Russia's most widely known opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been released from police custody, after he and hundreds of his supporters were detained Saturday during demonstrations in Moscow and 90 other cities to protest Vladimir Putin's inauguration to another six-year presidential term.
Navalny said in a tweet that he was released early Sunday morning.
On Saturday, within minutes of Navalny's arrival at a protest in central Moscow, he was arrested along with his ally, Nikolai Lyaskin.
Baton-wielding riot police — and even men dressed in traditional Cossack uniforms — repeatedly waded into the Moscow crowd of mostly younger Russians to make arrests.
Aleksei Aleksandrov, a correspondent for Current Time, a Russian-language television show produced by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was briefly detained at the demonstration in Moscow. He reported that police were beating protesters with batons and kicking and pushing journalists. Aleksandrov said he could not remember “such harsh actions by police” in previous Navalny protests.
The independent monitoring group OVD-Info estimated that 1,300 people had been detained nationwide by police, who dubbed the protests "unsanctioned." Nearly half the detentions occurred in the capital alone, OVD-Info said.
In the hours before his appearance, Navalny — barred from running in the March presidential race — stayed at a secret location to avoid being detained before he reached the protest in Pushkinskaya Square. He was dragged off by his arms and legs to a van by five policemen as protesters chanted "Russia without Putin" and "Down with the Tsar."
Navalny was later charged with inciting an unauthorized rally.
Wearing a hat labeled "We are the Power," opposition activist Svetlana Safronova, who participated in the Moscow protest, insisted that under Putin, Russia had become a totalitarian regime. "Everything that is good in our laws, they ignore and break," she said. "They're criminals."
A nationalist youth movement organized a counterprotest in Moscow, attempting to block Navalny's supporters from gaining access to Pushkinskaya Square. Some chanted "Putin-Russia" and "No to Maidan," a reference to the Ukrainian street revolution of 2014 that toppled the country's pro-Russian government.
Maksim Slavin, a spokesman for the radical pro-Putin National Liberation Movement, said his members were there to show that Putin supporters represented the true voice of the people.
Russians, he insisted, would do anything to prevent a street revolution like those that had taken place in neighboring Ukraine or, more recently, Armenia.
"We're against any change in power through unlawful means. … You should do it through referendums, changes in the constitution, or elections," Slavin said.
'In a dead end'
But one activist told a crowd in the city of Khabarovsk, "Putin has already been on his throne for 18 years! We've ended up in a dead end over these 18 years. I don't want to put up with this!"
In St. Petersburg, anti-Putin protesters were prevented from reaching the city's central square.
In Yekaterinburg in the Urals, 1,500 kilometers from Moscow, local reporters estimated that about 1,000 people turned out to protest. There also were reports of protests in Siberian towns. Monitors reported that police arrested about 150 people in Krasnoyarsk, in eastern Siberia, and another 75 in Yakutsk.
In the March election, Putin, who has been either president or prime minister since 1999, won against seven weak challengers with almost 77 percent of the vote. It was the largest margin by any post-Soviet Russian leader, which the Kremlin argues demonstrates his "father of the nation" status and his clear mandate to govern.
One of Putin's challengers, however, described the voting as a "filthy election."
International observers criticized the poll, saying there had been no real choice in the election and complained of widespread allegations of ballot rigging. Russian election officials described the violations as "minor" but said they were investigating.
Despite Putin's overwhelming election win, Monday's inauguration ceremony will be a simpler affair than his previous three swearing-ins. The Russian TV station Dozhd reported Saturday that Putin would forgo driving in a presidential motorcade through central Moscow, avoiding the awkward scenes in 2012, when the capital's streets appeared almost empty.
During Monday's inauguration, Putin will stay within the Kremlin's grounds, taking his oath of office in the Andreyevsky Hall. He is due to step outside the hall to thank party volunteers who worked on his election campaign.
'Take to the streets'
Navalny, who has been repeatedly detained over the years for organizing anti-Kremlin protests, had urged supporters all week with online messages to protest Saturday, saying, "If you think that he's not our tsar, take to the streets of your cities. We will force the authorities, made up of swindlers and thieves, to reckon with the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin."
In an effort presumably to head off the protests, Russian police raided the homes of Navalny's supporters on Friday and detained some.
"Activist Ilya Gantvarg was detained in St. Petersburg last [Friday] night," said an Open Russian Foundation press release reported by Interfax.
The Open Russia document also said one of its own members, Viktor Chirikov, was detained in the city of Krasnodar, and that an employee of Navalny's staff was detained in her own backyard in Krasnoyarsk.
"She was taken to a court right from home ... tentatively [to be charged] in connection with the May 5 action," the group said.
In a recent interview with VOA's Russian service, Leonid Volkov, Navalny's chief of staff, had warned that a crackdown was imminent.
"The authorities have been and continue to be afraid of protests. They are trying everything they can — threats, warnings, promises to shatter [the opposition] — it's always the same," he said.
"Politically speaking, they just can't afford to have a large-scale protests in Moscow," he said.
Navalny's regional headquarters in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg were raided early Friday. Police confiscated promotional materials to be used at Saturday's rally.
According to a report by Radio Free Europe, a Navalny organizer in the southern city of Volgograd tweeted that local students had been "forced to sign papers acknowledging that they could face serious consequences, including expulsion, if they take part in the rally."
Navalny, who organized massive street protests to coincide with Putin's 2012 re-election, was barred from the presidential ballot because of a conviction on financial crimes charges he contends were fabricated.
Yulia Savchenko of VOA's Russian Service and Charles Maynes in Moscow contributed to this report.