Russian police have detained over 250 anti-Putin protesters today as activists took to the streets and a frozen ocean demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
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.
The first protests took place in the East, including the port city of Vladivostok where several dozen protesters gathered in the city's central square despite police closing it off ahead of the rally.
Protests in support of Navalny already underway in Siberia and Russia’s Far East. In Vladivostok, protesters moved onto the ice over the Amur bay to escape police, and drew “Putin is a thief!” in the snow. https://t.co/h5nCbs2Hs8— max seddon (@maxseddon) January 31, 2021
Navalny aides have called for new 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.
'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.
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.'
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 showeed 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'.
Russian police are bracing for more protests in support of detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny, after thousands were arrested during demonstrations a week ago. https://t.co/GV2GFeKs4m— DW News (@dwnews) January 31, 2021
Piles of snow, and chopped trees, were also used by the authorities to block the way of protesters.
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.
According to independent monitors, at least 261 people were detained in more than a dozen cities before the expected start of the rally in Moscow, which usually mobilises the largest crowds.
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.
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.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.