Police clashed violently with protesters in Moscow and arrested more than 2,200 protesters in cities across the country on 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 responded to Navalny’s call to take to the streets after he was arrested at a Moscow airport on arriving from Germany, where he was recovering from near fatal poisoning with a nerve agent.
Protesters streamed across Pushkin Square in central Moscow throwing snowballs at heavily armed riot police, but were arrested in large numbers and beaten back with batons by law enforcement agencies.
Critics of President Vladimir Putin marched towards the Kremlin before dispersing and eventually gathering on the steps of the Moscow Circus, lighting the crowd with hundreds of cell phone lights and hitting a police car with snowballs.
Later on Saturday, hundreds gathered outside the maximum security prison in Moscow where Navalny is being held, but were eventually pushed back by police.
Protesters outside Matrosskaya Tishina Prison sang “Freedom” and called on the authorities to release Putin’s most vocal critics.
“Uniformly clad criminals protect criminals at the top,” Vera Spivakova, a 71-year-old retiree, told AFP in Moscow.
“Putin and the oligarchs are afraid of losing their trough,” she said.
More than 2,200 protesters have been arrested in dozen of cities across the country, according to OVD Info, which monitors opposition rallies.
More than 700 people detained in the capital included Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya, who was later released, and prominent activist Lyubov Sobol. On the eve of the protest, several Navalny employees were fined and detained.
European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell expressed concern about Russia’s reaction to the protests and regretted “widespread arrests” and “disproportionate use of force”.
Protesters used posters and chants to refer to an investigation published by Navalny this week 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, head of the Navalny regional network, estimated that up to 300,000 people had participated in the “unprecedented” nationwide protests and called for new rallies this coming weekend.
The investigative committee, which investigates serious crimes, said in a statement it has opened several preliminary investigations into violence against law enforcement agencies.
AFP journalists, who saw seriously injured protesters retreat behind other protesters after clashes with police, estimated the crowd at around 20,000 in Moscow, more than 10,000 in the second city of Saint Petersburg.
These numbers suggest that Saturday’s rallies were the largest in Russia since at least 2019, when Navalny supporters gathered in Moscow and other cities to call for free local elections.
Saturday’s nationwide protests were also seen as the litmus test of the opposition’s mobility ability in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this year, despite increasing pressure from the Kremlin on critics.
The detention of Navalny was strongly condemned by Western countries, and the US embassy in Moscow on Saturday accused Russian authorities of “suppressing” protesters’ right to peaceful protest.
Moscow hit back, claiming that US diplomats had published protest routes and promoted a “march on the Kremlin” ahead of Saturday’s demonstrations.
“Senior officials at the US embassy need to have a serious conversation with the Russian State Department,” a statement said.
“Tired of Putin”
The previous 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 rapid action.
In Saint Petersburg, where the police arrested nearly 300 demonstrators, 20-year-old Alexei Skvortsov told AFP that he no longer wanted to live in a “dictatorship”.
“People are fed up with Putin,” he said.
In Yakutsk south of the Arctic Circle, protesters wrapped themselves up against the cold and gathered at temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to attend the rallies or risking heavy fines.
A hastily organized court detained Navalny for 30 days on Monday for allegedly disregarding parole.
The 44-year-old trained lawyer gained prominence a decade ago and led large street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)