Alexei Navalny funeral draws thousands to heavily policed Moscow church

Defying the Kremlin’s warning of arrests, thousands of mourners have gathered in Moscow to bid farewell to the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, two weeks after Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic died in an Arctic prison.

Crowds of people chanted “Putin is a murderer” and “No to war” as they marched, under heavy police presence, to the Borisovsky cemetery where Navalny, 47, was lowered into the ground on Friday to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

The public show of support turned Navalny’s last journey into a rare display of dissent in Russia at a time of unprecedented repression.

Accompanied by loud applause and chants of “Navalny”, the hearse carrying his coffin arrived at the Quench My Sorrows church in the Maryino district, where the late politician used to live before he was poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in 2020.

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, who spent more than a week in Russia’s Arctic north to retrieve his body from IK-3 prison, and his father, Anatoly, were part of the small group of people attending the church ceremony that preceded the burial.

Navalny’s team published a photograph of the memorial service that showed Navalny’s body in an open casket covered in flowers with his parents sitting by his side.

“This is an image that should have never existed,” a tearful Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s longtime ally said during a livestream of the funeral on Navalny’s YouTube channel.

After the short religious procession, Navalny’s coffin was driven to the Borisovsky cemetery and lowered into a freshly dug grave. Footage from the cemetery showed his mother kissing him goodbye for the last time before his face was covered in white cloth.

The theme from Navalny’s favourite film, Terminator 2, was played after his coffin was lowered into the ground.

Related: ‘They don’t care about the optics’: in Navalny’s funeral, echoes of dissidents past

Many of the opposition leader’s family – including his wife, Yulia, his son, Zakhar, daughter, Dash, and his brother Oleg – live outside Russia and did not attend the funeral. They would risk arrest if they returned to the country.

Most of his closest allies, who have been forced to flee Russia after criminal charges were laid against them, are on Moscow’s wanted list and would face long-term prison sentences if they entered Russia.

Russian authorities claim Navalny fell unconscious and died suddenly after a walk. His widow has accused Vladimir Putin of murdering him.

In an emotional post on social media, Yulia bid farewell to her husband: “Thank you for 26 years of pure happiness … I don’t know how to live without you, but I’ll try to make you happy and proud of me up there.”

Western diplomats, including ambassadors from the US and Germany and Britain’s chargé d’affaires, Tom Dodd, attended the funeral.

Video footage showed mourners throwing flowers at the hearse as it drove away from the church towards the Borisovsky cemetery.

Many of the thousands who came to pay their respects said they understood the risks of attending amid warnings of possible arrests but decided to come anyway. The Kremlin had said any unsanctioned gatherings in support of the late Russian opposition leader would be met with arrests. Hundreds of people had already been detained in Russia while laying flowers at vigils for Navalny across the country in the days after his death last month.

At least 67 people were arrested during tributes to Navalny across Russia, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info. Human rights experts said those who attended the funeral could be added to a database and possibly punished at a later date.

Ivan, a Navalny supporter who attended the funeral, said: “I feel pain, like any other person who came here. I have come to say bye to a real leader. He was the best of us. He told us not to be scared, and it’s our duty to be here. I am not scared. My fear evaporated a long time ago.”

Some mourners were heard shouting: “He was not afraid, and neither are we”, and: “Russia will be free”.

Before the start of the ceremony, there were reports of arrests, with several Navalny supporters detained as they left their apartments to attend the funeral.

“I am scared, of course, of arrests,” said one mourner, who declined to give her name. “I feel pain that can’t be described. I have been following Navalny for a long time. My hope has died … How can you live without hope,” she said.

More than 250,000 people were watching the livestream of the funeral on YouTube that Navalny’s team set up, despite reports that the authorities had interrupted internet access around the church.

The Navalny team said the Kremlin was trying to prevent images of the funeral from circulating online, while one internet freedom group said mobile phone service data had been restricted.

The lead-up to the funeral was marked by controversy. Navalny’s family repeatedly accused the Kremlin of pressuring them into holding a closed ceremony without the public, and his mother was forced to battle for days to retrieve his body.

Related: ‘It’s a torture regime’: the last days of Alexei Navalny

Investigators tried to blackmail her into holding a quiet funeral in the remote Arctic region where he had died.

Putin has yet to comment on Navalny’s death. In a call with reporters on Friday, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to give any assessment of Navalny as a political figure and said he had nothing to say to Navalny’s family.

Russian officials shunned the procession, but it was attended by the pro-peace politicians Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, both of whom were recently barred from running against Putin in the presidential elections later this month.

“We have come to say goodbye to a person who was a symbol of an era. There is still hope that everything will be all right and Russia will be free and peaceful as Alexei had dreamed,” Nadezhdin told the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd while standing outside the church.