Why did Navalny return to Russia knowing he would be detained?

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(CNN) -- 

The images were moving: Alexey Navalny's mourners lined up this Friday around the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in Moscow's Maryino district, risking arrest to pay their final respects to a man whom They call their hero.

Every red carnation held by a supporter of the Russian dissident can be seen as a small act of resistance in a country where the state has cleansed the landscape of all political competition.

And one of the chants by Navalny's supporters at the funeral – ne prostim (we will not forgive) – seemed directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But the fact that Navalny's funeral took place, after two cruel weeks of bureaucratic delays and official obfuscation, is perhaps a sign of the Kremlin's confidence.

His crackdown on dissent is so complete, and genuine political opposition so marginalized, that the event was allowed to go ahead.

Navalny's funeral was the funeral of the Russian opposition movement... for now.

No doubt a large contingent of police was on hand to ensure the event did not stray beyond the boundaries of an acceptable protest.

The independent monitoring group OVD-Info reported that 91 people were arrested in 19 cities across Russia on the day of Navalny's funeral, far fewer than the hundreds arrested on the day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine raised the risks for public protest in Russia, introducing strict new criminal penalties for defaming the country's military.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians went into exile, many of whom were part of Navalny's electorate.

The person who took over Navalny's charismatic leadership – his widow, Yulia Navalnaya – is out of the country and does not immediately present a direct political threat to Putin, who is about to sail to re-election in two weeks.

All of that makes this Friday's turnout more notable, but what future awaits Navalny's brand of opposition?

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Navalny returned to Russia after recovering from nerve agent poisoning in 2021 precisely because he wanted to remain an active player in politics.

And his brand of digitally engaged activism continued, even as state prosecutors piled up charges against him.

For that, he paid the price: Whatever the ultimate cause of his death in prison, Navalny's sentence in a remote penal colony north of the Arctic Circle was designed to break him physically and psychologically.

Behind bars, Navalny had remained a potent symbol of resistance, sending messages that mocked the prison administration.

Even in death, his sense of humor and knowledge of pop culture came to light.

Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman, said he played music from an Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster while his body rested.

"Alexey considered Terminator 2 the best movie in the world," he wrote.

"Music from the final scene was played at his funeral."

To quote Terminator, Navalny will be back.

"Schoolchildren hear about heroes in schools, but here we have a real hero with whom we are happy to work over the years," said his long-time assistant, Maria Pevchikh, in a live broadcast on YouTube on Friday.

"Navalny will become a giant figure in Russian history,"

But as long as Putin is in power, the anti-corruption activist's name will not be seen on streets and squares.

So how long will Russian schoolchildren wait until he enters the history books?

It is a very open question.

Navalnyputin