More than 360 people were arrested across Russia before the Moscow protest began, according to human rights monitoring group OVD-Info. Security forces continued detentions among the marchers.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, wearing a black woolen hat and black jackets posted a selfie at the protest saying, “What happiness that you’re all here. Thank you!” Minutes later she posted a selfie from the inside of a police truck saying that she had been detained.
Dozens of other demonstrators were taken away by police as a column of protesters entered Moscow’s Pushkin Square.
“Putin is a thief,” some chanted. “This is my home, I’m not afraid!” Passing cars honked in support.
The protests marked one of the most forceful displays of opposition to Putin since anti-government rallies in Moscow in summer 2019 over the banning of candidates for local elections.
Saturday’s demonstrations came after a sweeping national crackdown in which police detained opposition activists and courts locked up Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, and another team member, Georgy Alburov, co-author of a bombshell viral YouTube video “Putin’s Palace — History of the World’s Largest Bribe.”
The video, posted Tuesday, alleging colossal corruption in the construction of a vast Black Sea palace for Putin has been viewed more than 65 million times. The Kremlin denies any relationship between Putin and the palace.
Navalny has led opposition to Putin for more than a decade. But Putin has recently boosted his powers to crush dissent. A new Russian laws allows authorities to brand individual activists as “foreign agents,” and have made it more difficult to express dissent, organize and protest. It follows constitutional changes last summer that gave Putin the opportunity to stay in power until 2036.
In Moscow, key Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol, is an investigator at his Anti-Corruption Foundation, was arrested at the square soon after the protest started.
Sobol live-streamed a message directly from the police truck after her arrest urging Russians, “Don’t be silent! Don’t be afraid.
“I believe that I am right,” she said as other arrested protesters cheered in the police truck. “You cannot close your eyes to what is going in Russia right now.”
Nikolao Agilko, 23, one of the protesters in Moscow, said he was inspired by Navalny’s return to Russia on Jan. 17. “He’s like a hero, I think. It’s very inspiring. He’s brave, so we should all be brave today.”
“I have a lot of friends who are scared in this situation so they’re not here,” he said. “But I wanted to be brave and come here today.”
Ruslan Ivanov, 79, stood out in the Moscow crowd amid many young demonstrators. “I wanted to come out to support all of the young people here to show that their demands are correct,” he said referring to the calls for to release Navalny.
Navalny accuses Putin of ordering the nerve agent attack that left him in a coma and under medical care for months in Berlin. The Kremlin denies any links to the poisoning, but has made no moves to open a criminal investigation.
In Khabarovsk — about 3,800 miles east of Moscow — riot police wrestled protesters to the ground and dragged them to waiting police trucks, according to videos posted online from the city. The rights group OVD-Info said some protesters were beaten, citing witnesses.
In another Far East city, Vladivostok, security forces swept in and dispersed protesters.
One protester in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk needed medical attention after he was beaten by police, according to OVD-Info.
Popular Russian video blogger Yuri Dud, whose YouTube channel has more than 8.6 million followers, participated in the Vladivostok protest in support of Navalny. Another popular blogger Ilya Varlamov was detained in Moscow. Journalists from independent media outlets Mediazona and Meduza were arrested in St Petersburg.
Many coordinators of Navalny’s regional headquarters were detained in different Russian cities, according to the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov. Some were arrested as they left their apartments to go to protests.
Zhdanov made the comments on a live YouTube broadcast on Saturday with more than 200,000 viewers. Supporters posted messages calling for Navalny to be freed and sent donations. Zhdanov said protests had been peaceful and calm in cities where the police turnout was smaller.
A court ordered Navalny jailed on Monday over allegations he violated the terms of a suspended sentence in a fraud case, a case that the European Court of Human Rights has declared was political. Facing two other criminal cases in a justice system notorious for politicizing cases, he could face years in jail.
Navalny says the cases against him are political. Even behind bars, he has been able to make his voice heard through the “Putin’s Palace” video. He also released a message Friday on the eve of the protests, stating that his life could be in danger but adding: “I know for sure that there are many good people outside my prison and help will come.”
Members of Navalny’s team, including Yarmysh and Alburov, called on Russians to protest in support of Navalny’s freedom.
“Remember, you should not be afraid,” Alburov tweeted before he was jailed. “They are much more afraid of us.”
Washington, Europe and Britain have criticized Putin over Navalny’s arrest, calling for his release. In Russia, celebrities, sports stars, rappers, writers, journalists and social media influencers — many who have huge youth followings but rarely comment on politics, posted comments on social media calling for him to be freed, or calling on Russians to protest in his support.
Analysts say Navalny is seen by the Kremlin and Russian security services not as a valid opposition politician but an enemy of the state, so authorities would likely disregard pressure from Russian street protests and from Western diplomats