Russian police arrested more than 2,600 people Saturday as protests erupted across the country calling for the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in more than 100 Russian cities, demonstrating the strength of the movement led by the man who has become the fiercest and most public critic of President Vladimir Putin. Even bitterly cold temperatures did not keep protesters away after the government had pushed on people to stay home, warning of the risks of contracting COVID-19 and arrest for taking part in an unauthorized protest. In the end, the turnout surpassed expectations
At least 40,000 people gathered in the protest that took place in central Moscow, according to estimates by Reuters. The government claims the real number of Moscow protesters was closer to 4,000. Police were not shy about using force to break up the demonstrations that some characterized as the largest in years. Police beat up protesters with batons and roughly dragged them out into police buses. Demonstrators weren’t always passive either. One video, for example, shows protesters throwing snowballs at police. Navalny’s wife, Yulia, was among those detained although she was quickly released. “With this protest, we can show that not everyone bows to the government, not everyone respects it,” Adel Dikhtyar, an 82-year-old writer, who attended the Moscow rally, told the Wall Street Journal. “And that young people, our future, they are against that which exists.”
Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport Sunday as he returned to the country from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Navalny’s supporters are hoping that a show of force on the streets will pressure Putin’s government to release him amid reports that he could be jailed for years. For the Kremlin the key concern is whether the protests will grow and attract more people as the parliamentary elections approach later this year.
Protesters received the support of the United States, which condemned the “harsh tactics” against protesters. “We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.