Chanting slogans against President Vladimir Putin, tens of thousands took to the streets Sunday across Russia to demand the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin. Nearly 5,000 people were detained by police, according to a monitoring group, and some were beaten.
The massive protests came despite efforts by Russian authorities to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands rallied across the country last weekend in the largest, most widespread show of discontent that Russia had seen in years. Despite threats of jail terms, warnings to social media groups and tight police cordons, the protests again engulfed cities across Russia’s 11 time zones on Sunday.
The 44-year-old Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested on Jan.17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations. He was arrested for allegedly violating his parole conditions by not reporting for meetings with law enforcement when he was recuperating in Germany.
The United States urged Russia to release Navalny and criticized the crackdown on protests.
“The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected Blinken’s call as a “crude interference in Russia’s internal affairs” and accused Washington of trying to destabilize the situation in the country by backing the protests.
On Sunday, police detained more than 4,100 people at protests in cities nationwide, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests. Those arrests followed some 4,000 detentions at demonstrations on Jan. 23 in more than 100 Russian cities.
Police were randomly picking up people and putting them into police buses, but thousands of protesters marched across the city center for hours, chanting “Putin, resign!” and Putin, thief!” — a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for the Russian leader that was featured in a widely popular video released by Navalny’s team.
At one point, crowds of demonstrators walked toward the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny is being held. They were met by phalanxes of riot police who pushed the march back and chased protesters through courtyards, detaining scores and beating some with clubs. Still, demonstrators continued to march around the Russian capital, zigzagging around police cordons.
More than 1,200 people were detained in Moscow, including Navalny’s wife, Yulia. “If we keep silent, they will come after any of us tomorrow,” she said on Instagram before turning out to protest.
Several thousand people marched across Russia’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg, chanting “Down with the czar!” and occasional scuffles erupted as some demonstrators pushed back police who tried to make detentions. Nearly 900 were arrested.
As part of a multipronged effort by authorities to block the protests, courts have jailed Navalny’s associates and activists across the country over the past week. His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put Friday under a two-month house arrest on charges of allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.
Protests were fueled by a two-hour YouTube video released by Navalny’s team after his arrest about the Black Sea residence purportedly built for Putin. The video has been viewed over 100 million times, inspiring a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet amid an economic downturn.
Russia has seen extensive corruption during Putin’s time in office while poverty has remained widespread.
On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected Navalny’s appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his 3 1/2-year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.
Updated Sunday, January 31, 2021 at 2:56 pm .