Protests broke out across Russia today in support of jailed anti-corruption activist, Aleksei Navalny. From Vladivostok to Kaliningrad – separated by 8 time zones – Russians took to the streets at 2pm local time to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Putin regime, despite the protest being declared illegal by the authorities.
Demonstrations took place in at least 55 of Russia’s largest cities, where people took to the street in their thousands, braving temperatures of as low as -50 Celsius. But the largest protests took place in Moscow and St Petersburg: in the capital Reuters estimates that at least 40,000 people took to the streets.
The protests have been organised by Navalny’s team, in which crowds were heard chanting: “Putin’s a thief”, “we’re not afraid”, “one for all, all for one”, and, predictably, “free Navalny”. But while many were outraged by Navalny’s initial detention at the border last Sunday, others, especially those attending protests organised by the activist’s team for the first time, cited Navalny’s recent explosive investigation into ‘Putin’s palace’. Published on Navalny’s YouTube channel on Tuesday, the video alleges that over $1 billion has been invested in the construction of a private complex intended for the president’s use on the shores of the Black Sea.
Police response to the protests has been firm: so far at least 2131 people have been arrested in connection with the demonstrations. Videos emerged online of scuffles between police and protesters, and while state-funded Russia Today has presented the police as victims of provocation, other commentators noted the heavy-handed tactics that have become a feature at Russian demonstrations: intimidation, indiscriminate arrest of protesters and passers-by, as well as funnelling demonstrators into enclosed spaces. Later, many protesters made their way towards the ‘Matrosskaya Tishina’ prison, where Navalny is currently being held, to demand his release.
Among the detained include Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Aleksei, who was also arrested before the protests began, before being released later in the evening. Lyubov Sobal, a lawyer for the Anti-Corruption Foundation and close ally of Navalny, was arrested as she gave an interview, and later charged under article 20.2 of Russia’s Administrative Code, also known as the “protest article”.
It is far too early to state the impact of today’s protestors, but many commentators have been impressed by the turnout for Navalny. It has been notoriously difficult to estimate the true level of support for Navalny within Russia, who frequently performs poorly in opinion polls in contrast to Putin. But Navalny’s investigation has been viewed over 71 million times, and commentators have drawn comparisons with Navalny’s 2017 investigation into corruption and embezzlement by Dmitry Medvedev, which seriously damaged the standing of the then-Prime Minister.
There is plenty to suggest that the authorities have been rattled by the response Navalny has provoked this time round. On 20 January, Roskomnadzor (state regulator for media and telecoms) wrote to TikTok, asking for material promoting the protest to be removed, while reports circulated of universities threatening students with expulsion if they are found to have attended the protests.
Navalny’s team have called for another demonstration to be held next weekend.