Braving bitter cold and attempts at intimidation, protests unfold across Russia.
Thousands of people in Russia’s Far East and in Siberia rallied in support of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny on Saturday in what was emerging as the biggest nationwide showdown in years between the Russian authorities and critics of the Kremlin.
Protests began to unfold in the eastern regions of Russia, a country of 11 time zones, hours before demonstrations were scheduled to begin in Moscow. Soon after dawn in the capital, Saturday already appeared to be the biggest day of protest across the country since at least 2017 — though it was far from clear whether the show of dissent would succeed in pushing the Kremlin to change course.
In the cities of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean and Irkutsk and Novosibirsk in Siberia, footage showed crowds of well over 1,000 people shouting chants like “We are in charge here!” and “We won’t leave!”
In Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, scores of protesters in the freezing fog braved temperatures of minus 60 Fahrenheit. In Khabarovsk, the city on the Chinese border that was the site of anti-Kremlin protests last summer, hundreds of people who returned to the streets were met with an overwhelming force of riot police officers.
“I was never a big supporter of Navalny, and yet I understand perfectly well that this is a very serious situation,” Vitaliy Blazhevich, 57, a university Russian teacher, said in a telephone interview about why he had come out to rally for Mr. Navalny in Khabarovsk.
“There’s always hope that something will change,” Mr. Blazhevich said.
Protesters demand Navalny’s release from jail, but the Kremlin holds firm.
Aleksei Navalny, a 44-year-old anticorruption activist who is the most prominent domestic critic of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia in August in what Western officials have described as an assassination attempt by the Russian state.
He was airlifted to Germany and recovered. And last Sunday, after flying home to Moscow, he was arrested at passport control.
The Russian authorities say Mr. Navalny violated the parole terms from a suspended sentence he received six years ago, and are seeking to confine him on a yearslong prison term. After he was jailed for an initial term of 30 days on Monday, his supporters called for protests — arguing that only pressure in the streets could avert what they describe as an attempt by Mr. Putin to sideline his most popular opponent.
Those protests were unfolding across Russia on Saturday, organized in part by Mr. Navalny’s sprawling network of local offices. Local officials did not authorize the protests — citing the coronavirus pandemic, among other things — and they threatened to arrest anyone who took part.
Video showed police officers scuffling with demonstrators in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, but there were no immediate reports of large-scale violence. OVD-Info, an activist group that tracks arrests at protests, reported 174 detentions nationwide as of noon Moscow time — a number that was sure to rise as the day went on.
In the usually quiet city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a fishing and energy hub on an island north of Japan, hundreds of people joined in Saturday’s protests.
Some schools rescheduled classes, while one put on a basketball tournament on Saturday to try to keep teenagers away from the protests, said Lyubov Barabashova, a journalist based in the city.
The police did not prevent protesters from gathering in front of the regional government’s headquarters, Ms. Barabashova said. When a police officer announced by megaphone that the rally was illegal, protesters chanted in response: “Putin is a thief! Freedom to Navalny!”
The Kremlin has weathered waves of protest in years past, and there was no immediate indication that this time would be different. There were mounting signals that the Russian government intended to respond to the protests with a new wave of repression.
A ninth grader in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg asked his classmates this week why it was that they did not like President Vladimir V. Putin.
According to their teacher, Irina V. Skachkova, they responded by citing the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny: “Putin has a palace that was built with stolen money, and Putin is himself a thief.”
Mr. Navalny’s dramatic return to Russia from Germany on Sunday and his immediate arrest, followed by his release of a video documenting Mr. Putin’s purported secret palace on the Black Sea, has captivated many young Russians and prompted the authorities to scramble to keep them away from protests.
Some universities threatened students with expulsion if they were caught attending the protests calling for Mr. Navalny’s release, which are being organized in dozens of cities across Russia even though local officials have not authorized them.
The Education Ministry urged families to spend the weekend doing nonpolitical activities like “taking a walk in a park or a forest.”
Russia’s telecommunications regulator said it had ordered social networks to take down posts promoting the Saturday protests, and the country’s top investigative body said it had started a criminal investigation into the alleged incitement of minors to join.
In the days before Saturday’s protests, Aleksei A. Navalny’s team published a sprawling investigation describing a secret palace built for President Vladimir V. Putin on the Black Sea.
Released on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Mr. Navalny was ordered jailed, the report was the latest swipe in the Russian opposition leader’s dramatic battle with Mr. Putin.
The investigation — complete with floor plans, financial details and interior photographs of a compound that Mr. Navalny says cost more than $1 billion — appeared to offer the most comprehensive accounting yet of a huge residence that the president is said to have built for himself on southern Russia’s verdant seashore.
The Kremlin denied the findings in the report, which went online as a 113-minute YouTube video and an illustrated text version that invited users to post pictures of Mr. Putin’s purported luxury to Facebook and Instagram. The video has been viewed more than 65 million times on YouTube.
“They will keep on stealing more and more, until they bankrupt the entire country,” Mr. Navalny says in the video, referring to Mr. Putin and his circle. “Russia sells huge amounts of oil, gas, metals, fertilizer and timber — but people’s incomes keep falling and falling, because Putin has his palace.”
Few people had heard of the nerve agent Novichok until 2018, when Western officials accused Russia of having used it in the attempted assassination of a former spy in Britain. It returned to the headlines in September when Germany said the poison had sickened the Russian dissident Aleksei A. Navalny.
But scientists, spies and chemical weapons specialists have known about and feared Novichok for decades. It is a potent neurotoxin, developed in the Soviet Union and Russia in the 1980s and ’90s, that can be delivered as a liquid, powder or aerosol, and is said to be more lethal than nerve agents that are better known in the West, like VX and sarin.
The poison causes muscle spasms that can stop the heart, case fluid buildup in the lungs that can also be deadly, and damage other organs and nerve cells. Russia has produced several versions of Novichok, and experts say it’s anyone’s guess how often they have been used, because the resulting deaths can appear like nothing more sinister than a heart attack.
That may have been the plan in the case of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian spy living in Salisbury, England. When Mr. Skripal was found barely conscious in a park in March 2018, there was no obvious reason to suspect poisoning — except that his daughter, who was visiting, experienced the same symptoms.
British intelligence agencies identified the substance as Novichok and blamed Russia. The attack became a major international scandal, further chilling relations between Moscow and the West. The British identified Russian agents who they said had flown into Britain, applied the poison to the front door handle of Mr. Skripal’s house and left the country, leaving a trail of video and chemical evidence.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has consistently denied any involvement, spinning a series of alternative theories. And just months before the Salisbury attack, Mr. Putin said that Russia had destroyed all of its chemical weapons.
Ivan Nechepurenko and Richard Pérez-Peña contributed reporting.
World News || Latest News || U.S. News
Help us to become independent in PANDEMIC COVID-19. Contribute to diligent Authors.