MOSCOW, March 1 — In a candle-lit Moscow church, mourners stood Friday in silence around the coffin of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny as thousands paid tribute outside.

Two weeks after his death in an Arctic prison, Navalny’s family could finally say goodbye.

The unassuming, domed Orthodox church in a quiet corner of Moscow was not completely full, and many stood outside waiting to enter.

Those who were permitted included Navalny’s parents. His body lay in a coffin, his face waxy and drawn.

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When the brief funeral service was over, the casket was immediately closed, even as many shouted: “Let me say goodbye, don’t close it!”

Outside, a stream of defiant mourners that had begun slowly massing earlier in the day clapped.

Many wept, holding flowers. Outside the cemetery where he was buried, some mourners shouted: “We won’t forget you!” and “Forgive us!”.

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An elderly man in the crowd yelled out: “He was telling the truth about Russia. Thank you.”

His death in a high-security prison colony above the Arctic Circle sparked despair among his supporters, many of them young Russians who saw Navalny as their best chance for change.

But that despair turned into defiance today, despite a heavy police presence and concern about arrests.

“People like him shouldn’t die,” a mourner named Anna told AFP, as a large queue of thousands began snaking round the streets on the way to the church.

“Honest. Principled. Ready to put themselves on the altar. He went all the way,” she said.

‘The last hero’

Bustling in winter coats and hats, many in the crowd held up their phones to film — a scene reminiscent of the rallies Navalny amassed in the capital just a decade before.

“It’s a bit scary, because you don’t know what it will turn into,” said 37-year-old doctor Maxim.

“But I think it’s a way for people to wake up and not be silent.”

Since the Kremlin launched its full-scale military intervention in Ukraine just over two years ago, public dissent is rare.

Dozens of police vehicles and officers could be seen patrolling around the perimeter of the church and Borisovo cemetery, which was surrounded by metal barriers.

The Kremlin, which has denied involvement in Navalny’s death, warned against “unauthorised” protests around the funeral.

Some of those in attendance were fearful. Most said they were simply there to pay their respects.

Alena, a 22-year-old archaeologist, said she would regret if she stayed at home.

“I realised that I can and I need to be here. If I don’t ... I won’t forgive myself,” she told AFP.

“I was asked: why are you doing this, because the idea is dead. The idea is not dead! The man is dead, but the idea will live on thanks to those who are here,” she said.

Navalny, a lawyer by training, leveraged fatigue with Russian politics and perceived corruption to galvanise millions of supporters.

Some who came Friday were angry.

There is “overflowing resentment”, said Inessa, a 60-year-old former lawyer.

“I came because he was a hero, the last hero of our fatherland.” — AFP