MOSCOW (AFP) - At the age of 16, Darya Moroz is too young to vote in Russia but she sneaked out to join the opposition protest in Moscow on Sunday - without telling her parents.
"I didn't tell them because I was afraid of arguments," Moroz said after she came out to support opposition leader Alexei Navalny. "I just said I was going for a walk."
She was not alone. The unauthorised protest in Moscow on Sunday drew unprecedented numbers of students and others born after President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, who have known only his rule.
"There were a lot of young people detained, aged 17 or 18," said Oleg Yeliseyev, a lawyer who helped three teenagers get released without charge from police stations. "This is the first time in Russia basically. Protests are getting younger."
"We don't have exact statistics but there were really a lot of minors and students," a spokesman for OVD-Info, a group that monitors police detentions in Moscow, confirmed.
"In each of the police stations there were at least two or three teenagers. That didn't happen before." .
Navalny, with his social networking savvy and readiness to send Tweets even from a courtroom, is streets ahead of other Russian politicians.
His approach clearly appeals to the internet generation that does not watch state television nor has first-hand memories of the 1990s, a decade often considered one of economic and political chaos preceding the "stability" of the Putin era.
In court on Monday, Navalny told journalists he wanted to thank high school and university students for taking part.
"I'm really happy that a generation has been born in the country who want to be citizens, who aren't afraid," he said.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Navalny of "consciously deceiving minors, children basically", by encouraging them to attend an unsanctioned rally.
Peskov said that Navalny had offered "financial rewards" to minors if they were detained, though he gave no evidence to back up his claim.
A YouTube video posted Sunday by a nationalist news site shows a young boy apparently in a police van saying Navalny had promised that the European Court of Human Rights would pay 10,000 euros ($15,143) in compensation for detention. The video, which has no identifying details nor explains why a cameraman would be inside a police van, had been viewed 50,000 times as of Monday (March 27).
Moroz, who is studying computer programming at university, said she decided to join the protest after Navalny's anti-corruption group released a video expose linking Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to a vast property empire.
She said she was shocked the authorities did not react.
"The only thing that happened was that Medvedev blocked Navalny on Instagram. I was gobsmacked, basically," she said.
"In our country, there are no answers, no attempts to refute anything, nothing." She went to the protest with a friend, Vlad Korostelev, a 19-year-old computer security student.
They said police pulled friends from the crowd on the central Pushkin Square and hauled them into police vans.
Riot police "pulled people out at random... people who weren't holding posters or doing anything," Korostelev said. Moroz said she was "scared for myself and them."
"A lot of people were very young and they had never been in that situation, they didn't know what to do, they were just in a panic," she said. "It's scary to live in this country and you need to try to fight this, because it's totally out of line."
One of those detained was 17-year-old Roman Shingarkin, a student who shinned up a lamppost with another young protester.
He told The Village, a local news site, that officers "detained us quite harshly: a policeman hit me in the stomach." His parents collected him from the police station after its juvenile crime unit filed a report saying he shouted slogans and disobeyed police - claims which he denies.
"I'm not sorry I went to the protest. I'm just sorry I caused trouble for my parents," he said.
A poll Monday by the opposition-leaning Ekho Moskvy radio station found that 76 per cent backed school children taking part in protests.