More than 4,400 anti-Putin protesters, including the wife of Alexei Navalny have been arrested today as violence broke out across Russia between riot police and activists demanding the release of the jailed Kremlin critic.
From Vladivostok in the Far East to Saint Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, thousands of police in riot gear were deployed to prevent a second weekend of mass demonstrations over the arrest of President Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent.
The authorities mounted a massive effort to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands of people rallied across the country the previous weekend in the largest and most widespread show of discontent the country has seen in years.
One of those arrested today was Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Alexei Navalny, who broke her house arrest to join the thousands on the streets, as she marched towards the Matrosskaya Tishina jail where her husband is being held.
Police used tear gas and batons to violently beat back the protesters in some of the worst scenes of street unrest since Putin came to power more than two decades ago.
The protesters chanted and waved banners criticising Putin, threw snowballs at police and even gathered on frozen lakes to perform folk dances as the demonstrations took place across 11 timezones in the country.
Scenes of violence have been widely shared on social media, and the new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has condemned the 'harsh tactics' by police against people 'exercising their human rights'.
Moscow replied accusing the US of 'gross interference', with the foreign ministry saying on Facebook: 'The gross interference of the United States in Russia's internal affairs is as proven a fact as the promotion of fakes and calls for unauthorised rallies by online platforms controlled by Washington.'
Navalny aides called for nationwide demonstrations ahead of the opposition leader's trial which is set to start on February 2.
In Moscow, authorities introduced unprecedented security measures in the city centre, closing several subway stations near the Kremlin, cutting bus traffic and ordering restaurants and shops to stay closed.
Navalny's team initially called for Sunday's protest to be held in Moscow's Lubyanka Square, home to the main headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which the 44-year-old claims was responsible for his poisoning.
After police cordoned off the area around the square, protest organisers urged demonstrators to gather at another central square a mile away.
Police showed up in force at that location too, detaining some protesters and putting them into buses. At least 100 were detained.
Yulia Navalny has been released... https://t.co/QhF4V5GB6s— Bianna Golodryga (@biannagolodryga) January 31, 2021
At some 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. Still, protesters marched around the Russian capital for hours, zigzagging around police cordons.
'The desire to live in a free country is stronger than the fear of being detained,' 25-year-old student Andrei, who preferred not to give his last name, told AFP.
In St Petersburg, a shocking video showed a journalist working for major newspaper Kommersant being aggressively heldThe newspaper is owned by pro-Putin billionaire Alisher Usmanov, formerly an Arsenal FC shareholder.
AFP footage from Vladivostok showed dozens of protesters escaping the police on the frozen waters of the Amur Bay and circle dancing.
A law enforcement hover boat broke down as it chased demonstrators on the thick sea ice.
The protesters held hands and danced in minus 13C ringing the marooned police under blue skies, chanting 'Putin is a thief' and 'Shame, shame, shame', referring to the opulent Black Sea palace reportedly built for Putin that Navalny's team exposed.
In Vladivostok alone, more than 100 people were detained after protesters danced on the ice and rallied in the city centre.
In the world's coldest city Yakutsk, a middle-aged woman shouted to police to 'spray water on the protesters' in -41C temperatures.
Such action would likely kill them in the intense frost, but the woman's call showed the division in Russia over the Navalny protests.
In Krasnoyarsk, protesters used a traditional 'khorovod' folk dance in -31C temperatures to protest despite being ringed by a wall of heavily armed police.
In Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city and the unofficial capital of Siberia, some 5,000 people walked on a main street chasing 'Freedom, Freedom'. About 90 protesters were detained.
Piles of snow, and chopped trees, were also used by the authorities to block the way of protesters.
In St Petersburg, Putin's home city, reports said the army had been called in after police failed to subdue demonstrators in ugly standoffs.
Police had called for backup support from the military in Sennaya Square, in the centre of the city, it was said.
Tear gas was used in some of the worst scenes of street unrest since Putin came to power more than two decades ago.
Navalny's supporters had called for protests in 142 cities across the country's 11 time zones, with the largest beginning due in Moscow at noon local time.
Russian authorities have issued several warnings against participating in the unauthorised rallies and threatened criminal charges against protesters.
The Interior Ministry has issued stern warnings to the public not to join the protests, saying participants could be charged with taking part in mass riots, which carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Those engaging in violence against police could face up to 15 years.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russian authorities for their 'harsh' response to the protests across the country.
'The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,' Blinken said on his official Twitter account.
'We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights,' he added
In an unprecedented move police in the capital announced the closure of seven metro stations and said movement of pedestrians would be limited in the city centre.
Moscow authorities also said some centrally-located restaurants and shops will close and overground transport diverted.
Police detained 44-year-old Navalny at a Moscow airport on January 17 as he arrived from Germany, where he had been recovering from exposure to a Soviet-designed nerve toxin.
When he returned to Russia in January, Mr Navalny was jailed for 30 days after Russia's prison service alleged he had violated the probation terms of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money laundering conviction that he has rejected as political revenge.
On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected his appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his three-and-a-half year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.
The Moscow rally is due to take place outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, Russia's main security agency, which Navalny says carried out the near-fatal poisoning attack on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
'The majority is on our side. Let's wake them up,' Navalny said on Thursday in a message from Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina, a high-security detention centre.
Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of over 100 cities across the country last Saturday to protest Putin's 20-year-rule.
More than 4,000 demonstrators were detained while authorities launched a series of criminal probes.
In Russia today: A record 5,000+ protesters were detained.— Bianna Golodryga (@biannagolodryga) January 31, 2021
Among them, 82 journalists.
Today’s protests brought out the largest (and most aggressive) police presence in 20 yrs.
Up next: @navalny’s prison sentence expected Tuesday.
Authorities are also targeting online platforms demanding they delete posts with calls for rallies or face fines.
The country's media watchdog said Friday it summoned representatives of several social networks, including Facebook and TikTok, for failing to comply.
This week several Navalny associates, including lawyer Lyubov Sobol and his brother Oleg, have been placed under house arrest until late March pending charges for violating coronavirus restrictions by calling people to join protests.
Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh was detained late Saturday also over violating virus measures, the same day she was due to walk free after a nine-day jail term for violating protest laws.
The head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, said Saturday the Investigative Committee informed him that a criminal case on fraud charges had been launched against Navalny.
In December last year, investigators said they were initiating a probe into Navalny allegedly misappropriating over $4 million of donations to his organisations.
Days after Navalny was taken into custody, his team released a video report alleging Putin had been gifted a $1.35billion property on the Black Sea coast, garnering over 100 million views on YouTube.
The Kremlin has denied that the Russian president owns the opulent complex, which according to Navalny features an underground ice hockey arena, a private casino and vineyards.
State television on Friday sought to rebut opposition claims the Black Sea property was a luxurious palace by airing footage of it under construction.
Billionaire Arkady Rotenberg - Putin's former judo partner who is under Western sanctions - said Saturday he was the owner of the property and that he was building a hotel there.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.