It was the second time in as many days that Russian police had dispersed a crowd gathered to express its opposition to the Kremlin and demand fair elections, with the first action targeting more than 1,000 marchers in the capital on November 24.
Both the Moscow and St. Petersburg marches were organized by Other Russia, a broad anti-Putin coalition of mainstream politicians, leftists, and nationalists.
RFE/RL's Russian Service said the detainees in St. Petersburg included Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh and Olga Kurnosova, a local leader of Garry Kasparov's United Civic Front. Police also arrested and subsequently released former SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, who was last week proposed as a possible unity candidate for the March presidential election. Nemtsov, a former Kremlin insider, and Belykh are registered SPS candidates in the December 2 elections to the State Duma.
The pro-Putin Unified Russia party is widely expected to dominate that vote.
The head of the Council of Europe responded with concern over official actions in one of the council's 47 member states.
"I am very concerned about the arrests of Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, and a number of their supporters in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend," Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis said in a statement.
Davis noted that Russia is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing freedom of assembly and added, "These are preconditions for a real democracy."
About 10 opposition activists were reportedly beaten and many others arrested when authorities moved in after hundreds of demonstrators defied a ban against rallying near St. Petersburg's historic Winter Palace. The protesters, who were wearing white carnations to show their peaceful intent, were stopped immediately after starting off toward the rally from the local headquarters of the Yabloko party.
Police charged the group after someone in the crowd unfurled a black flag of the radical National Bolshevik Party, seizing people and beating them with batons. Opposition organizers had warned that agents provocateurs might try to spur the police to action.
Other Russia sources initially said that 300 people were detained. Other reports suggested that number was between 100 and 200.
Boris Nadezhdin, secretary of the presidium of the SPS political council, told RFE/RL's Russian Service after the incident that his party will continue its effort to counter what he described as the Kremlin's strong-arm tactics.
"The gist of the matter is the following: If previously it was groups of activists in the regions who were arrested, now, without legal grounds and despite all laws, the authorities have decided to seize the leadership of the Union of Rightist Forces," Nadezhdin said. "Of course, we won't stop. If the president personally declares us the enemy and law enforcement organs detain our leadership, that just proves that we're on the right path. We will just increase our criticism of Unified Russia and Putin's program. It is not possible to detain everybody. We have tens of thousands of people everywhere in the country."
Former chess champion Kasparov was among those arrested in Moscow on November 24, after police halted an estimated 1,000-2,000 protesters hoping to march to the headquarters of the Central Election Commission. Kasparov was sentenced to five days in jail for leading an opposition protest and resisting arrest.
The Central Election Commission has barred Other Russia candidates from running in the December elections.
Police have broken up several so-called Marches of Dissent in the past year, beating demonstrators with truncheons and detaining many.
Kremlin officials say the marches are aimed at attracting the attention of the West and that the demonstrators are a mixed bag of marginal politicians with little public support.
Putin, ranked by opinion polls as the most popular politician in Russia, is credited by supporters for cementing political stability and presiding over the longest economic boom for a generation. The KGB veteran has vowed to step down as president when Russia elects a new president in March, as the constitution bars him from seeking a third consecutive term.
But Putin has said he will use the Unified Russia party to preserve influence, and a seemingly well-orchestrated campaign has emerged that professes millions of Russians' support for him to remain in power as "national leader."
Putin is heading Unified Russia's candidate list, and the party is set to win a strong majority in the elections.
A recent RFE/RL poll suggested that nearly two-thirds of voting-age Russians do not think December's Duma elections will be conducted honestly, while fewer than one in five thinks the results will reflect the true will of the electorate.
'Another Black Day'
Also on November 24, police in Russia's southern Republic of Ingushetia used force to break up an antigovernment protest.
Several hundred people gathered in the republican capital, Nazran, to protest against unexplained kidnappings, police violence, and economic woes. The reports said 100 protesters were detained.
Earlier in the day, Oleg Orlov, who leads the human rights group Memorial, said armed, masked men in uniform dragged him and three journalists from the federal REN-TV television channel out of their hotel, beat them, and drove them out of Nazran.
The four -- who were later released -- were there to cover a protest against the Ingushetian government.
Human Rights Watch said the abductions had a "clear political motive." Amnesty International called on Russian authorities to launch an investigation.
The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights called November 24 "another black day for human rights and democracy in Russia."
(with additional material from agency reports)
The Next Phase Of U.S.-Russia Relations
Washington and Moscow remain locked in an uneasy limbo between strategic partnership and confrontation over Kosovo, Iran, and missile defense.
But with a Russian presidential election scheduled for March 2008, and a U.S. vote the following November, that balance could tip. Here's what some of the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race have to say about their future strategies in engaging or confronting Russia:
Arizona Senator John McCain (Republican) has suggested that Russia should be barred from the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations because of its "diminishing political freedoms" and "efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia." Of Russian President Vladimir Putin, McCain said: "This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions." Alluding to U.S. President George W. Bush's 2001 comment that he had "looked into Putin's soul," McCain said, "I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three things -- a K and a G and a B."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (Republican) has stressed the importance of Russia's cooperation in antiproliferation efforts. "They've got to be engaged in frank and open discussions about the serious and disturbing turn of events in their own country. But we also have to remain a partner with them on the issue of securing the vast amount of highly enriched nuclear material in their country."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) has backed expanding NATO and shoring up relations with Eastern European democracies, naming Ukraine in particular as a "hedge" against Russia. "We should make it clear that America can speak softly and carry a big stick.... We want to continue to commercially engage Russia; at the same time, we should move as quickly as we can to build missile defense."
New York Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat) wrote in "Foreign Affairs" magazine that Putin has "suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics.... We must make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference."
Illinois Senator Barack Obama (Democrat) has made curbing nuclear proliferation a key point of his foreign policy. "We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured," Obama said. "One way we could strengthen this relationship is by thinking about the Russians as more of a partner and less of a subordinate" in nonproliferation efforts.
Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (Democrat) has called for maintaining a strategic partnership with Russia because of its influence over issues of global security. As the co-author of an article published by the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations, Edwards writes, "it is in the U.S. national interest for Russia to be a part of the G8 and eventually other key institutions such as the World Trade Organization," but adds that Russia's inclusion must be justified by changes in policy.