MOSCOW — Shouting “We demand answers,” and “Stop lying and stealing,” tens of thousands of protesters turned out Monday across Russia in a nationwide anti-corruption rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny as part of his long-shot bid to unseat President Vladimir Putin.
Russian authorities met the challenge with helmet and truncheon: Police said they had rounded up 650 protesters at illegal rallies in Moscow and St. Petersrburg alone, although the Russian OVD-info nongovernment group put the number of detained at more than 1,000.
Navalny was detained outside his home, fined and, according to the independent Meduza news agency, sentenced to 30 days in jail, after he defied authorities by telling his supporters to crash a massive street festival of historical reeanactments staged for the official Russia Day state holiday.
“He asked me to pass on to you that the plan hasn’t changed,” Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, tweeted after her husband’s detention. She told protesters he wanted them to head to central Tverskaya Street despite a warning by Moscow authorities that a demonstration there was illegal.
As a result, a crowd chanting “Russia without Putin!” came upon a reenactment of a medieval sword battle on Tverksaya Street, the broad central Moscow avenue that leads south to the Kremlin. A tangle of protesters and police surged towards the reenactors, some of whom locked their wooden shields in a real effort to fend off possible danger as other members of the troupe hid behind them.
Navalny’s campaign said anti-corruption protesters staged rallies in 187 Russian cities Monday, in one of the most widespread anti-government protests since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
This turbulence is not likely to prevent Putin, who has enjoyed an approval rating above 80 percent for more than three years, from winning reelection next March, Denis Volkov, a pollster with Russia’s independent Levada Center, said in a recent interview. But it does point to weakness of the system Putin has created. The protests target the legitimacy and lack of accountability of his government, which some analysts call its greatest vulnerability.
In Washington, where President Trump has faced increasing controversy over the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the White House criticized Moscow’s response to the protests.
“Detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers and journalists is an affront to core democratic values,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer read from a prepared statement. “The Russian people, like the people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution.”
Amnesty International also denounced the mass arrests, saying the Kremlin had shown “utter contempt for fundamental human rights.”
Russian state television ignored the protests and focused on the fairs and commemorative events, which attracted tens of thousands in Moscow alone. It ran a live broadcast of Putin handing out state awards, and periodically showed a countdown to the Kremlin leader’s annual televised “direct line” Thursday, in which ordinary citizens can phone in requests.
The Russia Day holiday commemorates the 1990 declaration of sovereignty within the Soviet Union orchestrated by Boris Yeltsin, the upstart leader of what was then called the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. It presaged the eventual collapse of the U.S.S.R., and Yeltsin’s rise to the Kremlin as the first president of independent Russia.
Navalny, who faces an uphill battle just to get on the 2018 ballot, is nowhere near being able to defy Putin on that scale. But to listen to the people who came out Monday, Navalny has tapped into a vein of disgust with the current Russian leadership.
“I’m angry, my family is angry, but they’re not going to come to this because they’re scared,” said Alexander Fomenko, a 17-year-old student. "I don't have this kind of fear. I will be here on this street until they throw me in jail. And there's a lot of people who think like me; my friends think like me.”
The number of young demonstrators was among the many surprises when tens of thousands turned out across Russia on March 26 for an “anti-corruption” protest called by Navalny.
The Kremlin had clearly been caught off guard. Authorities made a show of arresting people involved in the protest, and educators forced students to watch documentaries about the evils of protesting. Some Russian parliament members expressed support for a ban against minors attending street rallies, calls that are likely to be renewed after Monday’s demonstration.
Youthful protesters scurried in and out of cafes Monday, taunting riot police to come after them, and then sitting at tables, pretending to be ordering food when the officers confronted diners.
Navalny, who was briefly jailed after the March protest, had received permission to hold Monday’s rally at a venue just north of the center, but on late Sunday called on his supporters to come to Tverskaya, saying that authorities had refused to provide a stage and sound system at the agreed-upon place.
Authorities had barricaded Tverskaya from all sides except for carefully controlled security points lined by helmeted police. But the police presence took on a surreal air because of the reenactors camped out in the center of the nine-lane thoroughfare.
Fencers feinted and darted to wild applause from children, while a 14th-century battle between ancient Russians and the Golden Horde took place nearby. World War I troops gave tips on bayonet thrusts, and a company of infantry in War of 1812 gear bivouacked not far from a blacksmith and an impressive array of medieval swords.
Protesters began to infiltrate the audience at 2 p.m., and by 4 p.m., riot police squads were wading into the crowd, dragging and carrying out protesters by their arms and legs and beating them with batons, as the demonstrators shouted “Shame!”
Recent polls suggest that Navalny — portrayed on state media as an unpopular and marginal figure, the creation of out-of-touch Westernizers — would not win more than 10 percent of the vote if he runs for president in 2018, though pollsters say Navalny’s best bet is to try to unite people fed up with government indifference and abuse.
At the venue in Moscow originally approved for Navalny’s protest, about 2,000 people gathered Monday to protest the city’s plan to relocate as many as 1.6 million residents of Soviet-era low-rise apartment buildings to new high-rise apartment buildings.
Some Muscovites believe the plan amounts to a violation of their rights to own property and to choose where to live, and a gift to political insiders who own construction firms.
"I don't want to live in a 30-floor ant-house. Their whole project is total corruption, money laundry, initiated by the construction lobby,” said Zamira Medvedeva, a retiree who lives in a communal apartment building.
She said she didn’t trust Navalny, either.
“But we came here today because this is an anti-corruption event and we are strongly against corruption!” she said.
David Nakamura in Washington and Natalya Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.