Thousands protested in cities across Russia on Sunday, defying threats of arrest by the government for a second straight weekend, demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
In the rallies of varying size across Russia’s 11 time zones, demonstrators braved cold temperatures and warnings that the government saw the protests as “unauthorized” and would act accordingly. Thousands were detained.
“I support Navalny but this is about more than him,” said Andrei, 35, a Moscow protester, in an interview with VOA.
“It's about changing our government and making a better life for people,” he added.
“I’ve always been for justice my whole life,” said Lyubov, a pensioner who ventured out to demonstrate. “Even my friends who don’t like Navalny — who don’t support him — see this is wrong.”
As of late Sunday, independent monitoring groups reported more than 5,000 arrests — including Navalny’s wife, Yulia.
“The people see this insanity and they will keep coming and coming,” said 28-year-old Viktoria, a political activist. “The authorities don’t ever want to give up power and the Navalny case only confirms it.”
A poisoned affair
Navalny was jailed for alleged parole violations upon his return to Russia from Germany earlier in January, following a lengthy recuperation from a near-lethal poisoning attack the opposition politician has blamed on the government of President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin denied involvement but refused to investigate the assassination attempt, citing a lack of evidence.
Navalny now faces the possibility of a 3.5-year prison term over charges he violated the parole terms of a 2014 suspended sentence the European Court of Human Rights later deemed baseless.
About a week ago, thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest, with an additional 4,000 arrested nationwide as they protested Navalny’s detention.
The United States and its European allies have condemned Navalny’s detention and the aggressive Russian government response against demonstrators, prompting Kremlin countercharges of Western interference in its internal affairs.
In Moscow, authorities closed down most of the city center on the snowy morning — making it all but impossible for protesters to gather at a chosen spot outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Services (FSB).
As a result, protest organizers issued a last-minute change of location — launching a chain of events in which Navalny’s allies issued instructions through social media, demonstrators trudged through snow in search of a crowd, and the government dispersed scores of riot police to stop them.
The dispersed nature of the demonstrations made assessing the scale of the event all but impossible.
At one point, several thousand people were seen gathered outside several Moscow metro stations.
Later, a column of several thousand was seen marching toward Matrosskaya Tishina — the jail where Navalny is currently being held.
Elsewhere — everywhere it seemed — demonstrators were looking at their social media feeds for instructions or asking those they came across: “Where is everyone heading now?”
Each time, authorities had police or riot police in place to make arrests and deflect the crowd’s movement.
At several points throughout the day and in different locations, detained protesters simply waited for new police buses to arrive.
The ones already on site were filled beyond capacity.
The decision to close everything from metro stations to streets and businesses throughout the center of Russia’s capital was seen by some as evidence of the protests’ growing power.
“I’m 65 and I’ve never seen Moscow shut down like this,” said Sergey, a pensioner, in an interview with VOA. “The city has been occupied by troops.”
There were signs that — having been caught off guard by the scale of recent demonstrations — authorities were cracking down in advance.
Several activists were arrested and given short sentences for “anti-social” behavior this past week.
Criminal cases were launched against nearly two dozen protesters who now face the prospect of lengthy prison sentences.
In addition, several high-profile journalists were detained on the grounds they had promoted the rally on social media.
Meanwhile, state enterprises ranging from government-affiliated corporations to universities discouraged attendance at the protests.
“Our school administration told us if we came, we’d never find a decent job with a decent salary and might have troubles finishing school,” said Anastasia, a student at a Moscow university, in an interview with VOA a short distance away from massed riot police.
Her friend Ekaterina said they had made peace with their decision.
“Our constitution allows us to gather peacefully. No one has a right to detain us but if I am, so be it.”
Authorities also put pressure on Navalny allies — placing the opposition leader’s brother Oleg and dozens of associates from the Navalny-led Anti-Corruption Foundation under house arrest.
They were charged with promoting an illegal protest last week that authorized deemed a health risk due to the coronavirus.
Public health concerns, however, were undermined by a near simultaneous decision by Moscow to lift remaining restrictions on bars and nightclubs.
In a separate move, Russia placed Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief strategist, on an international wanted list. Volkov who currently resides in Europe, was charged in absentia with urging underaged Russians to violate public gathering restrictions and risk legal penalties — a key talking point in Russian state media’s effort to undermine Navalny’s appeal.
Navalny supporters maintain that they will keep up the pressure on authorities to release the opposition politician.
They’ve announced another protest for February, when Navalny is scheduled to appear in a court hearing that may determine the terms of his confinement.