Police arrested more than 2,500 people at dozens of rallies against Putin demanding the release of the Russian leader’s fiercest critic.
In violent clashes, Alexei Navalny’s supporters bled bloodily – condemned in Britain and elsewhere – and snowballs were pelted at police during a demonstration in Moscow.
The riot police used force to break off rallies as tens of thousands of demonstrators defied a ban by the authorities and defied bone-deafening temperatures of -52 ° C.
Navalny’s wife Julia was one of those detained in the capital. She posted an Instagram selfie from the back of a police car and wrote, “Sorry for the poor quality. Very poor light in the touring car.”
Navalny, 44, had urged supporters to protest after he was arrested last weekend for the first time since being poisoned with the novichok nerve agent, which he says was brought to him by state security officials had returned to Russia from Germany.
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Authorities had warned people to stay away from the protests on Saturday, saying they risked catching Covid-19, as well as law enforcement and possible jail terms for attending an unauthorized event.
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted: “Britain condemns the use of force by the Russian authorities against peaceful demonstrators and journalists.
“We call on (the Russian government) to respect its international human rights obligations in (the Council of Europe) and (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and to release citizens detained during peaceful demonstrations.”
Leonid Volkov, an ally of Navalny, urged supporters to do the same next weekend to try to rid Navalny of what he called “the clutches of his killers”.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered at one of the largest unauthorized rallies in years, police were seen roughly arresting people and bundling them into nearby vans.
Authorities said only about 4,000 people showed up while the State Department challenged Reuters’ estimate.
“Why not say 4 million straight away?” suggested it sarcastically on his official Telegram messenger channel.
Ivan Zhdanov, an ally of Navalny, put the turnout in the capital at 50,000, the Proekt media company reported.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Shame” and “Freedom for Navalny!”
Navalny’s wife Yulia was briefly arrested at the rally before she was released.
Some of Navalny’s political allies were arrested in the days leading up to the protest; others on the day itself.
Protesters once surrounded a sleek black car with a flashing light used by senior officials, threw snowballs at it and kicked it.
A group of police officers were also pelted with snowballs by a much larger crowd.
The OVD-Info protest monitoring group said at least 2,509 people, including 952 in Moscow and 374 in St. Petersburg, had been arrested at rallies in around 100 cities.
The United States condemned what it termed “tough tactics” against protesters and journalists, and called for the “immediate and unconditional” release of Navalny.
“We call on the Russian authorities to release all detainees for exercising their universal rights,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Lawyer Navalny is being held in a Moscow prison pending four legal cases, which he describes as fabricated.
He accused President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder when he was poisoned with novichok – the same nerve agent used in the attempted murder of a former Russian spy in Salisbury – in a hotel in Siberia last August.
Putin has denied this, claiming Navalny is part of a US-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
Navalny collapsed in pain on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow last August and heard excruciating screams on a video posted online.
The flight made an emergency landing and he was taken to hospital, later brought to Germany for treatment.
On Saturday, some demonstrators marched into the prison where police were waiting to arrest them.
Pictures of protesters with injuries like bloody heads circulated on social media.
The scenes were reminiscent of the months of unrest in Russia’s neighboring ally in Belarus, where protests against the government over allegations of election fraud broke out last August.
A Moscow protester, Sergei Radchenko (53), said: “I’m sick of being scared. I didn’t just show up for me and myself
Navalny, but for my son, because there is no future in this country. “
He added that he was scared but felt strong about what he called the runaway judicial system.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously described the protests as illegal and the work of “provocateurs”.
Prosecutors said they are investigating alleged violence against protesters by police officers.
Almost 1,000 people demonstrated against Navalny’s arrest in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.
Small demonstrations also took place in Bulgaria, and around 200 to 300 people protested in Paris.
Police in Siberia’s Yakutsk, one of the coldest cities in the world, where the temperature was -52 ° C on Saturday, grabbed a protester’s arms and legs and dragged him into a van.
In Moscow, some journalists covering the protests were arrested and reprimanded by the US embassy.
“Russian authorities arrest peaceful protesters, journalists,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Ross on Twitter.
“Seems like a concerted campaign to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly.”
There were outages in cellphone and internet services, as revealed by the surveillance site downdetector.ru, a tactic sometimes used by the authorities to make it difficult for demonstrators to communicate with one another.
The UK Foreign Office said it was “deeply concerned about the detention of peaceful protesters”.
To bolster support ahead of the protests, Navalny’s team released a video this week about an opulent palace on the Black Sea that they claimed belonged to Putin, which the Kremlin denied. As of Saturday, the clip had been viewed more than 70 million times.
Navalny’s allies hope to be able to take advantage of pent-up frustrations in public over years of falling wages and the economic consequences of the pandemic, according to surveys.
But Putin’s grip on power seems unassailable for the time being and the 68-year-old president regularly has an approval rating of over 60 percent, much higher than Navalny’s.