Police detained over 2,000 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was slipped to him by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s protests, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event.
But protesters defied the ban and, in at least one case in temperatures below -50 Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit), turned out in force. Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called “the clutches of his killers”.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
Navalny’s wife Yulia was briefly detained at the rally before being released. Some of Navalny’s political allies were detained in the days before the protest; others on the day itself.
At one point, protesters surrounded a sleek black car with a flashing light used by senior officials, throwing snowballs at it and kicking it. A group of policemen were also pelted with snowballs by a much bigger crowd.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 2,250 people, including 855 in Moscow and 327 in St Petersburg, had been detained at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up. He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a U.S.-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
Some protesters marched on the prison, where police were waiting to arrest them.
Images of protesters with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.
In a push to galvanise support ahead of the protests, Navalny’s team released a video this week about an opulent palace on the Black Sea they alleged belonged to Putin, something the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday the clip had been viewed more than 70 million times.
Navalny’s allies hope to tap into what polls say are pent-up frustrations among the public over years of falling wages and economic fallout from the pandemic.
But Putin’s grip on power looks unassailable for now and the 68-year-old president regularly records an approval rating of over 60%, much higher than that of Navalny.