Putin and the dissident’s body: Greek tragedy and Navalny’s grave

How Sophocles’ wrenching tragedy “Antigone,” written 2,500 years ago, prefigured the aftermath of Navalny’s death

A dictator withholds the body of an enemy from his family in order to further punish them and tighten his control over the citizenry as a whole. Public mourning has been forbidden. There will be no grave to visit or enshrine. The female relatives of the dead man, the only ones left to bury him, are powerless to fight back with anything but rage. Under this regime, law, custom and decency count for nothing. A corpse can be used as a weapon.

This is Alexei Navalny’s story, yes, but not a new story. In 441 B.C., the Athenian playwright Sophocles told a similar tale in “Antigone,” whose plot centers on an autocrat’s weaponization of a corpse killed in battle.

The play is set in a mythical prehistory, in the city of Thebes. (At the time of the play’s production, Athens and Thebes had recently been at war.) Antigone, the teenage heroine who gives the play her name, is a princess of the ruling house. Her parents are dead, and her two brothers have killed each other in a fight to control the kingdom. One of those brothers lies in state: Eteocles, the original claimant to the throne. The other lies unburied and decomposing on the battlefield outside the city gates. This is Polyneices, who brought an army with him, now defeated.

Because her brothers are dead, Antigone’s uncle, Creon, is the new king of Thebes. His mission, he announces, is to ensure political stability, to right the ship of state, as he says in those now famous words. His first decree is to forbid burial of his nephew Polyneices, who brought a foreign army to fight for his throne and is deemed a traitor. Creon decrees that anyone who tries to even scatter dust over the corpse will be put to death. The chorus of citizens is horrified; not to bury the body of a relative is to offend the gods. 

Antigone and her sister Ismene, as their brothers’ only surviving female relatives, are by tradition entrusted with conducting the rites of mourning. But Creon decrees that even they will not be spared if they get near the body. For Creon, as for Vladimir Putin, it would appear,  the punishment of one’s enemies even in defeat is a necessity, and a way to display one’s power. Ismene is understandably frightened and begs Antigone to suffer in silence. Antigone calls her a coward, and vows to fight on alone.

Creon has posted guards around the body, one of whom complains about the stench. But Antigone evades them and sprinkles dust over her brother’s corpse. By the rules of ritual, even this minimal covering of earth counts as a burial in the eyes of the gods. Creon is furious when he hears about it, and orders the dust removed. This time he threatens the guards with death as well.

Antigone repeats her act of familial piety, but the frightened guards catch her, and she is brought before Creon. The dictator won’t go back on his word, even though she is his dead sister’s child: Anyone who tries to bury the traitor must die. He is particularly enraged that a mere woman dares to defy him, princess or not. He sentences Antigone to death, even as the chorus of citizens implore him to have mercy on her. In defying his decree, Antigone has become a traitor to the state, like her brother. 

Creon’s son, Haemon, is engaged to marry Antigone, but the tyrant, clinging to his role as the one who keeps order, ignores his own son’s anguished pleas. To evade having Antigone’s  blood on his hands — murderers are banished as a source of pollution — Creon orders his niece taken to a cave where she will die of starvation. 

At this point the gods intervene, but indirectly. A prophet tells Creon that the gods are refusing sacrificial offerings, in disgust at seeing Polyneices’ corpse left to rot. The world is turned upside down when the dead are left unburied and the living are consigned to die underground. The prophet’s last warning: The gods will deprive Creon of his own son as punishment for these deeds.

The chorus reminds Creon that this prophet has never been wrong. He frantically tries to stop the chain of events he has set in motion, but too late. Antigone has used her clothing to hang herself. When Haemon finds her, he kills himself with his sword, next to her body. In a final blow to Creon, when his wife, the queen, finds out that her son is gone, she kills herself inside the palace. 

In ancient Athens, refusing burial rites to traitors was not unheard of; that was an accepted means of quashing their sympathizers. But was it right? Did it offend the gods? 

And so the play ends. Creon, wild with grief, takes responsibility for what he has done. In Greek tragedy, choice and fate are the same. Creon chose to designate his nephew’s body as that of a traitor, ignoring their blood relation, thereby sealing his fate and that of his entire family.

“Antigone” was performed during an uneasy respite from war with other Greek city-states. All able-bodied Athenian citizens served in the military, as did Sophocles himself. The original audience of about 15,000 in the Theater of Dionysus included huge numbers of combat veterans. 

Sophocles’ particular genius, in every one of his tragedies, is to push his protagonists into the heart of at least one moral quandary. This play may  have presented his living audience with a genuine moral dilemma. In ancient Athens, refusing burial rites to traitors was not unheard of; that was an accepted means of quashing their sympathizers. But was it right? Did it offend the gods? 

Sophocles shows us in all his tragedies that humans are too enmeshed with each other to be ruled with any justice by an autocrat’s commands. Even in this play, where Creon is clearly doomed, there are questions to be considered. Why should you bury a traitor? What if the traitor is your sister’s son? Shouldn’t those who give comfort to the enemy, even the dead enemy, be punished? But what if that person is your sister’s daughter? Is the mistreatment of one enemy body more important than the possibility of anarchy? And after all, shouldn’t women be obedient? The Athenian audience would have answered that question with an unqualified yes – women were not citizens in that patriarchal society, and effectively had no rights. No Athenian woman would have believed she had the freedom to rage at the male head of household and disobey his orders as Antigone did.

We don’t have a Theater of Dionysus. But even if we did, and were inclined to listen to each other, we are not practiced as a nation in wrestling with moral quandaries, nor do we see it as our duty as citizens.

The Athenian theater was a public forum unlike any other. There, the playwrights could offer a reflection of the city to itself, albeit at an angle: almost always through the mists of a mythical past, and set someplace that wasn’t Athens. Plays were not simply entertainment. They were written to be performed once, always at a religious festival in honor of Dionysus, god of theater and communal experience. To be sure, the plays were entertaining, with singing and dancing and awards for the best at the end of the festival. More importantly, the theater was where questions about the wisdom of autocratic rule, the nature of the gods, the role of women and, of course, crime and punishment, could be raised without fear of reprisal; playwrights held a special place of honor.

We don’t have a Theater of Dionysus. Unlike Athens, the contemporary United States is a big country sharply divided into factions by religious beliefs, income, education, class and race. Our only public forum is elections, and now it seems that at least half the public has lost faith in them, and almost everyone is disappointed by them. Even if we had a national forum, and were inclined to listen to each other, we are not practiced as a nation in wrestling with moral quandaries, nor do we see it as our duty as citizens.

At this writing, very few major Republicans have spoken out clearly against Putin’s actions. Trump has gone so far as to identify himself with Navalny, claiming to be a victim of political terrorism, having taken an untroubled leap over the sticking point of that comparison: Trump admires Putin, and Putin had Navalny poisoned, then imprisoned and then, we must presume, killed. Putin is immune to moral quandaries; who knows how far he will go. Capturing Ukraine is unlikely to be enough for him. 

So now Navalny’s mother and widow join Antigone in prodding us to remember that the treatment of the dead has consequences for the living — not for Putin, necessarily, but for everyone who gets in his wayIt is easy to forget what they are telling us, here in our distant safety. We vow with each fresh disaster never to forget those murdered by authoritarian regimes. At least this time, let us not forget who spoke up for the dead and who remained silent. 

Navalny’s widow, Yulia, has taken up the mantle of the opposition. On Saturday, she denied Putin’s avowed Christian faith, in words so close to Antigone’s that they could have been written by Sophocles. “You mock the remains of the dead,” she told the Russian president. “Nothing more demonic can be imagined. You are breaking every law, both human and God’s.”

What will Putin do to silence Russia’s new Antigone?

Published in Salon • February 25, 2024

View the article online.