MOSCOW -- Russian police used batons and tasers on peaceful protesters after tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets for a second straight weekend to demand the release of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and voice their discontent with the government.
Riot police left some protesters bloody and badly beaten on January 31 as they detained more than 5,000 participants in unsanctioned rallies across the country organized by Navalny and his team.
The United States, the European Union, and human rights organizations condemned the violence by Russian police against their own citizens as well as the detention of reporters.
By late evening in Moscow, the number of people detained across Russia had reached 5,135, surpassing the total of the previous weekend, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.
The detentions were the largest since the group began keeping tallies a decade ago.
The Kremlin is trying “to increase the price tag for participating in unsanctioned oppositional rallies and scare potential protesters off by beatings, fines, and short jail prison sentences,” Aleksandr Gabuyev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a post following the demonstrations.
Amnesty International said so many people were arrested in Moscow that detention centers in the capital had "run out of space" and people were being held in deportation facilities.
"Trying to lock up every critic in the country is a losing game -- the Russian authorities should instead recognize how much the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression mean to a growing number of Russians, and allow people to express their opinions without fear of retaliation," the rights watchdog said in a statement following the protest.
Similar to last weekend, tens of thousands of citizens braved freezing weather and possible arrest to defend Navalny and voice their discontent with the Russian president and his government over a host of issues ranging from corruption to falling living standards.
As the number of detentions rose, Navalny's team warned supporters on Telegram not to touch police and avoid getting "fooled by provocations."
The protests took place in more than 100 cities in what some are calling the largest anti-government rallies by geography since Russian President Vladimir Putin took power at the end of 1999.
“This is the biggest protest phenomenon in the entire time of Putin's presidency, in all 20 years. It will be difficult to estimate its size, but its geography -- the number of cities -- is unprecedented. We see a different generation of protesters who are not afraid,” Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.
Large-scale protests took place in Moscow over several months following parliamentary elections in December 2011 that were deemed fraudulent. Additional mass demonstrations took place in the capital in 2015 following the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and again in 2019 following Moscow parliamentary elections.
While the number of people protesting in Moscow over the past two weekends may have been smaller than those earlier protests, participation in Russia’s regions was greater.
Analysts say the spread of rallies around the country underscores the growing dissatisfaction with the government ahead of key parliamentary elections later this year.
Protesters in the Far East and Siberia braved subfreezing temperatures and a heavy riot-police presence to start the day's demonstrations.
Video clips from Vladivostok, where hundreds of demonstrators were denied access to the city center, showed participants linking hands and chanting "Putin is a thief!" and "My Russia is in prison!" on the ice of Amur Bay. The demonstrations there ended after about two hours.
In Irkutsk, where 24 people were reportedly arrested, protesters were filmed being detained after police moved in to break up a rally in the city center.
Live footage from Current Time showed a heavy police presence in the Urals city of Perm before the demonstration there ended.
Protesters in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, were shown on social media clashing with riot police. Video later showed several detainees in Kazan lying cuffed in the snow.
In Moscow, hundreds of people, including Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya, were arrested. Some were detained as they made their way to the detention center where the activist is being held
One protester in Moscow told Current Time that he attended the rally despite the threat of arrest and beatings because he wanted to see an improvement of life inside Russia.
Protesting "is like work for each citizen who wants his country to become better. I don’t want to attend, but I will because it is necessary," he said.
The police crackdown did not leave reporters unscathed.
Video posted on social media showed police beating a journalist wearing a press vest in the northern city. The journalist, Georgy Markov, reportedly claimed he was tased by police.
An accredited freelance correspondent working for RFE/RL's Russian Service, Andrei Afanasyev, was detained in the Far East city of Blagoveshchensk as he was heading to cover protests there.
Overall, dozens of journalists were detained nationwide, with eight in St. Petersburg, according to the Center For Monitoring Violations Of The Rights Of Russian Journalists And Media.
Carnegie’s Gabuyev said the arrests of journalists covering the protests is part of the Kremlin’s plan to “destroy the infrastructure” that Navalny and his team utilize to get their message across the country.
“If there are many detainees, this infrastructure will be stretched thin and [become] dysfunctional,” he said, adding there are “very high chances” it will work in deflating the movement.
In a tweet, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that he deplored the "widespread detentions and disproportionate use of force" against protesters and journalists in Russia and that the country "needs to comply with its international commitments."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, said that the United States "condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for the second week straight. We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksei Navalny."
In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States of "gross interference" in Russia's affairs and accused Washington of promoting calls for what Moscow considers illegal rallies by unspecified "online platforms controlled by Washington."
The severity of the Russian police tactics -- which also included leaving some detainees lying in the snow -- drew parallels for many analysts to the actions over the past six months by law enforcement in Belarus, where protesters against the continued rule of strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka have been harshly beaten.
Russian authorities had braced for large protests after Navalny and his team called on supporters to repeat action taken on January 23, when tens of thousands of people in more than 110 cities heeded the activist’s call to demonstrate against his arrest. Police detained almost 4,000 people that day.
Ahead of the January 31 protest, police issued warnings that participants at "illegal" rallies would face criminal charges for violating coronavirus-related health restrictions.
Authorities then moved swiftly against Navalny’s closest allies, the media, and common supporters in a bid to quell an outpouring of dissent through a wave of detentions and acts of intimidation.
Police also partially shut down transport in the nation's two largest cities in an attempt to dampen the number of participants and foil their plans.
Protesters in the capital had been called upon to gather in Lubyanka Square outside the headquarters of the FSB security agency and Staraya Square, where the presidential administration has its offices.
However, after police cordoned off the area the protest was moved further from the center.
Current Time correspondent Yevgenia Kotlyar reported live that she had never seen such a large number of police in the center of the capital, and that they were "even blocking entrances to courtyards."
Outside Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina detention center, where Navalny is being held, large numbers of police stood guard as buses delivering demonstrators arrived.
The 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin critic was detained on January 17 upon his returned from Germany, where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he and supporters say was carried out by the FSB on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has dismissed extensive evidence that FSB agents poisoned Navalny and rejected calls for his release.
A day after his return to Russia a makeshift court at a police station ordered Navalny to remain in jail for 30 days pending trial, set to start on February 2.
Prosecutors claim he broke the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence in an embezzlement case the European Court for Human Rights ruled was "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."
The February 2 court hearing will consider converting the suspended sentence into a 3 1/2 year prison term because of the alleged parole violation while Navalny was recovering in Germany.