MOSCOW • Russian police detained 1,614 people across Russia yesterday as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin's rule.
Mr Putin's most charismatic critic called for mass rallies after surviving a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent and returning to Moscow last weekend following months of treatment in Germany. He was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport and jailed.
Yesterday's rallies are expected to be a major test of the opposition's ability to mobilise despite increasing Kremlin pressure on critics and the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahead of the demonstrations, Navalny's team released an investigation into an opulent Black Sea property allegedly owned by Mr Putin. The video has since been viewed more than 66 million times.
Protests also took place in other cities in the Far East and Siberia including Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Chita where several thousand people turned out, Navalny supporters said.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 1,090 people, including 300 in Moscow and 162 in St Petersburg, had been detained across Russia, a number likely to rise. It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up.
Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya said that she was one of the people detained.
"Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van," she wrote on Instagram with an accompanying photo, after thousands of Navalny supporters joined nationwide demonstrations against the Kremlin.
Moscow police vowed a tough crackdown, with police saying unsanctioned public events would be "immediately suppressed".
Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said that the scale and sweep of the protests in the regions were unusual.
"Everyone must be really fed up with the stealing and lies if the regions have risen up like this without waiting for Moscow. Hundreds and thousands even in small cities," he wrote on Twitter.
Mobile phone and Internet services suffered outages yesterday, monitoring site downdetector.ru showed, a tactic sometimes used by the authorities to make it harder for protesters to communicate among themselves and share video footage online.
Navalny, 44, who is being held in Moscow's high-security Matrosskaya Tishina jail, thanked his supporters.
"I know perfectly well that there are lots of good people outside of my prison's walls and help will come," he said on Friday.
The Investigative Committee on Friday launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.
A hastily organised court on Monday jailed Navalny for 30 days, and his supporters fear that the authorities are preparing to sentence him to a long prison term to silence him.
The "Putin's palace" report released by Navalny alleges that the Russian leader owns a 17,691 sq m mansion that sits on a property 39 times the size of Monaco and features a casino, along with a theatre and a hookah lounge complete with a pole-dancing stage.
The Kremlin has denied that the property belongs to Mr Putin.
A number of public figures - including those who usually steer clear of politics - have spoken out in Navalny's support.
In a crackdown in the run-up to the rallies, police had rounded up several of Navalny's allies. They were accused of calling for illegal protests, and at least two of them were jailed, including Navalny's spokesman, for more than a week each.
Many took to social media - including video sharing app TikTok that is hugely popular with teens - to voice support and urge a large turnout yesterday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS