Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in dozen of cities across Russia on Saturday to protest the poisoning and imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The reality of Saturday’s showdowns confirmed some of the worst predictions. The riot police used tactics that were less intended for law enforcement than for sowing panic among people.
In Vladivostok, in the Far East, where the protests began, officials burst into the crowd and randomly dragged protesters away. At least one person lost consciousness when they were put in a police car.
According to the OVD-Info protest monitor group, journalists and photographers were among the more than 3,000 nationwide arrested people who were often violently arrested on Saturday evening.
The use of force has been condemned by both the US and the UK. Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said: “We call on the Russian government to comply with its international human rights obligations and to release detained citizens during peaceful demonstrations.”
The US State Department condemned “the use of tough tactics against demonstrators and journalists this weekend in cities across Russia” and urged the Russian authorities to immediately release Mr. Navalny and anyone detained in protests.
In Moscow, arrests began before the announced start time at 2 p.m. They took a standardized form. Groups of three or four riot police left the vans before charging left or right into their prey at the last minute. The victims were random enough, but teenagers were given preference. In one case, a 10-year-old boy was mistreated.
At around 3:15 p.m. local time (12:15 p.m. GMT), police cleared the central meeting point in Pushkin Square and detained those who were unhappy to get in their way. Journalists were among the recipients of police truncheons. Around the same time, Alexei’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, entered the detainee list before being released a short time later.
The well-attended protests seemed to mark the beginning of a new phase in the struggle between the Kremlin and the opposition.
In Moscow, crowds embraced the central streets far from Pushkin Square. According to the Reuters news agency, at least 40,000 people demonstrated in Moscow alone. This would be the biggest protest the capital has seen since 2012. Only 4,000 showed up, according to authorities known for underestimating their numbers. “Why not say 4 million straight away?” The State Department suggested sarcastically on its official Telegram messenger channel.
The protesters carried banners – “I am not afraid”, “I am against lawlessness” and “I am not afraid of Grandpa in his bunker,” a reference to Vladimir Putin who has spent much of the last year in Covid-19 isolation . Slogans sent similar messages – “Freedom for Navalny”, “Putin is a thief” and “Fascists”.
In the run-up to the protests, the authorities had left the worst evidence of violence. Television and pro-Kremlin media dutifully reinforced official warnings that protesters risked batons and incarceration. The latter was secured by prosecutors for many of Mr Navalny’s top lieutenants, 49 of whom were arrested by Saturday morning.
The Kremlin appears to have been particularly shocked by the response to Mr Navalny’s plight among the younger generation.
In the days leading up to the protests, students were invited to unscheduled exams and warned that attending rallies could result in expulsion. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned against “cynical attempts” to co-opt minors in illegal protest. In the meantime, parents were told not to allow their children to take part in the marches or to arrest themselves.
The authorities’ apparent concern appears to stem from social media data. Videos posted under the hashtag # 23January have been viewed more than 130 million times on TikTok.
Some of these videos related to the results of Mr Navalny’s investigation into the opulent Black Sea Palace allegedly built for the President and released in prison this week. A popular video offered advice in English on how to pose as an American tourist if arrested.
In a first message since his arrest on Sunday, Mr. Navalny thanked the “schoolchildren” who, he said, his lawyer “wreaked havoc” on the Chinese social media platform. “I don’t know what that means, but it sounds cool,” he said.