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The body of late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny during a funeral service in Moscow, on March 1.-/Getty Images

It felt like a funeral not just for Alexey Navalny, but for the kind of Russia that might have existed had he been allowed to live, and to challenge Vladimir Putin in a free and fair election.

Thousands of Russians, young and old, gathered on the streets outside a church in southeast Moscow on Friday, ignoring the busloads of riot police who stared on as the crowd chanted Mr. Navalny’s name and clapped as his coffin passed. Some yelled “assassins” at the security forces, reflecting the opposition’s belief that Mr. Navalny’s Feb. 16 death in an Arctic penal colony was a murder ordered by the Kremlin.

That so many Russians defied official pressure, and the possibility of arrest, to pay their respects to Mr. Navalny was a sign that there are still those who reject Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism and war-mongering. But the mood was understandably sombre, and a defeated air hung over both the mourning on the streets of Moscow and the online memorials set up by the opposition leader’s team.

There were flickers of the old bravery and defiance – and chants of “Russia will be free” – but the days when Mr. Navalny would lead tens of thousands of his supporters on marches through Moscow, smiling even as he was inevitably dragged away by police, are now a faint memory.

Under a heavy police presence, hundreds of people bade farewell in Moscow on March 1 to Alexey Navalny at his funeral after his still-unexplained death two weeks ago in an Arctic penal colony.

The Associated Press

Mr. Navalny emerged as the face of the anti-Putin protest movement in the winter of 2011 and 2012, when change seemed possible anywhere after the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Standing on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square – just beneath the Kremlin walls – as Mr. Navalny and his ally Boris Nemtsov led the crowd in joyous chants of “Russia without Putin!” that change seemed just around the corner.

Mr. Putin not only outlasted that challenge, he has fundamentally changed Russia and the world since then. The past dozen years have seen the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s intervention to support dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, the invasion of Ukraine and the complete destruction of Russia’s political opposition.

I once asked Mr. Nemtsov why that crowd on Bolotnaya didn’t charge the last few hundred metres and storm the Kremlin that day in December, 2011. He told me some of the other opposition leaders had suggested exactly that, but he convinced them not to, in order to avoid bloodshed. After the murder of Mr. Nemtsov in 2015, and now the death of Mr. Navalny, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been.

Would a harsh crackdown have followed? Likely. But Russia ended up there anyway. There was also a chance that the crowd would overwhelm the police, and usher in a very different Russia. That’s precisely what happened in Kyiv two years later.

The Russian opposition’s aversion to violence is the subject of scorn among many Ukrainians. That refusal to fight for their own country, as Ukrainians see it, left Mr. Putin in power and free to launch a war against their neighbour that has since killed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people.

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People gather near the Borisovskoye cemetery during the funeral for Navalny.Stringer/Reuters

No one could accuse Mr. Navalny of lacking bravery. He survived a poisoning in the summer of 2020 – and then published his own investigation showing it had been an assassination attempt carried out by Russia’s FSB security services. After recovering in Germany, he returned to Moscow in January, 2021, despite knowing there was an active warrant for his arrest.

He was taken directly to jail upon his arrival at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, as he knew he would be, but believed he could not credibly oppose Mr. Putin from outside the country’s borders. He continued his challenge from behind bars – writing statements that his supporters posted to social media – leading to 27 separate stints in isolation cells over the next three years.

Mr. Navalny irritated Mr. Putin to such an extent that the Kremlin boss refused to utter Mr. Navalny’s name. His funeral was predictably ignored by Kremlin-controlled media – and he was everything the 71-year-old Mr. Putin is not. He was tall, handsome and comfortable addressing the crowds of ordinary Russians the diminutive Mr. Putin avoids. While most of the Kremlin supporters are older Russians nostalgic for the Soviet Union, the 47-year-old Mr. Navalny appealed to young and connected Russians who have little or no memory of that time.

Mr. Navalny had his flaws. He was instinctively a Russian nationalist, and initially supported Mr. Putin’s move to seize and annex Crimea following the pro-Western revolution in Kyiv, though Mr. Navalny later said that he respected Ukraine’s 1991 borders. But not even his harshest critics believe that the lawyer and anti-corruption activist would have invaded Ukraine, or kept Russia on its current course of confrontation with the West.

Thousands of his supporters were lined up outside the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows on Friday for more than two hours before the ceremony was scheduled to begin. Some wore face masks, or turned away as Mr. Navalny’s team filmed the scene for their YouTube channel. Others stared directly into the cameras, sometimes teary-eyed, as if they wanted to make sure their presence was recorded.

Online, more than 200,000 viewers tuned in to the Navalny team’s channel at 2 p.m. Moscow time, the scheduled start of the funeral. Another 150,000 watched live via TV Rain, the opposition-friendly media group now working from exile in Europe. Some 100,000 left a virtual candle at a memorial website that went online Friday.

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Mourners attend a funeral service and a farewell ceremony for Navalny.Stringer/Reuters

Many of the online mourners simply entered the names of the places in Russia and around the world they were watching from – from the suburbs of Moscow to far-flung locations in Siberia and abroad – at once reflecting the support Mr. Navalny had across Russia, and how many of his supporters fled the country after Mr. Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The funeral of Mr. Navalny took place two weeks before Mr. Putin will seek another six-year term in office via an “election” whose results can be predicted in advance. Mr. Navalny sought to run against Mr. Putin in 2018, but was barred from doing so, denying Russians the chance to choose between two very different visions for their country.

Friday’s funeral was attended by Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, two lesser-known anti-war politicians who each tried to stand against Mr. Putin this time, only to be disqualified as Mr. Navalny was. The funeral was also attended by Mr. Navalny’s parents, who were photographed inside the church, kneeling beside their son’s open casket, which was covered in red and white flowers. As they left the ceremony, Mr. Navalny’s parents were applauded by the other mourners. “Thank you for your son!” several people shouted.

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Navalny's funeral took place two weeks before Vladimir Putin will seek another six-year term in office via an 'election' whose results can be predicted in advance.Stringer/Reuters

Afterwards, most of the crowd quietly dispersed. Mr. Navalny was soon buried at the nearby Borisovskoye cemetery, where mourners again lined up to lay flowers.

Narrating the online coverage, Leonid Volkov, a close friend and aide to Mr. Navalny, tried to summon some optimism as the day unfolded. “They can’t kill an idea. They can’t kill hope,” he said, though his voice sounded more pained than defiant.

Mr. Navalny’s death has thrust his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, into the unwanted new post of de-facto leader of the opposition. However, Ms. Navalnaya, like Mr. Volkov and many other key figures, is living in exile in Europe, making it difficult to mount any kind of direct challenge to Mr. Putin’s power.

She watched the proceedings online on Friday, with friends and family in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. After the ceremony was over, she posted a message on social media addressing her dead husband. “I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try to make you up there happy for me and proud of me. I don’t know if I can handle it or not, but I will try.”

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