Police arrested more than 2,700 people and replaced rallies in Moscow and across Russia on Sunday as supporters of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny braved the bitter cold and a massive demonstration by police forces to demand his release.
The nationwide rallies mark the second weekend of protest in a row that is part of a risky opposition campaign to pressure the Kremlin to liberate President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent.
The opposition politician was arrested on January 17 after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he recovered from nerve agent poisoning in Russia last summer. He accuses Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies.
Navalny’s dramatic return to Moscow, despite the apparent risk of arrest and the protests his prison has sparked, poses a major challenge for Putin that has dominated the political landscape of Russia for over two decades.
In a highly unusual move, on Sunday police put a security lock in the heart of the capital, blocked pedestrians near the Kremlin, closed subway stations and dispatched hundreds of riot police when snow fell.
Yulia, a 40-year-old protester in Moscow, said she joined the rallies despite having a panic attack the night before because she was concerned about the effects of attending.
“I understand that I live in a completely lawless state. In a police state with no independent courts. In a country ruled by corruption. I would like to live differently,” she said.
Police said the protests were illegal as they were not approved and were being disbanded. Authorities have said protesters could spread COVID-19.
At one point a group of demonstrators marched towards the prison in northern Moscow where Navalny is being held and sang “Let him go!”
The police set a turnout of around 2,000 people in the Moscow protest. Reuters reporters put the number at several thousand, down from last weekend when police estimated 4,000 and the opposition put the figure at 50,000, a claim the authorities dismissed as nowhere near true.
According to OVD-Info, a protest surveillance group, police arrested at least 2,737 people across the country, including 681 in Moscow. The numbers should increase.
Yulia Navalnaya, the Kremlin critic’s wife, was among those detained.
“If we keep calm, they could come for each of us tomorrow,” she wrote on Instagram before joining the protests.
The protest is a test of Navalny’s support after many of its prominent allies were attacked in an operation this week. Some, including his brother Oleg, are under house arrest.
In the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, video footage showed demonstrators chanting “Putin is a thief” as they joined their hands and marched in temperatures of around -13 degrees Celsius. The police have arrested more than 100 people in the city, said OVD-Info.
In Tomsk, the Siberian city Navalny visited before suddenly collapsing on a domestic flight last August, protesters gathered outside a concert hall and sang “Let him go!”
Navalny, 44, is accused of committing parole violations. A court will meet next week to consider a sentence of up to three and a half years.
The West has urged Moscow to let Navalny go and its allies have appealed to US President Joe Biden to sanction 35 people who they say are Putin’s close allies.
To excite followers back home, Navalny posted an online video this month that has been viewed over 100 million times accusing Putin of being the ultimate owner of a magnificent Black Sea palace. The Kremlin leader has denied this.
On the eve of the protests, Arkady Rotenberg, a businessman and Putin’s former judo sparring partner, said he owned the property.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and posted from a syndicated feed.)