Tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities across Russia defied a heavy police presence to protest on Sunday in support of jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny for the second straight week.
The Kremlin made unprecedented efforts to stop the protesters repeating their triumph of last Saturday — the biggest rallies against President Vladimir Putin in years — when protesters threw snowballs at riot police, shut down traffic and fought off attempts to arrest them.
A huge effort to close off the historical centre of Moscow, shutting metro stations and fencing off kilometres of pavement with metal barricades guarded by squads of riot police appeared to have tempered the enthusiasm of supporters and significantly reduced the numbers of those willing to attend on Sunday.
At least 3838 people were detained in dozens of cities, including 1080 in Moscow and 796 in St Petersburg, according to independent monitor OVD-Info. Videos on social media appeared to show police using tear gas and tasers to detain protesters in Moscow, while OVD-Info said some detainees in Vladivostok reported facing torture at a police station.
Some refused to be bowed. “What are they going to do, arrest every single one of us?” Vladimir, a chemicals engineer in Moscow, told the Financial Times as he walked towards the police cordon where officers were allowing people to enter but not leave. “We have to show our support”.
The Kremlin is scrambling to respond to the wave of popular anger Mr Navalny tapped with a recent viral video alleging oligarchs spent billions on a lavish palace for Mr Putin on the Black Sea coast. After the film racked up more than 100m views on YouTube, Mr Putin denied he owned the property and likened Mr Navalny to a “terrorist” for organising the rallies.
Pro-Kremlin media was then allowed to film renovations at the palace and a rare interview with Mr Putin’s childhood judo sparring partner, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, who said he was the owner of the building and intended to turn it into a luxury hotel.
In the Russian capital on Sunday, Mr Navalny’s supporters moved the location of the protest minutes before it was set to begin outside the headquarters of the FSB, the security agency Mr Navalny claims poisoned him with a nerve agent last summer.
Within 30 minutes, riot police in light green military fatigues and black helmets and visors with no clear identification badges had encircled the small park where protesters had reassembled.
As a police megaphone blared a message on repeat, warning people that they were breaking coronavirus rules and would be prosecuted, squads of police began to snatch up protesters one by one and drag them to grey police vans lined up along the road.
“They will probably arrest us but I’m not afraid — Navalny is already in jail, so why should we be scared?” said Alina, a housewife who attended with her husband Evgeniy. “The police are out in force this time.”
The Kremlin’s persecution of Mr Navalny — who was jailed upon returning to Russia this week after several months he spent recovering from the poisoning in Germany — has struck a nerve with Russians across the country upset with a stagnant economy, police brutality, corruption and official impunity.
Protesters rallied in cities and small towns thousands of miles from Moscow and without any history of activism or significant interest in Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption agenda, in some cases reporting higher turnout than a week ago. The largest protests outside Moscow and St Petersburg were in Ekaterinburg in the Urals, where local media estimated 7,000 rallied, and Novosibirsk in Siberia, where Mr Navalny’s staff said 10,000 people attended.
In Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, protesters chanted “My Russia sits in prison!” after they were chased on to the ice over the frozen Amur Bay. A few hundred protesters gathered in Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, for a second week despite temperatures of -43C.
The massive police operation appeared to have been a success in Moscow, however, where protesters were disjointed and scattered. At a major junction where three of Moscow’s main train stations meet, a few thousand people gathered, blocking pavements and chanting “Putin is a thief” amid a cacophony of supportive car horns.
But protesters began running down side streets and through parks whenever groups of police began making select arrests. The Financial Times saw dozens of passers-by detained by squads of police and marched to police vans, while other protesters ran, shouting warnings to each other that arrests were being made.
The dispersion underscored a lack of organisation, with many protesters unsure where to relocate or how to get there.
Investigators have filed several criminal charges against Mr Navalny’s supporters for alleged offences ranging from violating pandemic-related health guidelines to assaulting police officers and “inciting” underage children to protest. A court sentenced Mr Navalny’s brother Oleg and several of his top aides to two months of house arrest on Friday, while others were jailed in advance of the protests or charged after the fact.
Police also attempted to stop the media from covering the protests, detaining 82 journalists. On Saturday, police in Moscow arrested Sergei Smirnov, editor of the independent news site Mediazona, as he was out with his five-year-old son. He was released amid public outcry, ahead of a court hearing.