Supporters of Putin critic Alexei Navalny continued to clash with police deep into the night as world leaders condemned officers' 'brutal tactics' which left crowds of activists bloodied and injured.
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took part in demonstrations across 70 cities on Saturday in a show of defiance against the jailing of Navalny, who was poisoned with a nerve agent he says was slipped to him by state security agents in August.
His wife Yulia Navalnaya, 44, was among around 3,400 people detained by officers. She posted a selfie following her arrest, captioned: 'Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van.'
Demonstrators were dragged off by riot officers to police buses and detention trucks, while some activists were beaten with police batons.
Authorities eventually pushed protesters out of Moscow's Pushkin Square, but thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about half a mile away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.
The violent scenes from police drew condemnation from both the United States and the European Union, whose foreign policy chief said he deplored the 'widespread arrests' and the 'disproportionate use of force'.
Similarly, the United States called on Russian authorities to release protesters and journalists detained, and condemned what it called 'harsh tactics' used against them.
Throughout the day and into the early hours of Sunday morning, people were seen holding signs that read 'Russia will be free' and chanting 'Putin is a thief.'
Some then marched towards the Kremlin, while others blocked Tverskaya Street, the capital's main thoroughfare.
Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in central Moscow for one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, but authorities claimed a mere 4,000 people had shown up.
The foreign ministry questioned Reuters' crowd estimate, using sarcasm to suggest it was too high. 'Why not just immediately say 4 million?,' it quipped on its official Telegram messenger channel.
'The United States strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia,' State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Navalny being taken into custody and the arrests of his supporters were 'troubling indications of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms,' he added.
'We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny,' Price said, using an alternative spelling.
'We urge Russia to fully cooperate with the international community's investigation into the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil.'
Protesters in the county's east defied bitter cold and a ban by authorities by also staging rallies to demand the release of Putin's nemesis, ahead of the larger cities in the west.
Protests against Russia's President Vladimir Putin took place in temperatures as low as minus 60F (51C) as police forcibly detained supporters of Kremlin foe Navalny, who was arrested upon his return to Russia from Germany on January 17.
Putin's most vocal domestic critic called for mass rallies after he was arrested upon his return to Moscow on Sunday. He did so knowing he would likely be arrested after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent in August and after months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, which had previously called the protests illegal and the work of 'provocateurs'. State prosecutors said they would look into alleged violence against police officers by protesters.
Demonstrations in support of Navalny were also held in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia on Saturday, as well as in Spain's Barcelona, with the protesters in Estonia being joined by environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova, who fled from Russia in 2015 fearing a crackdown on the opposition.
In Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, nearly 1,000 people also demonstrated against Navalny's arrest. Small demonstrations were also held in Bulgaria and some 200-300 people protested in Paris.
Navalny, who accuses Putin of the plot to poison him last August, was locked up until mid-February as he waits to hear whether a suspended prison term will be converted into three-and-a-half years of jail time.
Demonstrators shouted 'Shame, shame' in Pacific capital Vladivostok as heavily armed baton-wielding OMON special forces officers and national guards threw a protester in a police vehicle.
The authorities told crowds that their action was unsanctioned and they faced detention unless they dispersed, with video footage from Vladivostok showing riot police chasing a group of protesters down the street.
With the protests continuing to unfold on Saturday, Russia accused the US embassy in Moscow of publishing routes of planned demonstrations in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and demanded an explanation from American diplomats.
'Yesterday the US embassy in Moscow published 'protest routes' in Russian cities and tossed around information about a 'march on the Kremlin,'' Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook, adding: 'US colleagues will have to explain themselves.'
The US embassy in Moscow said Saturday it was following the rallies, adding that Washington supported 'the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression.'
'Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights,' embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross said on Twitter.
Ugly scene quickly developed at protests in several cities in the Russian Far East, with the OVD-Info monitoring group saying that 238 people, including 56 in Novosibirsk, had been detained so far at the rallies.
In Moscow, police put up barricades around Pushkinskaya Square as workers were engaged in re-tiling it, an apparent attempt to thwart a demonstration that was scheduled to start at 1100 GMT. Police also detained a few people gathered on the square before the rally, including a lone picketer.
Wow. The scale of the protests in Russia today is stunning. This is St. Petersburg.pic.twitter.com/oodg1VfdJc— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) January 23, 2021
A video reportedly showed a child being manhandled and detained by a Russian policeman at the main rally at Pushkinskaya Square.
One state TV news broadcast said 'most of the participants are young people, some of whom do not look 18 years old. 'The detainees were escorted to paddy wagons.
'Before that, the police warned activists several times that in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, mass gatherings of people are prohibited.'
In Ufa, a video showed protesters throwing snowballs and scooping up snow to throw at police seeking to break their rally.
Another shocking video reportedly showed protesters beaten by OMON riot police in Orenburg as rallies widened to cities all across Russia's 11 time zones.
At some rallies, protesters shouted 'Aqua disco', and carried toilet brushes sprayed with gold paint mimicking the gold interior or Putin's alleged Black Sea palace.
Another video showed shocking protesters in Krasnoyarsk being dragged on the ground by police in minus 15C.
In Vladivostok, it was reported that 26 children had been detained.
But Vladimir Putin's children's ombudsman angrily blamed adult protesters for using children as a 'human shield'.
She said: 'Now I know everything about human baseness. Vladivostok - children are standing in a human chain. And adults behind their backs are throwing road cones at OMON [riot police] and hiding again. Who are these people? Are they people?'
Protesters said mobile data was being disrupted around protest sites to stop communications between anti-Putin protesters.
Key Navalny aides around Russia had been rounded up and detained ahead of the rallies.
In far-eastern city Khabarovsk, crowds chanted 'Putin's Dogs' as law enforcement detained protesters.
At one point crowds fought back with police seeking to release those being held.
In Kamchatka, nine time zones east of Moscow, protesters carried placards reading 'Corruption is the cancer of our country' and 'I'm choosing Freedom'.
While crowds were not huge, protests went ahead in all main cities in the Russian Far East including former GULAG staging post Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk in a temperature of minus 30C.
In Yakutsk - the world's coldest city - crowds gathered in minus 51C to support jailed Navalny, who was earlier allegedly poisoned with nerve agent Novichok by an FSB secret service hit squad.
A video showed police pulling a protester on the snow into a law enforcement bus as cries directed to police are heard: 'What have they done? What are you doing? Are you out of your mind doing that?'
Among the protesters in eastern cities were mothers carrying babies.
In Siberia city Ulan-Ude extra Saturday classes were put on to prevent school students joining the unsanctioned protests which the authorities said were illegal.
In Komsomolsk-on-Amur a squad of OMON detained a dozen people, as the crowd chanted: 'Freedom to political prisoners!'
Navalny's supporters say his arrest when he returned from Germany on Sunday was politically motivated.
Reports suggest he may be hit with new legal action that could see him remain behind bars for more than a decade.
Navalny - a 44-year-old lawyer who has dedicated himself to toppling strongman Putin - styles himself an anti-corruption campaigner who despite being behind bars in recent days accused the Russian president of using state cash to enrich himself, his family and his cronies.
Among the claims is that Putin has built himself a £1 billion palace at Gelendzhik on the Black Sea.
Putin denies any wrongdoing.
The Kremlin has denied being 'afraid' of Navalny and his pro-democracy campaigners but are concerned to act tough to prevent mass support growing for a Ukrainian-style revolution.
However, it is unclear that Navalny has the mass support he would need to overthrow ex-KGB spy Putin who has been president or prime minister for 21 years.
Bigger protests were expected later in Moscow and St Petersburg, led by Navalny's wife Yulia who announced she planned to take to the streets in support of her jailed husband.
She would join the demonstration 'for myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share'.
In Moscow, mayor Sergei Sobyanin had warned the rallies were 'unacceptable' during a pandemic, and police would take action to ensure public order.
Navalny called for his supporters to take to the streets after a hastily organised court ordered him jailed for 30 days on Monday.
The makeshift court - set up in a police station on the outskirts of Moscow where Navalny was being held - ruled he be held in custody until February 15 when he will appear in court on corruption charges.
The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner previously was handed a suspended sentence for the charges in 2014.
Russia now accuses him of breaching the terms of that sentence by not checking in with police as often as he should have done.
In a video released by his team shortly after the ruling, Navalny urged his supporters to take to the streets and protest as Western governments called for his immediate release.
But Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Russia's leaders did not fear mass protests - adding that they had heard the Western outrage but 'cannot and are not going to take these statements into account'.
He also rejected the suggestion that Putin was afraid of Navalny, following claims by the Kremlin critic's supporters that putting him in prison could turn him into a Nelson Mandela-like symbol of resistance.
The Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said Friday it launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
It comes as Navalny released a statement from prison on Tuesday, saying he had no regrets about returning to Russia despite his arrest.
In a post on Instagram which he published from Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison, Navalny said: 'I couldn't have done otherwise, and there's no pathos in this, nor sacrifice, nor fatalism.
'It's a completely rational choice. I refuse to put up with the lawlessness of the authorities [in] my country. I refuse to stay silent, listening to the shameless lies of Putin and his friends, mired in corruption.'
On the eve of the rallies, Navalny, who is being held in Moscow's high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
'I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison's walls and help will come,' he said on Friday.
Navalny's wife Yulia said she would join the protest in Moscow. 'For myself, for him, for our children, for the values and the ideals that we share,' she said on Instagram.
Ahead of the demonstrations several key Navalny aides were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences to keep them away from the rallies.
Navalny's team this week released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin.
The 'Putin's palace' report alleges the Russian leader owns a 17,691 square metre mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The two-hour video report had been viewed more than 65 million times since Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic's most-watched YouTube investigation.
The Kremlin has denied the property belongs to Putin.
Many Russians took to social media - including video sharing app TikTok hugely popular with teens - to voice support and urge a large turnout on Saturday.
A hashtag demanding freedom for Navalny was trending on TikTok as Russians flooded the Chinese app with thousands of videos.
Russia's media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.
The watchdog said on Friday that media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, removed content at its request.
Russia's most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.
But a number of public figures - including those who usually steer clear of politics - have spoken out in Navalny's support.
Navalny rose to prominence a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia's opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.
His arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France and Canada all calling for his release.
Navalny's anti-corruption foundation said that the 44-year-old was 'illegally detained' and that 'lawyers are not allowed to see him'.
The opposition leader had joked with journalists on the plane from Berlin on Sunday.
'All the criminal cases against me are fabricated,' he added.
After the plane landed, Navalny kissed his wife Yulia before four masked police officers escorted him away at passport control, before he had formally entered Russia.
He reappeared on Monday morning at a Moscow police station where a court hearing to extend his detention was already underway.
'It is impossible what is happening over here,' Navalny said in a video from the improvised courtroom. 'It is lawlessness of the highest degree.
'One minute ago I was taken out of my cell to meet the lawyer, I came here, and here a hearing of the [court] is happening.'
Navalny's lawyers said the immediate court hearing was an unexpected turn of events, saying they were only notified about it minutes earlier.
According to a police notice distributed published Navalny's lawyer Vadim Kobzev, the legal process began at 12.30pm local time on Monday.
The Moscow prison service had warned that it would arrest Navalny once he returned.
It accused Navalny of flouting the terms of a three-and-a-half-year suspended prison sentence in a 2014 embezzlement case.
Navalny's supporters had gathered at Moscow's Vnukovo airport despite bitterly cold weather and more than 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.
But they were denied a glimpse of Navalny after the flight path was switched at the last minute and the plane landed at Sheremetyevo instead.
OVD Info, which monitors detentions at political protests in Russia, said at least 55 people had been detained at the airport.
Prominent Moscow activist Lyubov Sobol was among those arrested, saying later that they had been released and were facing administrative charges.
The latest episode in the Navalny saga has led to calls for more sanctions against Russia, amid a wave of condemnation from Western countries.
Donald Trump's outgoing secretary of state Mike Pompeo said on Twitter: 'Deeply troubled by Russia's decision to arrest Alexei Navalny.
'Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,' he said.
France also called for Navalny's release and voiced its 'strong concern' over his arrest in Russia.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, responded to a question about the arrest by saying 'Was he arrested in Germany? I'm not up to date,' according to Russian media.
The Kremlin typically belittles Navalny by referring to him merely as the 'Berlin patient' and calling him a blogger rather than a politician.
Navalny fell into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. He was airlifted from a hospital in Siberia to Berlin two days later, where a military lab found evidence of Novichok.
Russian authorities insisted that the doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia before he was airlifted to Germany found no traces of poison and have challenged German officials to provide proof of his poisoning.
The Kremlin has rejected calls to open a full investigation into the poisoning, and denied Navalny's claims that the FSB security agency was behind the plot.
Last month Navalny claimed he had duped an FSB agent into confessing details of the plot in a recorded phone call which the agency dismissed as fake.
The alleged plotter, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, was one of a team of alleged chemical weapons experts named last month as suspects in Navalny's poisoning.
The recording purported to reveal that Navalny's underpants had been sprinkled with the nerve agent while he was staying at a hotel in Siberia.
Navalny was initially treated at a hospital in Omsk before Russian authorities agreed to hand him over to a German air ambulance crew on August 22.
In an article in The Lancet, doctors at Berlin's Charite hospital described how Navalny had to be ventilated and given drugs during his airlift to Germany.
Medics described how he had become confused and sweaty before vomiting and collapsing on the domestic flight in Siberia, leaving him unconscious and drooling when the plane made an emergency landing.
By the time he arrived at the Berlin hospital, more than two days after falling ill, his heart had slowed well below an adult's usual range of 60 to 100 beats per minute and his brain was starting to show signs of reduced responsiveness.
When he arrived in intensive care, he was showing 'decreased brainstem reflexes' and suffering from hypothermia with a body temperature of just 33.5C (92.5F).
Navalny was treated with atropine for 10 days and given other antibiotics by the hospital doctors, who said he started to breathe spontaneously within two weeks.
As his condition improved, he was brought out of a coma, and doctors determined that difficulties understanding speech and speaking he had initially showed after waking up disappeared after three weeks.
On the 24th day after falling ill, he was taken off mechanical ventilation, and two days later he was moved from intensive care into a normal hospital ward.
Navalny has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side for more than a decade, exposing what he says is high-level corruption and mobilising protests.
He has been repeatedly detained for organising public meetings, sued over corruption investigations and was barred from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election.
The 44-year-old has also served several stints in jail in recent years for organising anti-Kremlin protests.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russia's arrests and detention of Navalny in 2012 and 2014 were politically motivated.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.