There is a human face of Russia, and I hope it's going to be presented in the Western media more because that helps - that all Russians are not being hated as if they're all supporters of Putin if they stay in the country.

SIMON: Half a minute that we have left. A lot of people thought that Russia's war in Ukraine would significantly alter the support for Putin. Has that not been the case?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, it has been the case. But when you are oppressed from the top all the time, when your voice - when even a like on Facebook becomes a criminal case, it's very difficult to express it openly the way everybody thought Russians should. So yes, the support has waned. But at the same time, the expression of it is almost not possible.

SIMON: Nina Khrushcheva of The New School in New York, thanks so much for being with us.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.