On Mourning, with Sigmund Freud

Here, the author delivers another installment in her “anti-fascist library”, which helps us to understand our world by drawing on works from the past. This time, she revisits Sigmund Freud’s Mourning and Melancholy. According to Olga Medvedkova, Soviet power deprived the population of the opportunity to mourn their loved ones who had been shot or died in the Gulag, plunging them into helpless melancholy. Thanks to Alexei Navalny’s public burial, Russians have been able to mourn in a genuine and salutary way.

February 16, 2024 will go down in the history of the 21st Century as the day Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died. Since his poisoning in 2020, his recovery in Germany, his return to Russia and arrest, then his conviction and inhumane treatment in the colony, as well as the daily suffering inflicted on him in an increasingly open manner, his tragic fate was no longer in doubt for anyone. For the past four years, the current Russian regime, i.e. Vladimir Putin himself, has been having fun showing its citizens and the whole world who is the “master”, who is the Godfather, and how he makes himself respected, how he gets rid – slowly but surely, with pleasure – not only of the opposition, but of everything he finds annoying, everything he does not like. Because that is what Russian-style power is all about: doing as you please, because you’re a potentate. No need to look for another meaning. We have all been invited to unwittingly witness this spectacle of arbitrary cruelty, in the very Stalinist spirit that today’s Russian rulers unashamedly claim as their own. We all saw and knew how – with what shameless brutality – the Russian repressive machine slowly demolished this man who embodied common sense, honesty and a certain innocence.

Russia’s intellectual elite found him a bit of a simpleton, not “spiritual” enough. For he stood up against corruption. Many of his investigations reveal the mafia-like nature of the regime and Russian society. On January 19, 2021, the Anti-Corruption Fund, which he headed, published a hilarious documentary called A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe. Millions of viewers laughed themselves to tears at the Mafia’s kitsch and megalomaniac gift to their leader, a bald, wicked, ill-bred little man straight out of the most disturbing of Hoffmann’s fairy tales. Declaring war on corruption in post-Soviet Russia was exactly what had to be done, and exactly what no one wanted to hear about. Corruption was everywhere. Not just in power. Material corruption, moral corruption, intellectual corruption. The whole country operated on a sophisticated system of corruption, which was another word for privilege. The greater the structural misery and scarcity, the more vital the privileges. Who would give them up? Certainly no one privileged.

But it was not all politics. Navalny was in opposition not only because of his intention to denounce the criminal, deceitful, corrupt Putin regime, but also ontologically, because of his human nature, which manifested itself so clearly, so spontaneously in everything he undertook. Navalny was the opposite of Putin. He was tall, handsome and, with his blue eyes and frank smile, disarming. He spoke without hesitation, moved with grace and loved his movie-star wife. He loved his family, his kind, well-behaved children, his parents. He hid nothing from anyone. He was born, made and programmed this way: simply by existing, by his physical and moral qualities, he put to shame those who govern Russia today.

So the Godfather and his slaves, his agents, his spies, his chemists, his doctors, his judges, his prison guards, these gray, ugly, cowardly people, murdered him, all of them together. Their names are known. They have been published and punished. They will never come here on vacation. They will not be able to enjoy our museums and beaches – that is the least we can do for them. Pending the big trial where they will be judged, that is already something. Yes, Navalny was and will remain in our hearts the opposite of the revolting mediocrity and triumphant nullity of today’s Russian power. He had it all (beauty, youth, grace, humor, undeniable talent as a journalist and orator), while the man before him, the man he challenged, had nothing, nothing comparable. Navalny’s qualities cannot be bought, stolen or faked. The only thing the Godfather possesses – in contrast – is the power to kill the beautiful, the honest, the loving, the funny. He can kill him, but…

This “but” is Navalny’s courage. “Don’t be afraid”, he says to the Russians, echoing the words once spoken to the Poles by Pope John Paul II. “We must not be afraid.” In one of his interviews, Navalny recounted how, one day, he realized that he was being constantly followed. He realized that his life was in danger. “When you know, you spontaneously tend to turn around,” he explained, “to see who’s behind your back. And then you decide not to turn around.” And he never looked back.

When two adversaries, one with nothing but the full power to kill and the other with everything, including courage, the outcome of the duel is predictable. Of these two, neither will let go. Someone will die. But…

On February 16, we learned that Alexei Navalny, aged just 47, was no longer with us, would never be with us again. We now know that, most likely, he had been poisoned for some time, a little more every day. The message sent to the Russians, to the whole world, is clear: courage is forbidden, and with courage, beauty, fidelity and love. Navalny’s death, his supposedly “natural” death (according to the official line, “people tend to die, so he died”) should provide quasi-scientific proof of this. In Russia, people of this size and calibre do not last. No point in trying. So everything was well thought out, well put together. But then…

There was an obstacle. Obstaculum; “That which stands in front, preventing passage.” An opaque, solid, real body that must be circumvented. For a dead person (a real dead person, not a ghost) remains a body; this body must be treated, preserved, delivered to loved ones, buried. This had to be done according to their own rules, with nothing beyond them, in the spirit of dull depersonalization, of the slavish dissolution of being. Those who had killed him were preparing to buy the family (as they had, for example, bought the family of Prigozhin, Navalny’s other opposite) and bury him in secret. The exemplary resistance of Navalny’s relatives made the difference. They fought to obtain their son’s body, which had been hidden from them and which they finally received only on February 24. They fought to bury him as they saw fit, with dignity, without hiding, nothing else, just that. In their hour of greatest sorrow, the Navalnys proved themselves worthy of their son. They were not afraid, supported from exile by Navalny’s wife Yulia, by his children, by Alexei’s close friends and collaborators.

On March 1, 2024, a second event took place that may not go down in world history, but will certainly rank among the important facts in Russia’s true history, if such a history is ever written. On that day, Alexei Navalny was buried in Moscow. The funeral mass was held at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Moscow, followed by burial at Borisovskoye Cemetery. It was here that the obstacle manifested itself in all its miraculous power. It was here that the unexpected happened – as something that happens, not as something that is accomplished – in defiance of the logic of the assassins: the incessant line-up of people outside the church and at the cemetery. Over 16,000 people were counted on the first day, and the procession has not stopped since. People, men and women, of all ages, from all walks of life, bring flowers. His tomb is a mountain of flowers. The authorities are after them. They are watched, filmed, registered, and the next day their homes are visited, searched and arrested. But they keep going, they keep offending. They visit the dead man’s grave and plant red and white roses.

Of course, you can think and say that this is nothing: that it will achieve nothing, nothing real. It will not stop Putin, it will not stop the war. We can add that we should have thought about it beforehand, tried to save him, demonstrated while he was alive. We can be indignant: everyone knew for four years what was happening, what was being done to him. We can conclude by mocking or marvelling at the Russian soul (that invention of German Romanticism), which loves the dead more than the living. And indeed, between February 16 and March 1, some Russians never stopped accusing, punishing and denigrating themselves: “We weren’t worthy of him, we murdered him, we’re all guilty…”.

But in what happened at the time of his funeral, I see something else. I look at the photos of people waiting their turn in the snow to approach his coffin, his open grave, then his closed grave. They stand, they raise their arms, their hands laden with bouquets – which are expensive in winter. They look straight into the eyes of the militiamen pressing in on them from all sides. What I see are people who, with their bodies, stand in the way. They are demonstrating for their right to grief. These people are silently demanding their right to mourn.

Navalny’s grave. Photo : Antonina Favorskaïa, Sota Vision

For at least a century, Russian history has been the story of people who do not die but disappear. Their loved ones do not know whether they are dead or alive. For at least a century, the history of Russia has been that of the dead who are disposed of, the obedient dead who make no fuss. Who transform themselves from obstacles into simulacra, into receptacles of emptiness: into specters, phantasms, chimeras. There are undead in every Russian family. My maternal great-grandfather waited all his life for the return of one of his sons, shot by a Troika in 1937 (no grave). My maternal grandfather waited all his life for the return of his wife, shot in 1942 (no trace, no grave). My father never saw the grave of his grandparents, burnt to death in Slutsk in 1941.

I grew up in a strange world where the dead mixed with the living. On the walls of Moscow houses, we read “Lenin is more alive than all the living”. How can the dead be more alive? At the end of his film Babi Yar: Context, Sergei Loznitsa shows how, after the war, this place of collective extermination, this gigantic mass grave, was filled with earth and covered with asphalt. Houses were built over it. People lived there, including Loznitsa himself. The territory of the former USSR was dotted with such hidden, razed necropolises.  After a brief period during which the Memorial association worked to unearth the innocent victims of the Soviet regime and restore their names, the restored totalitarian system began new forms of repression, accompanied by contempt for people, not only the living, but also the dead. This is a serious phenomenon, and it is not just a question – again and again – of memory (a word that is beginning to wear thin today). It is about people’s mental health. We can understand this better by rereading a short text by Sigmund Freud called Mourning and Melancholia1.

The text dates from 1917. Two of Freud’s sons were at the front. Every day brought news of their death. According to Freud’s specialists, this text is a first sketch of a theme drawn up in a hurry in response to his own suffering, not finished, not developed enough, not clear enough in some of its intuitions. But it is also perhaps one of his most powerful and revolutionary texts. In it, Freud distinguishes two ways of being faced with the loss of a loved one (not only of the being, but also of the idea, the commitment, the ideal, the homeland). The first way is “healthy”: it’s called mourning. The second is pathological: melancholy. Both involve acute suffering. Both manifest themselves in grief, which can be long lasting. They are partly similar in some of their mechanisms. So what is the real difference? Why does mourning enable the person – deeply affected by the loss – to relive, to recreate the dynamic link with reality, whereas melancholia does not? Freud observes: the melancholic has a trait that is absent in the bereaved, namely extreme self-deprecation, a severe impoverishment of the self. The test of reality shows the bereaved person the definitive absence of the object of their attachment. It is this object that the bereaved person mourns and misses. In contrast, the melancholic mourns not the object of their loss, but themselves. It is not the other they have lost, it is themselves (or a part of themselves) that has disappeared. In mourning, the world becomes empty and sad without the loved one. In melancholy, it is the “I” that becomes empty and lost. The sufferer describe themselves as vile, worthless, morally reprehensible. They are guilty of the death of the object of their attachment. They blame themselves and hope to be rejected and punished. But this does not mean that they are discreet or humble: they are more of a pain in the ass, claiming to have suffered a great injustice (they are filthy, but it is not their fault). In this way of consuming loss, Freud sees the parallel with a fusional, cannibalistic type of love relationship. The absence of distance between the subject and the object of their emotion leads to the reversal of that emotion: what should be addressed to the object is addressed to oneself. The ego then identifies with the lost object. The substitution of identification (what we love and lose in the other is the self) for object love (we love and lose the other) is one of the main mechanisms in narcissistic illness, responsible for the individual’s regression to sadism and suicidal tendencies.

Why one person responds to the trauma of loss by mourning, and another by melancholy, remains for Freud problematic to define. He does, however, put forward a hypothesis that is of the utmost interest to us today, as it seems to shed light on the story of Navalny’s burial. “For the mourner,” says Freud, “their loss is obvious. They know what they have lost. The melancholic, on the other hand, does not discern it quite clearly: “…melancholy is, as it were, about the loss of an object stolen from consciousness, unlike mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss”2. Transforming melancholy into mourning is possible by becoming aware of death, which must in some way be incorporated.

In his death, as in his life, Navalny never agreed to obey. By insisting on a public funeral, his family offered Russians a way of making their loss conscious. And people have accepted this gift, which allows them to see the one they have lost, cruelly and clearly, in full consciousness. Genuinely missing him, for him and not for them, the people in the farewell line all shouted his name together, Navalny. This is how those present named the dead man here.

If there is a cult of death in Russia today, it is of death without presence, of death-disappearance. There was someone, and then there is nothing. Perhaps there never was anyone. Perhaps we only dreamed it. But Navalny is the opposite of nothing. Navalny, even dead, is someone, and he disagrees. Even dead, he protests, he mutinies. He is certainly no more alive than the living. But he has lived and he will continue to have lived. He will not give up. He asks to be named, to be mourned. His grave is overflowing with flowers. Thousands of Russians are in mourning. Perhaps the promise of a cure?

Olga Medvedkova is an art historian and bilingual writer in French and Russian. She is a research director at CNRS and specializes in the history of architecture and Russian art. She has authored several books on art history and works of fiction, including Réveillon chez les Boulgakov published in Paris by TriArtis in 2021.


  1. I read it in Aline Weill’s translation, published by Payot (Paris, 2011).
  2. Ibid, p. 49.

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