Church hosting Navalny’s funeral is steeped in the war he opposed

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 9:55 AM

By Mark Trevelyan and Filipp Lebedev

(Reuters) – Alexei Navalny was a Christian who condemned the invasion of Ukraine as a crazy enterprise built on lies. But the church that was designated to host his funeral has donated to the Russian army and enthusiastically advertised its backing for the war.

Navalny, Russia’s best known opposition politician, died suddenly on Feb. 16 in an Arctic penal colony where he was serving sentences totalling more than 30 years. The Kremlin rejects accusations by his family that it had him killed.

After a week-long struggle by his elderly mother to obtain the release of his body, his supporters said this week that the funeral would take place on Friday at the “Quench my Sorrows” church near where Navalny once lived in southeast Moscow, followed by a burial at a cemetery close by.

On Thursday the arrangements were thrown into question when Navalny’s allies said attempts to hire a hearse to take his body to the service had been blocked by unknown individuals. A Reuters reporter observed a heavy police presence earlier in the day near the white onion-domed church, topped by golden crosses.

Navalny’s wife said this week she was unsure if the event would pass off peacefully or whether police would arrest supporters of her husband. Lawyers have advised those planning to attend to reduce the risk by not carrying banners, wearing tee shirts with slogans or yielding to any “provocations”.

If the funeral goes ahead, Navalny cannot expect a eulogy reflecting his years of opposition to President Vladimir Putin and fierce criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.

Multiple posts on the church’s social media platforms within the past two weeks make clear the support of its clergy and congregation for the war.

In one video, a priest and another man are shown standing in front of a Niva SUV vehicle near the church. An unidentified male voice says it was bought with donated funds to help “our warriors” in Ukraine, and wishes them victory and a safe return.

Another video, posted by the church’s Sunday school, shows eight young girls – all but one of them wearing green army-style hats – performing on stage last week to mark “Defender of the Fatherland” day, a national holiday. They march on the spot as a military song plays from a speaker and people clap in unison.

The Sunday school said children and their parents also made a trip on the eve of the military holiday to the main church of the armed forces, where they admired mosaics and stained glass windows commemorating historic Russian victories.

Earlier posts reviewed by Reuters showed worshippers at the church have raised money to buy drones, thermal underwear and other items for Russian troops. Volunteers have woven camouflage nets and children have written letters of encouragement to soldiers – typical acts of support across Russia at a time when Putin is stressing the need for national unity and the Church has thrown its full backing behind the war.


The main priest at the Quench my Sorrows church is Anatoly Rodionov, 71, whose online biography says that as a young man he served as a lieutenant in the Soviet army. It was not clear if Rodionov himself would lead the service for Navalny, and repeated calls and messages to his mobile phone went unanswered on Thursday.

Critics of the Orthodox Church hierarchy, which has introduced a special prayer for Russian victory in Ukraine and expelled priests who pray instead for peace, said Rodionov’s church’s activities suggested he was firmly on-message.

At a Russian Orthodox funeral, mourners stand with candles near the coffin and a priest leads prayers and chanting. He may then sometimes deliver a sermon reflecting on the life of the person who has died, but this is not always the case.

“I hope they will just pronounce the required liturgical texts and not say anything ‘from themselves’ over Alexei’s grave,” said Ksenia Luchenko, a religious commentator based in Germany.

Navalny spoke at various times of his religious faith and one of his last legal battles from inside prison was for the right to have a Bible and book of psalms in his cell.

“Most people are atheists, I myself was a militant atheist. But now I am a believer, and this helps me because everything becomes easier,” he said during a 2021 trial hearing.

“I ponder less, have fewer dilemmas – there is a book (the Bible) that clearly states what needs to be done in each situation. It’s not always easy to follow, but generally speaking, I try.”

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan in London and Filipp Lebedev in Tbilisi; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)