Police clashed violently with protesters in Moscow and arrested more than 2,200 demonstrators in cities across the country Saturday as Russians took to the streets to denounce Kremlin rule and demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Tens of thousands across Russia answered Navalny’s call to take to the streets issued after he was detained at a Moscow airport on arrival from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.
Protesters spilled out over Pushkin Square in central Moscow and pelted heavily armed riot police with snowballs, but were detained in large numbers and beaten back by law enforcement wielding batons.
Critics of President Vladimir Putin marched towards the Kremlin before dispersing and at one point massed on the steps of Moscow’s circus, illuminating the crowds with hundreds of cell phone lights and pummelling a police van with snowballs.
Later Saturday hundreds gathered outside Moscow’s high-security prison where Navalny is being held but were eventually pushed back by police.
The demonstrators outside the Matrosskaya Tishina prison chanted “Freedom” and called on authorities to release Putin’s most vocal critic.
“Criminals dressed in uniforms are protecting criminals at the helm,” Vera Spivakova, a 71-year-old pensioner, told AFP in Moscow.
“Putin and the oligarchs are afraid of losing their trough,” she said.
OVD Info, which monitors opposition rallies, said that more than 2,200 protesters were detained in dozens of cities across the country.
Among more than 700 detained in the capital were Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya — who was later released — and prominent activist Lyubov Sobol. Several Navalny associates were fined and jailed on the eve of the protest.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed concern over Russia’s response to the protests saying he deplored “widespread arrests” and the “disproportionate use of force”.
On placards and in chants, protesters referenced an investigation published this week by Navalny into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin. The two-hour report has been viewed more than 70 million times on YouTube.
Leonid Volkov, who heads Navalny’s regional network, estimated that as many as 300,000 people had joined the “unprecedented” nationwide protests, and called for fresh rallies next weekend.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said in a statement it launched several preliminary probes into violence against law enforcement.
AFP journalists, who saw badly injured protesters retreating behind other demonstrators after clashing with police, estimated crowds in Moscow at some 20,000 people, with more than 10,000 in second city Saint Petersburg.
Those figures suggested Saturday’s rallies were the largest in Russia since at least 2019, when Navalny supporters rallied in Moscow and other cities to demand free local elections.
The nationwide protests Saturday also were being seen as a litmus test of the opposition’s ability to mobilise ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, despite increasing Kremlin pressure on critics.
Navalny’s detention drew sharp condemnation from Western countries, and the US embassy in Moscow Saturday accused Russian authorities of “suppressing” the right of demonstrators to peaceful protest.
Moscow hit back by alleging US diplomats had published protest routes in advance of Saturday’s demonstrations and of promoting a “march on the Kremlin”.
“Senior officials in the US embassy will have to have a serious conversation with the Russian foreign ministry,” it said in a statement.
“Tired of Putin”
Earlier on Saturday thousands took to the streets in the Far East, Siberia and the Urals including Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, despite sub zero temperatures and police warnings of a swift crackdown.
In Saint Petersburg, where police detained nearly 300 demonstrators, 20-year-old Alexei Skvortsov told AFP that he no longer wanted to live in a “dictatorship”.
“People are tired of Putin,” he said.
In Yakutsk south of the Arctic Circle, protesters wrapped up against the cold and rallied in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit).
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days for allegedly flouting parole conditions.