Spontaneous sanctuaries: Navalny's death and memorial protest in Russia

Alexandra Arkhipova
Social anthropologist
Yuri Lapshin
The death of Alexei Navalny and his funeral once again brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Russian cities. In addition to the mass pilgrimage to the politician's grave, which was apparently visited by at least 30,000 people over the course of three days, the fortnight-long 'memorial for Navalny' has led to the emergence of a new form of memorial protest. Over the past two weeks, a wave of spontaneous memorials to Navalny has swept across Russia around symbolically charged places such as monuments to victims of political repression but also in courtyards and entrances of residential buildings, and even on online maps. During this time, there have been at least 500 'flower' memorials in 232 cities and towns in Russia, and the list continues to grow. Social anthropologist and creator of the '(Un)entertaining anthropology' Telegram channel Alexandra Arkhipova, and psychologist Yuri Lapshin discuss the reason for this and what tradition is behind it.

On 16 February 2024,when the news of Alexei Navalny's death in prison broke, a social and political event began in Russia, involving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. It reached both cities with millions of inhabitants, medium-sized towns, and even small towns with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. It is difficult to define it: a memorial outburst? Protest mourning? A 'flower' protest? Thousands of Russians individually brought flowers, candles, photos of Alexei Navalny, poems and messages addressed to him, to famous monuments or simply left them on benches, in the forest or by a waterfall, wrote comments in online cards and under recordings of Frank Sinatra's song 'My way' on YouTube. All of this happened despite 'memorial' repression: the cordoning off of memorials, intimidation, detentions, fines and beatings.

Scattered and spontaneous 'memorials for Navalny' complemented the main collective action when, on 1 March, tens of thousands of people stood in line at the church in Marino and the Borisovsky cemetery in Moscow. The volunteer group 'White Counter' counted 16,500 individuals who crossed the Borisovsky bridge from the church to the cemetery in an hour and a half (from 15.05 to 16.30). This is a lower estimate, as it does not account for those who left the church without going to the cemetery or those who went straight to the cemetery from home or crossed the bridge later. Thus, about 20,000 or more people probably came to bid farewell to Navalny on Friday, and thousands more in the following two days.

What does this memorial protest represent? How important is it for Russian society, and what does it say about it?

Spontaneous shrines: the history and scope of the phenomenon

In the 1980s and early 1990s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after each brutal clash with the police resulting in the deaths of residents, candles, flowers, and notes addressed to the deceased began to appear. This happened spontaneously, without the intervention of the church or other institutions, and, most importantly, not at the cemetery where the deceased were buried, but in the public urban space. These 'spontaneous shrines' (as the American anthropologist Jack Santino, who first described the phenomenon, called them) encouraged everyone to join in the commemoration and thus made the shocking and unjust death visible. In effect, it was a new ritual that combined both a commemorative message ('I remember!') and a political one ('we must remember the circumstances of this death!'). Thus, funeral tradition merged with political protest. Of course, this new ritual had a centuries-old backstory, as if fragments from different mirrors came together here to form a new reflection. Over the past 30 years, this tradition of spontaneous memorials has spread throughout Europe and North America (→ Anna Sokolova: Memorialisation of Sudden Death).

For a tragedy to trigger a wave of popular memorials, there needs to be (at the very least) mass dissatisfaction with the way the state is responding to it. Disrespect for the victims, insufficient attention to what happened, the concealment of facts, and the assertion that 'the state killed' are the triggers that lead to the emergence of spontaneous memorial sites.

In Russia, the mass flower protest emerged in 2015 when, on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, where politician Boris Nemtsov was killed, a spontaneous memorial to his memory appeared and has been maintained for nine years in opposition to the authorities. Those who placed flowers and notes right under the walls of the Kremlin declared: 'I mourn, but I also remember that the true instigators of Nemtsov's murder are at large!' (→ Dmitry Gromov: Nemtsov Bridge).

Three years later, in 2018, a fire in the Winter Cherry shopping centre in Kemerovo killed nearly 60 people. It was revealed that basic safety requirements were violated in the building, firefighters struggled to enter, and after the tragedy, the government delayed the declaration of national mourning. The shock of the story and dissatisfaction with the actions of the authorities led to the creation of at least 335 memorials in 246 Russian cities (→ Alexandra Arkhipova et al: Shouting cannot be silent). 

In 2022, at the beginning of the war, Russians who wanted to publicly commemorate the victims of Russian bombing in Ukraine laid flowers either near public objects associated with Ukraine (from monuments to Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka to simple signs with street names like Kievskaya and Kharkovskaya) or at monuments to victims of political repression. In 2022, this was mostly done by individuals, and in early 2023, after the bombing of a residential building in Dnipro, it became a mass tradition (according to our data, 96 memorials appeared in 62 Russian cities).

Knowledge of the 'flower' protest as a possible form of expressing simultaneous public grief and political protest has spread across all social groups. In June 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner PMC, instigated a rebellion and tried to march on Moscow. In August 2023, the plane he was on board crashed; there were no doubts that it was a political assassination. After the Wagner PMC rebellion, its members found themselves in a grey area: were they traitors or heroes? The anticipation of Prigozhin's funeral (which took place almost in secret) exacerbated this conflict even further. As a result, when the official memorialisation of the Wagnerites was denied, spontaneous and semi-spontaneous memorials to Prigozhin began to emerge, glorifying the mercenaries: according to our data, 77 such places of remembrance were created, mostly near monuments to heroes of different wars. 

By the beginning of 2024, 'flower' memorial protest was perceived as practically the only form of political protest that was not yet punishable (the situation changed dramatically after 16 February). However, the flower protest is also an expression of empathy. 'I want to publicly express my sympathy for the victims and urge you to mourn as I mourn’, say people who come out with flowers instead of signs. The political statement takes on a moral character: it becomes more visible, and as a result, it begins to be persecuted.

After the death of Alexei Navalny, a powerful 'flower' protest emerged across the country. With a team of like-minded people, we have compiled a database of such memorials (the list can be viewed by city here). According to our calculations, between 16 February and 3 March, people in at least 232 cities created at least 502 spontaneous public memorials of candles, flowers and photos (and their number continues to grow). These numbers give a sense of how widespread the memorial surge was (and still is), particularly in comparison to the situation in 2018. That said, in 2018 (unlike the current situation) the authorities did little to discourage the creation of spontaneous memorials honouring the victims of the fire (although there were attempts to make alternative state-approved places of remembrance).

Top 15 Russian cities by number of spontaneous memorials between 16 February and 1 March 2024

Nevertheless, the number of cities where spontaneous memorials to Alexei Navalny have sprung up is comparable to the memorial surge of 2018, and the number of memorials themselves is one and a half times larger (calculations excluded spontaneous memorials that arose during the mourning queue on 1 March in Marino).

The memorial protest does not stop there. In addition to real spontaneous shrines in urban spaces, virtual memorials emerge on online maps. In reviews and comments on monuments to victims of political repression on Google and Yandex maps, as well as GIS-2 maps, people have written 'Eternal glory to Alexei Navalny'. Such direct statements are erased very quickly; while messages made in an allegorical language, without mentioning names, may have a longer life. On 1 March, in the reviews of Borisovsky cemetery on one of the Internet maps there was an entry: 'Good cemetery, I will come here regularly from now on'. Here are some comments from the page of Solovetsky Stone on one of the online maps of St Petersburg: 'A place of memory of great people. Today it is very important to remember them all', 'A terrible place. It's like having a stone like this monument on my heart now. Thanks to Petersburgers who helped to share a little bit of grief on a cold February evening' or 'Going to this monument with flowers helped at least a little bit of grief — it was pleasant and important to see so many like-minded people who will not give up and will remember forever'. 

The fragmentation of the number of spontaneous memorials (many places of memory appearing in one city) and the emergence of a large number of virtual shrines on Internet maps through reviews of monuments etc., are connected with the desire of lone protesters to unite (more on this below), as well as with the authorities' repression against memorial shrines and the people who create them. 

Memorial repression: the fight against flower protests

The authorities' struggle against spontaneous protest memorials began with the story of Nemtsov Bridge—a memorial at the site of Boris Nemtsov's assassination. In this battle, the authorities used both pro-Kremlin activists, who would periodically vandalise the memorial, and the police, but were hesitant to put an end to it. The vigil was suspended during the coronavirus epidemic, and then the memorial was reinstated.

In 2022-2023, together with fellow lawyers, we maintained a database dedicated to the persecution of Russians for anti-war statements. The data were collected from the official internet portal of Russian courts 'Justice' and from the monitoring of the human rights project OVD-Info. As a result, we have a database on persecutions under the administrative article 20.3.3 (8253 cases for 2022–2023) and separate data on persecutions for the 'flower' protest.

Most people who attempted to lay flowers at monuments (if they did not have a poster in their hands) associated with Ukraine or dedicated to the memory of victims of political repression in 2022-2023 were almost never detained or were detained but then released without charge (34 cases). 16 people (almost all in St Petersburg) were detained and fined allegedly for violating Covid restrictions, 31 participants of spontaneous anti-war memorials received fines 'for discrediting the Russian army', and three more were fined under other administrative articles. 

In other words, in the case of flower memorials in the first two years of the war, the authorities preferred not to prosecute those who brought flowers (if the flowers were not accompanied by a poster) through legal proceedings but to intimidate and persecute them extrajudicially. Therefore, police and police cars were on duty at the monuments, law enforcers photographed those who brought flowers, and their passport details were recorded. On 1 March 2022, two women with children brought flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow: they were detained, and after threats to take away their children and several hours in a police car and at the police station, they were released without further punishment. 

The situation changed dramatically in February 2024, after the news of Alexei Navalny's death broke. Specialised memorial repression began. Monuments to victims of political repression were fenced off, flowers were thrown away, and in many cities police officers took down the passport details of those who came to lay flowers. We know of the detention of at least 479 people who came to lay flowers. In the first three days after the announcement of Navalny's death, 366 people were detained in 39 cities, and since the day of the funeral on 1 March, 113 people have been detained in 23 localities (the data is updated, the detention figures are growing). On 17 February in Surgut, after attempting to lay flowers at a spontaneous memorial, an activist was beaten by police. On 5 March, Moscow began to redetain those who had already been detained while previously laying flowers. 

Such a new repressive policy has led to the emergence of a bitter joke: ‘A new article is going to be added to the criminal code 'for flower-laying''.

Flower protests as a 'weapon of the weak'

Studying rural Malaysia in the 1980s, social anthropologist James Scott noted that peasants, unable to engage in direct conflict with what the scholar termed the 'dominant class,' resort to various forms of indirect and nonviolent resistance. Such resistance — 'weapons of the weak' - can take the form of song, anecdote, derogatory nicknames, ritual gestures, and even sabotage. Scott demonstrated that all these forms of behaviour are reactions to pressure from authorities, emerging in social groups deprived of the right to express themselves directly.

We encounter the 'weapons of the weak' - hidden messages directed at both ‘one's own’ group and 'outsiders' - all the time, not only in the political arena. Strictly speaking, the 'weapons of the weak' are not aimed at overthrowing the regime (the weak by definition cannot do that), but at building an alternative picture of the world within their own ranks. This is why there are so many memes, jokes, and unifying stories among 'their own', emphasising the importance of horizontal solidarity for the weak, and these texts serve as a way to support it. 'Weapons of the weak' are a way of forming otherness: 'yes, I'm not protesting, but I'm creating a different perspective among my own, different from the officially prescribed one'. 

'Flower' commemoration is also a form of 'weapon of the weak'. Laying flowers or lighting a candle becomes a non-verbal message, and the memorialised hero is embedded in a paradigm of values that are important to the participant in the commemorative ritual. 

In 2022–2023, those who commemorated Ukrainian victims of Russian bombings often sought to leave flowers at monuments to victims of political repression. By doing so, the viewer was told, 'Russia is killing people in Ukraine just as Stalin's machine of repression killed your grandmother or great-grandmother.' This practice has become quite widespread during the war, and after the news of Alexei Navalny's death broke, law enforcers prepared for 'flower' protests: almost all large monuments were cordoned off. In 197 cases, people managed to create memorials at shared monuments to victims of political repression (flowers were, of course, removed, but they were brought again: we know of a case where an activist deliberately came to the monument at 4 am so that the townspeople could see his memorial message in the morning).

But the more the police cordoned off the monuments and intimidated the citizens, the more the hidden semantics of the ritual developed. The 'weapons of the weak' were looking for a way out: the message had to be both powerful and quick. Therefore, people who wanted to let their grief spill out and not be arrested also went to the monuments dedicated to specific people who had suffered in one way or another from repression and different regimes. 20 spontaneous memorials appeared at monuments and memorial plaques to Boris Nemtsov (Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Yaroslavl), Anna Politkovskaya (Moscow), Irina Slavina (Nizhny Novgorod), Nikolai Vavilov (Saratov), Trokai Borisov (Izhevsk), at the site of the shooting of the poet Nikolai Gumilev in Vsevolozhsk, at the memorial to the victims of the shooting in Novocherkassk. Seven small flower memorials (in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod) were set up at the destroyed plaques of the 'Last Address' project, as well as at the sites of executions in Sandarmokh (Karelia), Tyumen and at the former NKVD building in Taganrog. 

Photos of Alexei Navalny appeared at the monument to Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Stalinist camp, in Voronezh, Vladivostok, Moscow, as well as at the plaque on the house in Voronezh where Anna Akhmatova stayed while visiting the exiled poet. Any direct reference to Alexei Navalny risks being quickly destroyed, so the creators of the memorials use allegorical language. Near one of the monuments to Mandelstam on February 22, flowers were laid with a ribbon that read, ‘To those who died at the age of 47’. 

Location of 'people's' memorials to Alexei Navalny, 16 February-1 March 2024, %

21% of memorials appear near explicitly non-political objects, from the Invisible Man sculpture in Yekaterinburg to the 'I love my city' sign — it is impossible to cordon off or set up guards for all such places. However, it is also an attempt to integrate Alexei Navalny's name into their own local history. People lay flowers in places in their city where Alexei visited (for example, in Tambov near the monument to the Tambov Peasant) or where he campaigned to collect signatures for his presidential candidacy.

Unable to find a place for commemoration, people create 'places without a place' (12%): these are photos, candles and flowers on a bench, in a snowdrift, by the pavement, where there is no public sign of remembrance. Sometimes intentionally inaccessible places are chosen: for example, a forest in Chuvashia or a waterfall near Pushchino. But many people find this 'place without a place' near to their own personal spaces: in the entrance to their building or near the entrance in the courtyard. This is a desire to make their grief visible to their neighbours: 'They must see how I grieve,' one of our interlocutors said; 'The next day there was a memorial in the entrance, so it is important to them too,' another added. Memorial 'places without a place' suddenly make repressed grief very visible. 'You walk around St Petersburg and there are flowers and photos everywhere, in the most unexpected corners,' another informant said. One of our interlocutors from Yekaterinburg took a candle in a candle holder and flowers and went to the monument by car, but when she got there, she saw the monument cordoned off and police officers copying people's passport details. So she started driving around town with a lit candle on the dashboard, showing off her little 'memorial shrine' to all who could see. 

Finally, it is worth adding that it is not only the memorial that can become a 'weapon of the weak', but also a variety of contextual gestures understood by the initiated and involved. For example, the online cinema 'Premier' provided access to the movie 'Terminator 2,' which many interpreted as a secret sign of solidarity. On 2 March in Ulyanovsk, during the musical round of a team quiz, participants were played music from Terminator 2 and Sinatra's 'My Way' (both of which were played at Alexei Navalny's funeral).

Solitary protest and the collective emotion of unity

In 2016, political scientist Lauren Young conducted a field experiment in Zimbabwe: she interviewed 600 opponents of Mugabe's totalitarian regime and then immersed them in an experience of fear (they had to listen to or tell a story about arrests, detentions, injustice). As a result, their willingness to take political action plummeted. A recently published article based on a survey experiment with Chinese Internet users showed that propaganda can influence potential oppositionists in an indirect way. Propaganda does little to change how respondents view regime stability and only slightly reduces their readiness to protest. However, it significantly increases their assessment of how stable the regime is perceived by others and sharply reduces their assessment of others' willingness to participate in political protests. In other words, a person confronted with propaganda begins to feel alone and helpless, believing that there are very few people like them, and images of police vans and cordons sharply reduce their readiness for political action. Both of these studies have direct relevance to how the Russian authorities subtly intimidate potentially oppositional Russians, which is why, on the eve of the funeral, Russian TV coverage focused on the number of police vans, cameras, and police officers there were in Marino. To outside observers, attending a funeral may not seem to require much courage, but one should read the accounts of Moscow residents who were preparing for mass detentions during the farewell. Our colleague, prepared to go to Marino, by packing 'pads, pills for 3 days, a pack of crackers, pen and paper, a power bank, a charger, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small tube of cream', as well as the birth certificate for a child under 14 (formally protecting them from detention), in case of possible detention. She also freed up the next three days and left passwords for work files with friends. This is not the only such story.

Since collective political action has effectively been banned in Russia, protest has become the domain of cautious loners who feel isolated and dream of breaking out of this isolation. 'Flower' protest is a means of transforming individual emotion into a collective one — even under extremely unfavourable conditions. A loner walks up to a monument, sees the flowers there and realises that there are like-minded people. Or they leave flowers and a photo on a bench in a 'place without a place', and two hours later they see that two more candles have appeared there. It is a way of coming together in an 'empathic network' and saying, without a direct political gesture: 'There are many of us.' 

Here is how an interlocutor from Murmansk described the emergence of a collective event near the temporary memorial on the evening of 1 March: 'I came [to the monument to the victims of political repression] a couple of minutes before 19:00, I had flowers in my rucksack, sticking upwards with their stems. I see a bunch of cops, no people. There are two ladies with dogs, talking. I pretended to pet a dog while a man standing a couple of metres away in plain clothes pretended not to take my picture on his phone. I decided to walk around the park. Met a few more pairs of cops casually walking around with coffee. There were no people. I sat down on a bench and began to think about how to say goodbye to Alexei. I decided to leave the flowers and light a candle near the light fountain. I realised that I had left my wireless speaker in my car. I went back to the car, played the main theme from 'Terminator 2' loudly, put the speaker in my backpack and went back to the park. And there were already people there, in bunches, but no one approached the monument. I passed a policeman, said 'good evening' to him and put flowers by the monument. I instantly burst into tears. I got out and lit a candle. Nobody touched me. There were disputes around, people arguing with the police, asking why they were standing here and why they were demanding [passport] data. I increased the volume, stayed near the monument, and the candle, sitting on the snow [...] A woman sat down next to me, hugged me and cried too. And another man also sat down next to me [...] People were standing in small groups, I think about 10-15 people. We cried together, embraced, sitting near the monument, with the candle and flowers. People started to come up and put flowers. Then we chatted for a long time, talking about Alexei, the protests, and the future.'

But the truly mass action was the funeral and burial of Alexei Navalny at the Church of 'The Icon of Our Lady Quench Our Sorrows' and at Borisovsky Cemetery in Moscow. As already mentioned, tens of thousands of people took part in this in one way or another, and such a gathering was in itself a powerful political experience for many. The people standing in the multi-thousand-strong funeral line, which stretched for at least 6 kilometres, were the very loners who suddenly found themselves engaged in a collective mass action. During the hours of standing, they endlessly created and recreated spontaneous protest memorials: crafting angels, placing flowers on an overturned fence, hanging placards on trees, chanting Alexei Navalny's name, and quoting from his speeches. Descriptions of the experience on social media emphasise that the sense of shared grief flowed into the excitement of a collective experience. As a result, for many, fear and despair receded, and the feeling of complete isolation amid a 'desert' of loyalty and indifference diminished, perhaps for the first time in a long while.

After Alexei Navalny's funeral, people wanted to prolong the unity that had emerged at the cemetery or at spontaneous memorials in different cities and countries, and so they began to leave comments en masse under the recording of Frank Sinatra's song 'My way' on YouTube. In doing so, they virtually joined Alexei through the music played during the funeral. The most popular comment on the evening of 3 March, which gained 958 likes, described just this desired emotion of collective unity: 'Alexei, yesterday I stood at the memorial in Tbilisi for 2 hours and just cried, laying flowers, lighting candles. I stood in a huge crowd of people who were silent and crying, honouring your memory, this unity even with the most terrible emotion of grief was incredible' (italics added for emphasis). 

Of course, the political significance of what we have witnessed during this period of mourning should not be exaggerated. It is not yet an overt political protest, but it is a clear indication of the latent mass resistance that may one day become the basis of overt protest.