Tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities across Russia defied a heavy police presence to protest Sunday in support of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny for the second week in a row.
The Kremlin made unprecedented efforts to prevent protesters from repeating their triumph last Saturday – the biggest rallies against President Vladimir Putin in years – when protesters threw snowballs at riot police, arrested traffic and repelled attempts to stop them.
A huge effort to shut down the historic center of Moscow, shut down metro stations and fence miles of sidewalks with metal barricades guarded by riot police squads appears to have dampened the enthusiasm of supporters and drastically reduced the number of people willing to attend Sunday. .
At least 650 people have been detained in 66 cities, according to independent monitor OVD-Info.
Some refused to bow. “What are they going to do, stop each of us?” Vladimir, a chemical engineer in Moscow, told the Financial Times as he made his way to the police cordon where officers allowed people to enter but not exit. “We have to show our support”.
The Kremlin is scrambling to respond to the wave of popular anger Mr. Navalny has exploited with a recent viral video alleging that the oligarchs have spent billions in a lavish palace for Mr. Putin on the Black Sea coast. After the film racked up more than 100 million views on YouTube, Mr. Putin denied owning the property and compared Mr. Navalny to a “terrorist” for organizing the rallies.
Pro-Kremlin media were then allowed to film the palace renovations and a rare interview with Mr Putin’s judo training partner billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, who said he was the owner of the building and who ‘he intended to turn it into a luxury hotel.
On Sunday, in the Russian capital, supporters of Mr. Navalny moved the location of the demonstration a few minutes before it began in front of the FSB headquarters, according to the security agency Mr. Navalny poisoned it with an agent neurotoxic last summer.
In less than 30 minutes, riot police in light green military fatigues and in black helmets and visors without clear ID badges had surrounded the small park where the protesters had gathered.
As a police megaphone repeatedly sounded, warning people that they were breaking the rules of the coronavirus and would be prosecuted, police squads began to grab protesters one by one and drag them through Gray police vans lined up along the road.
“They’ll probably arrest us but I’m not afraid – Navalny is already in jail, so why should we be afraid?” said Alina, a housewife who attended with her husband Evgeniy. “The police are in force this time.”
The Kremlin’s persecution of Mr. Navalny – who was imprisoned on his return to Russia this week after several months he spent recovering from poisoning in Germany – a hit a nerve with the Russians across the country shattered by a stagnant economy, police brutality, corruption and official impunity.
Protesters gathered in towns and cities thousands of miles from Moscow and without any history of activism or significant interest in Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption agenda. The biggest protests outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg took place in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals, where local media estimated 7,000 gathered, and in Novosibirsk in Siberia, where Navalny’s staff attended said 10,000 people were in attendance.
In Vladivostok, on the Pacific coast, demonstrators chanted “My Russia is in prison!” after being chased on the ice above the frozen Amur Bay. A few hundred protesters gathered in Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world, for a second week despite temperatures of -43 ° C.
The closures appear to be aimed at preventing Mr. Navalny’s supporters from showing strength in numbers. In the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, a small crowd of around 100 demonstrators were outnumbered by a phalanx of riot police who surrounded them from all sides.
Investigators have filed several criminal charges against Mr. Navalny’s supporters for alleged offenses ranging from violating pandemic-related health guidelines to assaulting police and “inciting” underage children to demonstrate. A court on Friday sentenced Navalny’s brother Oleg and several of his key aides to two months of house arrest, while others were jailed before the protests or charged after the fact.
Police also tried to prevent journalists from covering the protests, warning in advance that they would also be charged. On Saturday, Moscow police arrested Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of independent news site Mediazona, while he was with his five-year-old son. He was released amid a public outcry, ahead of a court hearing.