More than 1,500 people were arrested on June 12 during protests orchestrated by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is mounting an unlikely bid to unseat President Vladimir Putin next year.
Navalny, who has become the figurehead of the opposition’s anti-corruption campaign, was detained on Monday by the police moments after leaving his apartment block in Moscow's suburbs. Another leader, Ilya Yashin, was picked up in central Moscow and bundled into the back of a police van.
Most of the arrests were in Moscow and St Petersburg but there were also significant rallies in some 200 cities across Russia. OVD, an independent monitoring agency, said there 800 arrests in Moscow and a further 900 in Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg. In the Siberian city of Novosbirisk, about 5,000 people were reported to have taken to the streets to protest.
Moscow officials had agreed to allow Navalny's rally at Prospekt Sakharova, but he switched to a different location late on Sunday near the Kremlin, saying official interference had prevented contractors from erecting a stage at the agreed-upon venue. "This is not our decision. This is the Kremlin's decision," he declared.
The decision was controversial because the authorities were organising a huge “Russia Day” celebration on Tverskaya, which was shut to motorists to allow for a huge number of military re-enactments from Russia’s military past.
Navalny’s decision may have been ill-judged with some protestors confused over the location and thousands being blocked by police from entering Tverskaya. The protestors waited patiently and chanted the usual slogans: “Putin Thief” and “Russia without Putin.”
Navalny was jailed for 15 days after the March protests and he faces another 30 days in the prison after Monday’s unsanctioned rally. He has a felony conviction in a trumped case of embezzlement, which is intended to block his presidential run in 2018. In April, he suffered damage to an eye after an attacker threw a green antiseptic liquid into his face.
The Moscow protest was largely good natured up until 5pm when OMON riot police and Interior Ministry forces waded into the crowds and started violently grabbing protestors at random in a bid to clear the thoroughfare.
One protestor clutching a balloon of a yellow duck was bundled into a police bus. The yellow duck has become an emblem of the protest movement following a Youtube video released by Navalny depicting Prime Minister Medvedev’s ornate 18th century manor – complete with a pond and a duck house. Two other protestors were detained in Moscow for pepper-spraying riot police after a squabble.
The scale of the protests across Russia suggests Navalny has built on the success of a similar event in March, in which tens of thousands of the country's supposedly apathetic youth took to the streets.
“We want our voices to be heard and we are not afraid like our parents are,” Masha Asadova, a Moscow student, told bne IntelliNews. “Putin doesn’t offer a vision for us. He’s only concerned about defending the wealth of his mates and warmongering.”
Masha’s younger sister Nadya, 16, was at her first ever protest, but doesn’t yet have the same political conviction of her older sibling. “I have got some great photos for my Instagram account with the riot police in all their armour, which has already brought me lots of likes,” she said.
Meanwhile, Putin and Medvedev publicly congratulated the country for officially marking the national holiday. There was no mention of the demonstrations or the hundreds of detentions by any official government representative or by state television.
Financial commentators noted "the pronounced" turnout, especially in the regions but don't see any threat to Putin's authority.
"We see little short-term risk of polticial instability as President Putin remains genuinely popular in most quarters of Russian society," said Luis Saenz, head of equities at Russian brokerage house BCS Financial.