Braving bitter cold and attempts at intimidation, protests unfold across Russia.
From the frozen streets of Russia’s Far East and Siberia to the grand plazas of Moscow and St. Petersburg, tens of thousands of Russians rallied in support of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny on Saturday in what was emerging as the biggest nationwide showdown in years between the Russian authorities and critics of the Kremlin.
Protests began to unfold in the eastern regions of Russia, a country of 11 time zones and, as the hours passed, moved like a wave across the sprawling nation.
In Moscow’s Pushkin Square, people flanked in every direction by riot police officers chanted “Freedom!” Passing drivers honked their horns in support.
Even before the rally got underway, police officers in camouflage and black helmets started detaining some protesters, although it was hard to discern any pattern to who was snatched off the street.
As the crowd swelled in size in the afternoon, the situation grew increasingly tense.
Yulia Navalnaya, Mr. Navalny’s wife, was taken into custody at a rally in Moscow and posted a photo of herself in a police wagon on Instagram.
At one point police officers rushed into a group of protesters, swinging batons. Some in the crowd responded by throwing objects, including what appeared to be plastic bottles, at the police.
The plan was for demonstrators to gather and then march en masse to the Kremlin and in the early afternoon a group of about 1,000 protesters began walking away from the square along a boulevard that rings the center of Moscow. Chants of “Putin is a thief” rang out. Riot police officers let them pass.
It appeared to be the biggest day of protest across the country since at least 2017, though it was far from clear whether the show of dissent would succeed in pushing the Kremlin to change course.
In the cities of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean and Irkutsk and Novosibirsk in Siberia, footage showed crowds of well over 1,000 people shouting chants like “We are in charge here!” and “We won’t leave!”
In Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, scores of protesters in the freezing fog braved temperatures of minus 60 Fahrenheit. In Khabarovsk, the city on the Chinese border that was the site of anti-Kremlin protests last summer, hundreds who returned to the streets were met with an overwhelming force of riot police officers.
“I was never a big supporter of Navalny, and yet I understand perfectly well that this is a very serious situation,” Vitaliy Blazhevich, 57, a university Russian teacher, said in a telephone interview about why he had come out to rally for Mr. Navalny in Khabarovsk.
“There’s always hope that something will change,” Mr. Blazhevich said.
Driving the protests is the demand that Navalny is released from jail.
Aleksei Navalny, a 44-year-old anticorruption activist who is the most prominent domestic critic of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia in August in what Western officials have described as an assassination attempt by the Russian state.
He was airlifted to Germany and recovered. And last Sunday, after flying home to Moscow, he was arrested at passport control.
The Russian authorities say Mr. Navalny violated the parole terms from a suspended sentence he received six years ago, and are seeking to confine him on a yearslong prison term.
After he was jailed for an initial term of 30 days on Monday, his supporters called for protests — arguing that only pressure in the streets could avert what they describe as an attempt by Mr. Putin to sideline his most popular opponent.
Those protests were unfolding across Russia on Saturday, organized in part by Mr. Navalny’s sprawling network of local offices. Local officials did not authorize the protests — citing the coronavirus pandemic, among other things — and they threatened to arrest anyone who took part.
The police and protesters clash in several cities, with reports of more than 1,000 people detained.
Video showed police officers scuffling with demonstrators in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, but there were no immediate reports of large-scale violence. OVD-Info, an activist group that tracks arrests at protests, reported 1,090 detentions nationwide as of 4 p.m. Moscow time — a number that was sure to rise as the day went on.
In the usually quiet city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a fishing and energy hub on an island north of Japan, hundreds of people joined in Saturday’s protests.
Some schools rescheduled classes, while one put on a basketball tournament on Saturday to try to keep teenagers away from the protests, said Lyubov Barabashova, a journalist based in the city.
The police did not prevent protesters from gathering in front of the regional government’s headquarters, Ms. Barabashova said. When a police officer announced by megaphone that the rally was illegal, protesters chanted in response: “Putin is a thief! Freedom to Navalny!”
The Kremlin has weathered waves of protest in years past, and there was no immediate indication that this time would be different. There were mounting signals that the Russian government intended to respond to the protests with a new wave of repression.
Protests in the Putin era are met with heavy-handed repression.
At regular intervals during his two decades in power, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has faced what leaders in most countries would shrug off as inconsequential protests by a few thousand people threatening no more than sporadic traffic disruptions.
But each time, and again on Saturday in cities across Russia, modest challenges from the street have turned into serious spectacles of dissent thanks to the heavy-handed response of the country’s vast and often brutal security apparatus.
In Moscow on Saturday, riot police officers wearing black helmets and swinging batons began grabbing people in Pushkin Square, in the center of the Russian capital, even before the start of a planned protest. They did the same in the summer of 2019 during the last round of protests called by Aleksei A. Navalny, Russia’s most prominent and now again jailed opposition leader.
The deployment of so many police and other security officers, who sometimes outnumber protesters, is a measure of how nervously the Kremlin views all deviations from the portrayal of Mr. Putin on state media outlets as Russia’s divinely ordained and inviolable supreme leader.
Opinion polls — of uncertain value in a country saturated by state propaganda and often fearful of speaking out — indicate that President Vladimir Putin faces no grave challenge to his popularity from the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
A November survey of opinion by the Levada Center, an independent and highly respected polling organization, found that only 2 percent of respondents named Mr. Navalny as their first choice when asked whom they would choose if a presidential election were to be held the following Sunday. Fifty-five percent named Mr. Putin.
Such polls, however, say less about the level of Mr. Navalny’s popularity than the Kremlin’s success in dulling in many people’s minds even the possibility of an alternative to Mr. Putin, who has been in power for so many years that he has become a seemingly immovable fixture.
Mr. Putin would almost certainly win a head-to-head electoral race against Mr. Navalny but has refused to allow Mr. Navalny’s name on a presidential ballot — or even to utter it in public.
“Who needs him?” Mr. Putin said at a news conference last month.
On the one occasion that Mr. Navalny was allowed on a ballot — for Moscow’s mayoral election in 2013 — he captured 27 percent of the vote and finished second behind a Kremlin loyalist. That result so unnerved the Kremlin that Mr. Navalny was then placed under house arrest on fraud and embezzlement charges that the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed as politically motivated.
While Mr. Navalny appears to have only minority support among the general public, he has been cheered on by many young Russians, who made up the bulk of the crowds in Moscow and elsewhere on Saturday and largely get their news from social media rather than state television.
Surveys show that opposition to Mr. Putin is also strong among professionals and the middle class, particularly in Moscow, and indicate that about one-third of the capital’s residents oppose the government.
Vasily Zimin, a 47-year-old partner in a Moscow law firm, trudged through slush on Saturday toward the demonstration and said he had come to protest the rampant corruption during President Vladimir V. Putin’s time in power.
“The cup is full,” he said, adding: “How can you say, ‘I can’t take anymore of this’ while sitting on your couch?”
Mikhail Dravsky, 60, an accountant who was walking with Mr. Ziming to the protest, said: “I don’t support Navalny, but there are no others. He is the only opposition leader.”
Mr. Dravsky said he didn’t expect much to change as a result of Saturday’s protests, but added that displays of dissent on the street could sometimes work. He recalled joining protests in 1991 over a coup attempt by hard-line security and military officials against Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. “I didn’t think it would work then either,” he said, “but I would have been ashamed if I didn’t come out.”
Saturday’s protests, which drew thousands of people from Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean to Moscow, nearly 4,000 miles to the west, fell far short of the mass demonstrations by hundreds of thousands seen last year in Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus.
But while posing no immediate challenge to Mr. Putin’s grip on Russia, they raised a defiant cry in favor of an alternative, something that the president and his security apparatus have worked relentlessly to make seem impossible: “We won’t bear it anymore. We are not afraid,” read a banner hoisted in Pushkin Square.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a warning to American citizens to stay away from Saturday’s protests — an announcement that the Channel One news anchor used to suggest that the United States had in fact organized them.
“This is very important: Information about the place and time of the unsanctioned events planned for tomorrow has appeared on the website of the American Embassy,” the Channel One anchor said. “As they say, draw your own conclusions.”
The Russian authorities said they were starting criminal investigations of protest organizers. And on Friday, the main evening news broadcast on Russia’s state-controlled Channel One television devoted about one-third of the program to Mr. Navalny — a stark departure from the state news media’s typical practice of ignoring him.
Noting Twitter’s ban on Trump, Navalny worries it could set a dangerous precedent.
Street protests on Saturday supporting a jailed Russian dissident are becoming an early test for how Twitter’s decision to bar former President Donald J. Trump and other online crackdowns in America will echo globally.
The opposition figure, Aleksei A. Navalny, opposed the ban, arguing that it set a precedent that is playing out in Russia as regulators have asked social media sites to remove posts promoting Saturday’s protests.
“Of course, during his time in office, Trump has been writing and saying very irresponsible things,” Mr. Navalny posted on Twitter this month, noting that Mr. Trump had “paid for it by not getting re-elected for a second term.”
Social media has been critical in helping government critics in Russia organize demonstrations.
Gathering or marching without a parade permit or calling for participation in such an action is illegal in Russia, and often ruthless enforcement of these laws has kept a lid on political opposition for years.
But Mr. Navalny has promoted illegal protests for nearly a decade as justified to encourage political change, but never called for violent action.
Russia’s telecommunications regulator said it had ordered social networks to take down posts promoting Saturday’s protests, and the country’s top investigative body said it had started a criminal investigation into the alleged incitement of minors to join.
Enforcement has been mixed so far. The regulator said that YouTube, Instagram and the Russian social network VKontakte had begun following an order from the country’s prosecutor-general that they remove “calls for children to participate in illegal mass events.”
But on YouTube, a report Mr. Navalny that prepared accusing President Vladimir V. Putin of building a luxurious palace remained among the top trending videos in Russia, with a total of more than 65 million views. On the social network TikTok, which is popular with young people, a hashtag dedicated to Saturday’s protests remained accessible. Videos tagged with it had been viewed more than 125 million times.
In one popular posting, protesters were encouraged to tell the police that they were American in the hopes it will give the authorities pause.
Facebook said it was not taking down posts. “We’ve received requests from the local regulator to restrict access to certain content that calls for protest,” the company said in a statement. “Since this content doesn’t violate our community standards, it remains on our platform.”
Russia scrambles to keep young people from taking to the streets.
A ninth grader in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg asked his classmates this week why it was that they did not like President Vladimir V. Putin.
According to their teacher, Irina V. Skachkova, they responded by citing the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny: “Putin has a palace that was built with stolen money, and Putin is himself a thief.”
Mr. Navalny’s dramatic return to Russia from Germany on Sunday and his immediate arrest, followed by his release of a video documenting Mr. Putin’s purported secret palace on the Black Sea, has captivated many young Russians and prompted the authorities to scramble to keep them away from protests.
Some universities threatened students with expulsion if they were caught attending the protests calling for Mr. Navalny’s release, which are being organized in dozens of cities across Russia even though local officials have not authorized them.
The Education Ministry urged families to spend the weekend doing nonpolitical activities like “taking a walk in a park or a forest.”
Russia’s telecommunications regulator said it had ordered social networks to take down posts promoting the Saturday protests, and the country’s top investigative body said it had started a criminal investigation into the alleged incitement of minors to join.
Few people had heard of the nerve agent Novichok until 2018, when Western officials accused Russia of having used it in the attempted assassination of a former spy in Britain. It returned to the headlines in September when Germany said the poison had sickened the Russian dissident Aleksei A. Navalny.
But scientists, spies and chemical weapons specialists have known about and feared Novichok for decades. It is a potent neurotoxin, developed in the Soviet Union and Russia in the 1980s and ’90s, that can be delivered as a liquid, powder or aerosol, and is said to be more lethal than nerve agents that are better known in the West, like VX and sarin.
The poison causes muscle spasms that can stop the heart, case fluid buildup in the lungs that can also be deadly, and damage other organs and nerve cells. Russia has produced several versions of Novichok, and experts say it’s anyone’s guess how often they have been used, because the resulting deaths can appear like nothing more sinister than a heart attack.
That may have been the plan in the case of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England. When Mr. Skripal was found barely conscious in a park in March 2018, there was no obvious reason to suspect poisoning — except that his daughter, who was visiting, experienced the same symptoms.
British intelligence agencies identified the substance as Novichok and blamed Russia. The attack became a major international scandal, further chilling relations between Moscow and the West. The British identified Russian agents who they said had flown into Britain, applied the poison to the front door handle of Mr. Skripal’s house and left the country, leaving a trail of video and chemical evidence.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has consistently denied any involvement, spinning a series of alternative theories. And just months before the Salisbury attack, Mr. Putin said that Russia had destroyed all of its chemical weapons.
In the days before Saturday’s protests, Aleksei A. Navalny’s team published a sprawling investigation describing a secret palace built for President Vladimir V. Putin on the Black Sea.
Released on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Mr. Navalny was ordered jailed, the report was the latest swipe in the Russian opposition leader’s dramatic battle with Mr. Putin.
The investigation — complete with floor plans, financial details and interior photographs of a compound that Mr. Navalny says cost more than $1 billion — appeared to offer the most comprehensive accounting yet of a huge residence that the president is said to have built for himself on southern Russia’s verdant seashore.
The Kremlin denied the findings in the report, which went online as a 113-minute YouTube video and an illustrated text version that invited users to post pictures of Mr. Putin’s purported luxury to Facebook and Instagram. The video has been viewed more than 65 million times on YouTube.
“They will keep on stealing more and more, until they bankrupt the entire country,” Mr. Navalny says in the video, referring to Mr. Putin and his circle. “Russia sells huge amounts of oil, gas, metals, fertilizer and timber — but people’s incomes keep falling and falling, because Putin has his palace.”
Ivan Nechepurenko and Richard Pérez-Peña contributed reporting.