MOSCOW -- Russian riot police cracked down hard on some of the biggest anti-government protests in years on January 23, detaining thousands of demonstrators calling for Aleksei Navalny's release at nationwide rallies that raised the stakes in the jailed opposition leader's showdown with President Vladimir Putin.
More than 3,000 people were arrested by police who clashed with and beat protesters, triggering criticism from the European Union and United States.
The protests were a high-stakes test of Navalny's support in the depths of the Russian winter during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn ahead of legislative elections expected in September.
They pitted public outrage over the Kremlin’s treatment of its chief critic following his recovery in Germany from poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent against how much of a threat Putin sees from the 44-year-old lawyer he has repeatedly sought to downplay.
In Moscow, thousands of demonstrators filled Pushkin Square in the city center, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks, some beaten with batons.
Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about a kilometer away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police.
City officials put the crowd at some 4,000, while Reuters estimated some 40,000 had turned up for the demonstration in the Russian capital.
The OVD-Info group that monitors political arrests said Russian police detained 3,296 people at unauthorized countrywide protests on January 23, including 1,274 in Moscow.
Arrests in central Moscow included Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, and the Kremlin critic's close associate Lyubov Sobol, who was detained near Pushkin Square after speaking to Navalny's supporters.
Hundreds of people remained gathered in the city center as evening fell. Police called on them to go home and blocked off several streets around the Kremlin.
Some protesters later on January 23 gathered outside the high-security Matrosskaya Tishina detention center where Navalny is being held but were eventually pushed back by police, who made arrests.
The demonstrators outside the prison chanted "Freedom!" and called on authorities to release Navalny.
In St. Petersburg, scuffles between police and protesters were reported as well. Images of protesters with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.
More than 40 officers received minor injuries during the protest in the capital, state agency TASS reported.
Police were reported to have also rounded up minors. The detention of a young boy on Pushkin Square was filmed and uploaded to social media.
Instances of alleged police brutality were also filmed, including video posted on Twitter that showed a Moscow police officer kneeling on the neck of a protester.
The U.S. State Department strongly condemned what it called the "harsh tactics" used by Russian authorities and called for all those detained by police to be released.
"We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights," U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, which also called for Navalny's "unconditional" release.
The European Union's foreign policy chief expressed concern, saying he deplored "widespread arrests" and the "disproportionate use of force."
"Following unfolding events in #Russia with concern," Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter on January 23. "I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections. We will discuss on Monday next steps with EU Foreign Ministers."
Amnesty International condemned Russian authorities for the mass arrests and detentions.
“Russian authorities relentlessly unleash reprisals against peaceful protesters; what we saw today has only confirmed this. The police ignored their duty to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly and instead indiscriminately beat and arbitrarily arrested protesters, many of whom were young people," said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia director.
Leonid Volkov, an ally of Navalny, said the opposition would hold more protests next weekend to demand Navalny's release.
The first rallies on January 23 began in Siberia and the Far East with large crowds taking to the streets in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and other cities -- despite subfreezing temperatures and a heavy security presence.
The protests are believed to be Russia's largest since March 2017 when coordinated anti-government demonstrations took place in 99 cities and towns across the country.
More than 15,000 people attended rallies in the regions, according to tallies gathered by correspondents of MBKh Media -- an online news organization founded in 2017 by the exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Reports from Khabarovsk said police beat detainees.
Video posted on Twitter from Vladivostok showed police in riot gear charging at demonstrators and beating some with truncheons.
In the Far East city of Yakutsk, protesters went out on the streets despite strong winds and temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius.
Video posted on Twitter from Irkutsk showed a massive crowd of protesters chanting, "We will not leave!"
RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reports that authorities in Ufa, the capital of the Russian region of Bashkortostan, arrested protesters at a rally attended by more than 3,000 people.
Among those taken into custody were Ruslan Valiyev, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy in Ufa, and the head of Navalny's campaign team in Ufa, Lilia Chanyseva.
In Yekaterinburg, riot police reportedly clashed with demonstrators who'd gathered in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius.
Video posted to Twitter earlier in the day from Yekaterinburg showed protesters pelting police with snowballs.
Ahead of the coordinated action in at least 65 Russian cities, authorities detained Navalny allies and warned social-media platforms to pull down posts calling on people to attend the "unsanctioned" rallies or face hefty fines. The Kremlin said the nationwide unsanctioned protests are illegal.
“The Kremlin shot itself in the foot with a completely hysterical campaign to try to prevent the protests," Leonid Volkov, coordinator of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), told Current Time ahead of the protests. Current Time is the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"Should demonstrations on January 23 not bring about an immediate result, which is clear -- we demand a release of Aleksei Navalny -- then such actions will be repeated over and over again,” Volkov said.
Ahead of the protests, universities and colleges across Russia reportedly urged students not to attend the rallies, with some saying they may be subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion.
Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte, blocked all the pages dedicated to the rallies after Roskomnadzor, the national telecommunications watchdog, announced it would fine social-media companies for encouraging minors to participate.
That action came amid media reports of calls for demonstrations -- and videos of school students replacing portraits of Putin in their classrooms with that of Navalny -- going viral among teenagers on the social network TikTok.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 22 that “it is only natural that there are warnings...about the possible consequences related to noncompliance with the law" since there are calls for “unauthorized, unlawful events.”
Navalny was taken into police custody shortly after his arrival in Russia on January 17 from Berlin where he was treated for a near-fatal poisoning in August with a Soviet-style chemical from the Novichok group.
At a hastily arranged hearing at a police station on January 18, a judge authorized Navalny’s detention for 30 days pending a ruling on his suspended sentence that could be revoked and replaced by prison time, allegedly for parole violations.
In a message on Instagram via his lawyer late on January 22, he said from a Moscow jail cell that he wanted people to know he was in good physical and mental health.
"Just in case, I am announcing that I don’t plan to either hang myself on a window grill or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon,” the post said. “I use the staircase very carefully. They measure my blood pressure every day and it's like a cosmonaut's, so a sudden heart attack is ruled out. I know for a fact that there are many good people outside my prison and that help will come.”
Navalny has accused Putin of ordering his assassination, which combined with his detention has sparked widespread Western condemnation and threats of further sanctions.
Human Rights Watch on January 22 urged Russian authorities to cease what it called “unlawful attacks on freedom of expression and instead focus on ensuring safety measures to protect those who wish to assemble peacefully.”
“In the past year Russian authorities have effectively banned all peaceful protest by the political opposition and prosecuted anyone who has refused to comply,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Dozens of influential Russians, including actors, musicians, journalists, writers, athletes and popular bloggers, have come out with statements in support of Navalny, and some promised to attend the demonstrations.
Bloomberg, citing two sources close to Russia's leaders, reported on January 22 that the Kremlin intends to imprison Navalny for "several years, or even more.”
Authorities accuse Navalny of violating the terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 conviction for financial misdeeds, including violating the terms of parole while convalescing in Germany.
He and supporters reject the charges, saying they are politically motivated to put an end to his anti-corruption work.
Navalny’s latest volley against state corruption -- a two-hour video about a $1.36 billion palace on the Black Sea allegedly belonging to Putin -- was released just two days after he was detained.
The video has since become the most-watched report ever published by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Peskov said on January 22 that the investigation into Putin and the Black Sea mansion was a “lie” and a “cut-and-paste job.”