Police face protesters during an unauthorized protest rally against opposition leader Alexei Navalny prison on January 31, 2021 in central Moscow, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Tens of thousands chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin and took to the streets across Russia on Sunday to demand the release of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny in order to sustain nationwide protests that have rocked the Kremlin.
More than 4,500 people were arrested by police and some were beaten, according to a surveillance group.
Russian authorities went to great lengths to contain the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands gathered across the country last weekend. This was the largest and most widespread display of discontent Russia had seen in years. Despite the threat of imprisonment, warnings to social media groups and strict police chains, the protests on Sunday again closed cities in Russia’s eleven time zones.
Navalny’s team quickly called for another protest in Moscow on Tuesday as he faces a trial that could send him to prison for years.
44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator and Putin’s most famous critic, was arrested on January 17 after returning from Germany. There he recovered for five months from nerve agent poisoning, which he accuses the Kremlin.
The Russian authorities have denied the allegations. He was arrested for allegedly violating his probation requirements for failing to report to meetings with law enforcement officers while he was recovering in Germany.
The United States called on Russia to release Navalny and criticized the crackdown on protests.
“The US condemns the persistent use of tough tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by the Russian authorities for a second week in a row,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Twitter.
Protesters oppose riot police during a rally in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny on January 31, 2021 in Moscow, Russia.
Oleg Nikishin | Getty Images News | Getty Images
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected Blinken’s appeal as “gross interference in Russia’s internal affairs” and accused Washington of supporting the protests in an attempt to destabilize the situation in the country.
Police arrested more than 4,500 people across the country during protests in cities on Sunday, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests and surpassed around 4,000 arrests in demonstrations across Russia on January 23.
In Moscow, authorities implemented unprecedented security measures in the city center, closed metro stations near the Kremlin, reduced bus traffic and ordered restaurants and shops to remain closed.
Navalny’s team initially called for the protest to take place on Sunday in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, where the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which Navalny claims was responsible for his poisoning, is located. Given the police chains around the square, the protest moved to other central squares and streets.
The police happened to pick up people and put them in police buses, but thousands of protesters marched through the city center for hours chanting, “Putin, step back!” and “Putin, thief!” – a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for the Russian leader and featured in a widespread video by Navalny’s team.
“I’m not afraid because we are the majority,” said Leonid Martynov, who took part in the protest. “We mustn’t be afraid of clubs because the truth is on our side.”
Police arrest protesters during an unauthorized protest against the prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on January 31, 2021 in central Moscow, Russia.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images
At one point, protesters approached the Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where Navalny is being held. They were met by phalanxes of riot police who pushed back the march and chased protesters through courtyards, recording scores and beating some with clubs. Despite this, the demonstrators continued to march in the Russian capital in a zigzag around the police barriers.
1,450 people were arrested in Moscow, including Navalny’s wife Julia. “If we keep silent, they will follow each of us tomorrow,” she said on Instagram before protesting.
Several thousand people marched through Russia’s second largest city St. Petersburg and sang “Down with the Tsar!” and occasional brawls broke out as protesters pushed back police trying to make arrests. Almost 1,000 were arrested.
Some of the largest rallies took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia and in Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
“I don’t want my grandchildren to live in such a country,” said 55-year-old Vyacheslav Vorobyov, who turned out to be at a rally in Yekaterinburg. “I want you to live in a free country.”
Courts arrested Navalny staff and activists across the country over the past week as part of a multiple effort by the authorities to block the protests. His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol, and three others were placed under two-month house arrest on Friday for alleged violating coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.
Prosecutors also called for social media platforms to block calls to join the protests.
The Interior Ministry issued stern warnings to the public, saying protesters could be charged with participating in mass riots that could result in imprisonment for up to eight years.
The protests were fueled by a two-hour YouTube video released by Navalny’s team following his arrest for the Black Sea residence allegedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times and has inspired a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet amid an economic downturn.
Russia has experienced extensive corruption during Putin’s tenure, while poverty remains widespread.
Protesters in Moscow sang “Aqua disco!” – A reference to one of the residence’s fancy amenities, which also includes a casino and shisha lounge where pole dancing can be watched.
Putin says neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property. On Saturday, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime confidante of Putin and occasional judo sparring partner, claimed he owned the property himself.
Navalny fell into a coma on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20, and the pilot rerouted the plane so he could be treated in the city of Omsk. Two days later he was taken to a Berlin hospital. Laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, as well as tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, revealed that he was exposed to the nerve agent Novichok.
The Russian authorities have refused to open a full criminal investigation as there is no evidence that he was poisoned.
Navalny was arrested as soon as he returned to Russia earlier this month and was detained for 30 days at the request of the Russian Prison Service. He alleged he breached his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction that he denied as political vengeance.
On Thursday, a Moscow court denied the release of Navalny’s appeal, and another hearing on Tuesday could turn his 3 1/2 year suspended sentence into a sentence to serve in prison. Navalny’s team called for another protest outside the courthouse.