Russian police detained more than 2,100 people attending peaceful rallies in support of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny on Saturday, in a violent response to nationwide protests set to be the country’s largest in years.
Mr Navalny, president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was jailed this week upon returning from Germany where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt he says was ordered by the Kremlin, and calling on his supporters to hold rallies demanding his release.
Tens of thousands of Russians responded by braving sub-zero temperatures, an often violent police response, and official warnings of a harsh crackdown to flood the streets in 107 cities across the country.
In Moscow — where police said 4,000 people came to protest but Reuters estimated there were 10 times as many — crowds stretched for kilometres in all directions from central Pushkin Square, clogging up sidewalks and blocking traffic as they spilled into the street.
As baton-wielding riot police in body armour and balaclavas moved in to arrest them, some protesters fended them off with snowballs or fought back to free detainees from custody. In Saint Petersburg, protesters breached a police barricade and marched through the city.
State media said that about 40 riot police in Moscow sustained minor injuries. The driver of a black car with government license plates and VIP beacon was hospitalised after protesters smashed his car and gouged out his eye, according to state newswire RIA Novosti.
Police had arrested 2,131 people by 4pm GMT, including 795 in Moscow and 309 in St Petersburg, according to independent watchdog OVD-Info.
Among them were Mr Navalny’s wife Yulia and top aide Lyubov Sobol, who were detained as soon as they arrived at the square. Ms Navalnaya was released a few hours later.
Russian officials opened several criminal investigations into the rallies, while authorities in Moscow said that 19 people with coronavirus had attended, making the rallies a health hazard.
The Kremlin’s children’s ombudsman, who had accused Mr Navalny of using his youthful following online as “human shields,” said that 15 underage protesters were arrested.
Schools and universities had warned students and the parents of children as young as 10 not to attend the protests.
The head of the Moscow office of consultancy firm McKinsey, which counts several government agencies and state companies as its clients, sent an email to staff banning them from protesting or expressing online support for the rallies.
McKinsey later told the Financial Times: “McKinsey supports its employees’ rights to participate legally and in a personal capacity in civic and political activities across the countries we operate. The recognition of these rights is unqualified.”
Several protesters said they had never attended a rally before but were galvanised by the Kremlin’s treatment of Mr Navalny, who faces as many as 13 and a half years in prison on charges he says are retaliation for exposing Russia’s alleged role in his poisoning.
“I’m sick of all this stuff. I’m 19, Putin has been in power my entire life, and I don’t see any hope for the country,” said Anastasia, a student at a Moscow state university. “There’s poverty and state terrorism. And what they did to Navalny is outrageous and illegal.”
In Moscow, crowds chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “Free Navalny!” while passing cars sounded their horns in support and blared Changes, a Soviet-era rock anthem popular with protesters in Belarus.
Before the protest started, squads of up to 10 officers ran into the crowd and grabbed people, seemingly at random, prompting shouts of “Disgrace!” from onlookers.
Footage from Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, where thousands had congregated, showed riot police chasing protesters down the street.
In Yakutsk, a city 8,000km east of Moscow, police arrested 30 people among the few hundred who braved temperatures of -50C to protest.
“I want Russia to be free. I support Navalny. I want a future for my children,” said Svetlana, 60, a retiree, attending the Moscow rally. “I’ve really had it. Everything is falling apart. There’s no healthcare and no pensions. I want things to change.”
Mr Navalny’s team hopes that the scale of the protests, especially in eastern and Siberian cities where anti-Kremlin activities are uncommon, will put pressure on Mr Putin’s administration to release him.
Mr Navalny was jailed on a charge of breaking the terms of a suspended sentence from 2014, which could see him imprisoned for three-and-a-half years. He also faces a fraud charge that carries a 10-year maximum sentence.
The Kremlin, which denies any role in the August nerve agent attack on Mr Navalny that almost killed him, has said the rallies are illegal. Police pre-emptively arrested many of Mr Navalny’s closest aides this week to prevent them from attending the rallies and warned social media companies they would be prosecuted for not deleting posts advertising the protests.
Moscow has said it will ignore calls of condemnation from western countries and their demands for Mr Navalny’s release, describing it as a domestic issue.