Tens of thousands of supporters of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny thronged the streets of Russia on Saturday, defying warnings from authorities that those attending faced police arrest and additional health risks because of the coronavirus.
The protests were called for by Navalny after he was jailed upon his return to Russia last weekend from Germany, where he’d been recovering from a poisoning attack that nearly killed him last August.
Independent monitoring group OVD-Info reported about 3,200 arrests as of 1:45 a.m. Sunday Moscow time, including Navalny’s wife, Yulia, and his aide, politician Lyubov Sobol. Several dozen journalists were also detained.
Yulia Navalnaya confirmed her arrest in Moscow in an Instagram post created from inside a police van, apologizing for the look of her posting.
“Sorry for poor quality. Very bad light in a paddy wagon,” she wrote Saturday.
Thousands of Navalny’s supporters were in the streets of more than 60 Russian cities to demand the Kremlin critic’s immediate release, defying the measures taken by police to break up the protests, which they have declared illegal.
In Moscow, thousands of masked protesters gathered in the city’s central Pushkin Square with shouts of “Let him go!” and “Alexei! Alexei!”
Demonstrators also held signs that read “Freedom for Navalny” and “I’m not afraid.”
"If they arrest me, well, OK, I’ll miss a day or two of work,” said Dmitry, 55, in an interview with VOA.
"I’m here thinking of my children and their futures. Because I absolutely don’t like what’s happening now in our country these days,” he added.
Many of the demonstrators were in their 20s and some even in their teens — a fact government officials have seized on, accusing Navalny of luring minors into harm’s way.
“I’ve known only one president my whole life and I’m tired of him,” said Ksenia, 24, in explaining why she’d come.
“I didn’t come out for Navalny. I came out for me,” said Daria, 17, a high school senior. “I want my country to change.”
Crowds also overflowed onto the surrounding side streets and along the city’s main Tverskaya thoroughfare.
Drivers blared their horns in a near constant drone of support for the demonstrators.
Most out on the streets appeared peaceful. Yet, toward evening, some protesters were seen pelting OMON riot police units and a car belonging to the Federal Security Services (FSB) with snowballs. The driver reportedly was injured after being hit in the eye.
Nearby, a smoke grenade had been lobbed into the area, apparently from a demonstrator, filling the air with an acrid smell.
Throughout the day, various witness videos posted to social media showed riot police roughly detaining protesters, in some cases beating demonstrators with batons. There were reports of multiple injuries.
Dozens of Navalny supporters were arrested during a standoff outside Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny was being held.
In one graphic scene in St. Petersburg, an OMON riot trooper was filmed kicking a woman in the stomach — sending her sprawling after she asked about the arrest of another demonstrator.
Russia’s state RIA-Novosti news service reported 39 policemen had received minor injuries during the day.
The United States has strongly condemned the arrests and use of “harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Sunday.
Suppression of Russians' rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, Navalny’s arrest, and the crackdown on protests “are troubling indications of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms,” the statement added.
The U.S. is calling on Russian authorities “to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release” of Navalny, Price said, adding that U.S. is urging Russia “to fully cooperate with the international community’s investigation into the poisoning” of the Kremlin critic, and “credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil."
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement countering that the U.S. efforts to “incite radical elements” on social media would have negative effects on U.S.-Russian relations — adding American diplomats in Moscow would be summoned for “a serious conversation.”
Navalny’s national reach
The turnout provided further evidence that Navalny has built a national presence across the country, despite a near total ban on coverage in state media.
Indeed, Navalny’s popularity has grown largely based on a savvy social media campaign and online video investigations that purport to uncover corruption among the Kremlin elite.
Even this week, with Navalny in prison, his team released a lengthy video online that alleges discovery of a lavish palace secretly built for President Vladimir Putin.
Despite denials from the Kremlin of the investigation’s veracity, the film quickly garnered 70 million views.
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, police rounded up key Navalny associates from his field offices and sentenced them to prison stays ranging from nine to 28 days.
But if the pressure was an attempt to intimidate, it didn't stop rallies of varying size from being held across the country.
In St. Petersburg, demonstrators overwhelmed police lines and thousands strolled down the city’s Nevsky Prospekt.
In Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East, several thousand people attempted to walk down the city’s central street before being stopped by riot police.
Similar scenes played out in Irkutsk, Omsk, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok.
Even in remote Yakutsk, a northern outpost where temperatures dipped to -50 C, several hundred protesters came out to protest in the city’s central square. Witness video showed police hailing several protesters into waiting police vans as a heavy frost hung in the air.
Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia last Sunday, ending a nearly five-month recovery in Germany from the poisoning attack he suffered while traveling in Siberia last August.
The opposition politician insists the assassination attempt was carried out on the orders of Putin, a charge the Russian leader vehemently denies.
Yet Russian authorities have refused to investigate the incident, preferring to threaten new criminal charges against Navalny instead.
Earlier this week, a judge sentenced Navalny to 30 days in prison pending charges of violating parole while recovering abroad.
The hearing was held in a makeshift courtroom inside the police station, proceedings Navalny labeled as “beyond the height of lawlessness” before calling for Russias to take to the streets in response.
“The way they arrested him was against our constitution,” said Ilya, 23, a demonstrator in Moscow. “If they can do it to a person like Navalny — with millions of followers online — they can do it to us.”
Despite the large turnout, however, it was unclear whether demonstrators had made any progress on their central demand for Navalny’s release.
The opposition leader’s chief strategist announced a follow-up protest would be held again next weekend.
“If enough of us come out, then they’ll have to let him go,” said Yuri, 22, who was passing out small Russian flags on Pushkin Square in Moscow.
“We’re the real patriots of our country. Not those who steal from the people,” he added.
Wayne Lee contributed to this report.