By Isabelle Khurshudyan and Robyn Dixon
Jan. 31, 2021 at 8:31 p.m. GMT+9 The Washington Post
MOSCOW — The Kremlin responded to a second straight weekend of protests with a heavy-handed crackdown, a show of Moscow’s unease at the growing unrest triggered by the treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
A week after tens of thousands of Russians participated in demonstrations in more than 100 cities throughout the country, authorities moved to stem this weekend’s rallies before they even got going. But thousands came out despite the threat of arrest — the turnout in some Russian cities was estimated to be higher than a week ago — boosting the opposition’s hope of a sustained movement.
Just two hours after the protests began in Russia’s two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the monitoring group, OVD-Info, reported that more than 1,500 people had been detained — and some in brutal fashion — throughout the country.
To head off the Sunday afternoon protest planned for Moscow, the city shuttered seven Metro stations four hours in advance, told nearby stores and restaurants to close and blocked off several roads around the Kremlin, sealing off much the capital’s center in an unprecedented move.
Police wearing black helmets and carrying batons were posted even along side streets, setting up checkpoints and restricting people from passing. Large vehicles belonging to Russia’s National Guard parked in front of the famed Bolshoi Theater and police trucks lined up outside of Moscow’s luxury department store, TSUM.
To combat the authorities’ blockade in Moscow, less than an hour before the protests were scheduled to begin, Navalny’s team announced a new meeting point, about a mile from the original selected location of Lubyanka Square.
Picking Lubyanka had been symbolic: it’s in front of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the state agency that Navalny has said was ordered by President Vladimir Putin to poison him in August. Putin, in denying he tried to have Navalny killed, said in a December news conference: “Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted to, we’d have finished the job.”
With movement around the city heavily restricted, Moscow’s rally on Sunday was smaller than the estimated turnout of 40,000 last week. Those who did come out said weren’t exclusively Navalny supporters; some protesters just said they wanted to express their unhappiness with the Russian government.
“I’m worried about my future,” said 18-year-old Masha Ulyanova. “They don’t allow people to just walk. They don’t allow people to express their opinion. It’s very sad that our authorities have reached the stage where they have resorted to such strict measures.
“They are afraid that they’ll lose power and they will have to live in this poor country that they have robbed,” she added.
Chants of “Freedom!” and the honking support of passing cars competed with security forces’ loudspeakers threatening arrest if the crowd didn’t disperse. Even as people were detained, the crowd just moved to a new location — with police buses right behind them.
In St. Petersburg, police used stunt guns and batons to detain protesters. Journalists, despite wearing neon yellow press vests, were among those knocked down and forcefully carted off.
In Chelyabinsk, a city more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow, one man screamed that he “can’t breathe” as security forces pinned him to the ground.
“The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter. “We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny.”
In Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains, a conveniently a long list of maintenance projects scheduled for the area chosen for the demonstration didn’t stop 7,000 people from showing up after a last-minute location change by organizers.
In the Far East city Vladivostok, protesters danced in a large circle over the frozen Amur Bay, chanting, “My Russia is in prison.”
People again came out in the bitter cold; it was minus-43 Celsius (-45F) in Yakutsk, considered the world’s coldest city, where a small group walked around the snow-covered main square. In Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk, where it was minus-30 Celsius (-22F) on Sunday, protesters held hands while singing the Russian national anthem. Later, riot police surrounded the crowd on all sides, according to a photo posted on Twitter.
In Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, the reported turnout of 5,000 exceeded last week’s. As protesters marched toward the main government building, they repeated, “Putin is a thief.”
After more than 4,000 people were detained in connection with the Jan. 23 rallies, Sunday’s demonstrations (with a few exceptions) so far appeared to have a lower turnout as they kicked off in the country’s eastern regions.
In an apparent effort to silence the protest’s organizers over the last week, a Moscow court denied Navalny’s appeal for release from a pretrial detention center and five of his allies were detained and then placed under house arrest until March 23 for allegedly violating coronavirus regulations at last weekend’s demonstrations.
On Saturday, Sergey Smirnov, the editor in chief of Russia’s independent Mediazona news outlet, was detained while out with his young son. He was accused of breaking protest regulations with a retweet, but was released that evening after backlash on social media and will appear before a court Wednesday.
In a “letter” from Navalny posted to his website Thursday after his appearance in an appeals hearing this week, he said that from watching the television in his jail cell, which carries just the two main state television channels, last weekend’s mass protests were described as “a couple small rallies held in a couple cities.”
“It seems to me it was not at all like that,” Navalny said, adding that while people are afraid, they also know “you can’t put everyone in prison.”
“Come on out, don’t be afraid of anything,” the letter concluded. “Nobody wants to live in a country where tyranny and corruption reign. The majority is on our side.”
Navalny will have another opportunity to galvanize support on Tuesday, when he is scheduled to appear in court for allegedly violating the terms of his probation from a 2014 embezzlement case while he was recovering from his near-fatal poisoning abroad. He returned to Russia on Jan. 17, arrested before even passing border control at the airport.
But Navalny has managed to rattle the Kremlin even from behind bars. His recent “Putin’s Palace” video investigation into a palatial billion-dollar Black Sea estate allegedly built for Putin through a complex “slush fund” eclipsed 100 million views on YouTube this week.
As evidence of its impact — owning an opulent mansion is especially bad optics with nearly 20 percent of Russians living below the poverty line according to data from Russia’s state statistics agency released this week — Putin took the unusual step this week of personally denying he or his close relatives own the property.
On Saturday, oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s longtime friend and former judo sparring partner, told the pro-Kremlin Mash Telegram channel that he is the dwelling’s owner.
Leonid Volkov, a Navalny aide, however, tweeted that he didn’t think the Russian people were fooled. “Putin and the Kremlin consider Russian citizens a bunch of manipulated imbeciles,” he said. “We don’t think so.”
Katya Volobuyeva, a 20-year-old university student, said Sunday’s protest in Moscow was the first unsanctioned one she’d ever attended “because it’s impossible to live the way we do in this country, because they tried to murder a person because of what he said and because they build huge palaces with our taxes.”
“They are so afraid of us that they blocked the whole city off,” she added. “My mom knows that I’m here and agrees with it but she’s worried about me.”
Natalia Abbakumova and Katya Korobotsova contributed reporting.