Controlling the corpse: the autocratic reaction to death

Berlin, demonstration after the murder of Alexey Navalny. 18th February 2024. Photograph: A Savin, Wikipedia

Following the murder of the opposition leader, Alexey NavaIny, the Russian security services have, until yesterday, been attempting not only to retain control of his body but also to dictate the nature of his funeral.

Such evidence of official paranoia is nothing new. The autocratic regime in Russia has regularly exerted pressure when the time comes to bury their opponents, real or imagined.  In a country where public demonstrations are routinely banned, a crowded funeral may offer a rare opportunity to express opposition to the state.  In my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, for example, I tell the true story of how the funeral of Chernov, a young impoverished officer, the cousin of the revolutionary Kondraty Ryleev, developed into just such a major display of mute opposition. 

Chernov’s funeral took place in the autumn of 1825.  Some twelve years later, when Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel in January 1837, the emperor Nicholas l took an intense interest in the organization of his funeral and internment. A subsequent report from the corps of gendarmes to the Emperor clearly reflects government fears about public reaction. The document reads. ‘…it was intended to hold a ceremonial funeral service, many proposed to follow the coffin to the place of burial in Pskov province; finally rumours were heard that in Pskov itself the horses were to be unharnessed and the coffin dragged by people, the citizens of Pskov having been made ready for this. It would be difficult to decide whether all these honours related more to Pushkin the liberal than Pushkin the poet… Taking into consideration the views of many well thinking people that a similar, as it were popular expression of grief at Pushkin’s death would to some extent express an indecent sense of triumph for the liberals, higher authority recognized it as its duty, by measures of secrecy, to eliminate all paying of respects. ‘ (Quoted in T.J. Binyon, Pushkin, a biography, London 2002. p. 633)

On hearing that Pushkin was dying, Nicholas ordered that the poet’s papers be secured and examined, and his study sealed. In what turned out to be a fruitless attempt to limit attendance, the funeral service in St Petersburg was moved to a smaller church than originally planned, and students at the university were instructed to remain at their desks.  Moreover, when the time came to the transfer Pushkin’s body for burial in a monastery near family estates in Pskov, only the poet’s close friend, Alexander Ivanovich Turgenev, was permitted to accompany the coffin, which was concealed  from public view beneath baste matting and straw. A captain of gendarmes was assigned to accompany it and a special travel warrant issued.

The journey was undertaken at the gallop, and the small ensemble was closely monitored along the way.  The governor of  Pskov received a letter from Mordinov of the Third Section, the deputy to Count Benkendorf, in which he was reminded: ‘It is the sovereign emperor’s wish that you should prohibit any especial expression, any meeting, in a word, any ceremony, apart from those which…are usually performed on the burial of a nobleman.  I do not think it superfluous to mention that the funeral service has already taken place here.’ (Binyon, page 635.)

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