Russian police on Saturday detained over 1,000 protesters, including the wife of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, as several thousand took to the streets nationwide to denounce President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
Thousands of people, including teenagers, packed Moscow’s central Pushkin Square and nearby streets as riot police hauled off demonstrators and beat others with batons.
Among those detained were Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya and his prominent aide Lyubov Sobol. AFP journalists saw several protesters left badly injured after clashing with police in Moscow.
“What a joy that you are here!” Navalnaya wrote before being detained and posting a picture of herself from inside a police van.
The protests in Moscow were estimated to be the largest demonstrators since 2019 when Navalny supporters rallied to demand free local elections.
Navalny had called on Russians to protest this week after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with Novichok and returning to Moscow following months of treatment in Germany, only to be arrested on arrival.
Some protesters marched towards the Kremlin, while others blocked Tverskaya Street, the Russian capital’s main thoroughfare.
Police clashed with the demonstrators in the city centre and hit them with truncheons, AFP journalists said. The protesters threw snowballs at the police.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund said on Twitter said that “an incredible number” of people had gathered in the capital.
Moscow police, which are accused of downplaying turnout at rallies, said 4,000 turned up.
Earlier Saturday thousands took to the streets in the Far East, Siberia and the Urals including Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg.
Over 1,000 protesters were arrested across the country, the OVD monitoring group said.
Demonstrators in Moscow reported mobile network disruptions and sporadic internet.
Navalny’s supporters in Moscow held signs saying “Free Navalny” and “Don’t be afraid” and chanted “Putin is the enemy of people.”
The rallies are a test of the opposition’s ability to mobilise ahead of parliamentary elections this year, despite increasing Kremlin pressure on critics.
– ‘Criminals in uniforms’ –
Protesters said they wanted new leadership and that authorities were persecuting Navalny for speaking the truth.
“Criminals dressed in uniforms are protecting criminals at the helm,” Vera Spivakova, a 71-year-old pensioner, told AFP in Moscow.
She and others said the Kremlin was angered by opposition claims that Putin had amassed vast wealth during his two-decade tenure.
Ahead of the demonstrations, Navalny’s team released a video investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin. The two-hour report has been viewed more than 66 million times.
“Putin and oligarchs are afraid of losing their trough. That’s why they are dispersing people,” Spivakova said.
In Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg where around 10,000 people took to the streets, 20-year-old Alexei Skvortsov said he no longer wanted to live in a “dictatorship.”
“People are tired of Putin,” he said.
In Yakutsk south of the Arctic Circle, protesters wrapped up against the cold and rallied in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit).
Navalny, who is being held in Moscow’s high-security Matrossaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters on the eve of the rallies.
“I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison’s walls and help will come,” he said.
Ahead of the demonstrations several Navalny aides were handed short jail sentences for violating protest laws.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days for allegedly flouting parole conditions.
– ‘Putin palace’ –
The “Putin’s palace” report released by Navalny alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square metre mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco. The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Navalny was trending on TikTok, a video app popular with teens, and videos demanding Navalny’s release garnered hundreds of millions of views.
Russia’s media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
Navalny, 44, rose to prominence a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia’s opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States and the European Union calling for his release.
Several hundred people attended pro-Navalny rallies in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia on Saturday.