MOSCOW – Police detained more than 3,000 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was slipped to him by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s demonstrations, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorized event.
But protesters defied the ban and, in at least one case in temperatures below -58 Fahrenheit, turned out in force. Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called “the clutches of his killers”.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated up to 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorized rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up, while the foreign ministry questioned Reuters crowd estimate.
“Why not just immediately say 4 million?” it suggested sarcastically on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally, put turnout in the capital at 50,000, the Proekt media outlet reported.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
Navalny’s wife Yulia was briefly detained at the rally before being released. Some of Navalny’s political allies were detained in the days before the protest, others on the day itself.
At one point, protesters surrounded a sleek black car with a flashing light used by senior officials, throwing snowballs at it and kicking it. A group of policemen were also pelted with snowballs by a much bigger crowd.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that 3,296 people, including 1,294 in Moscow and 489 in St. Petersburg, had been detained at rallies in around 100 towns and cities.
The United States condemned what it described as “harsh tactics” used against protesters and journalists and called for Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.