MOSCOW – From the frozen streets of Russia’s Far East and Siberia to the large squares of Moscow and St. Petersburg, tens of thousands of Russians gathered in support of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny on Saturday in the biggest national showdown between the Kremlin and his opponents .
The demonstrations do not pose an immediate threat to the power of President Vladimir Putin. But their wide scope and the remarkable challenge demonstrated by many protesters signaled widespread fatigue from the stagnant, corrupt political order that Mr Putin has led for two decades.
On the island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan, hundreds gathered in front of the regional government building and chanted, “Putin is a thief!” Protests spread in the sub-Arctic city of Yakutsk, where he was minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as rallies attended by thousands in cities in Siberia. Hours later, when night fell in Moscow, people pelted the police with snowballs and kicked a car belonging to the Interior Ministry.
By late evening in Moscow, more than 3,000 people had been arrested in at least 109 cities, according to OVD-Info, an activist group that monitors arrests during protests.
Mr Navalny’s supporters have been successful and have promised more protests over the weekend – although many directors of his regional offices have been arrested.
“If Putin thinks the worst things are behind him, he is very rude and naive,” said Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s chief aide, in a live YouTube broadcast from an undisclosed location outside Russia.
The protests came six days after Mr Navalny, a 44-year-old anti-corruption activist, was arrested on arrival in Moscow on a flight from Germany, where he spent months recovering from poisoning by a military-class nerve agent. Western authorities and Mr Navalny described the poisoning in Siberia in August as an assassination attempt by the Russian state. The Kremlin denies this.
Mr Navalny, who now faces a long prison term, called on his supporters across the country to take to the streets this weekend, although officials did not allow protests. The Russians responded with the most widespread demonstrations the nation has seen since at least 2017 – numbering in the tens of thousands in Moscow and St. Petersburg and in the thousands in each of several cities in the east, including Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Omsk. and the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
“There was this heavy feeling that Russian public opinion had hardened into cement, as if it had been driven into a dead, hidden ball,” said Vyacheslav Ivanets, a lawyer in the Siberian city of Irkutsk who took part in the protests. “Now I feel that the situation has changed.”
Mr Navalny, Mr Putin’s strongest domestic critic, used his populist touch on social media and humorous, hard and simple language to emerge as the only Russian opposition leader to command followers in a wide range of society. His status among Putin’s critics has risen further in recent months as he survived an attack by a neuro-paralytic agent and then returned home to Russia, despite facing near-certain arrest.
This arrest on Sunday, protesters said, helped unleash resentment over Mr Putin’s economic stagnation and widespread official corruption.
But Mr Putin’s Kremlin has surpassed protests before – and there was little indication that this time it would be any different. Russia’s state media quickly made it clear that there was no chance of the Kremlin closing in on pressure, condemning the protests as a national “wave of aggression” that could lead to prison terms against some participants.
“Attacking a police officer is a criminal offense,” the state television report said. “Hundreds of videos have been shot. All faces are on them. “
In Washington, the State Department said Saturday that it “strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists” in Russia. Russia’s foreign ministry has said it has said the United States has helped “incite radical elements” to join the unauthorized protests and that US officials are “facing a serious conversation” with Russian diplomats.
Some protesters acknowledged that despite the significance of Saturday’s protests, many more numbers would be needed to change the course of national policy. In neighboring Belarus, many more people protested last week against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin, without ousting him.
“I’m a little disappointed, honestly,” said Nikita Melekhin, a 21-year-old nurse in Moscow. “I expected more.”
Police presented a monumental show of force in the streets, but largely refrained from large-scale violence. In Pushkin Square in central Moscow, the center of the rally in the capital, police insurgents repeatedly forced the crowd to try to disperse it, but avoided the use of tear gas or other more violent methods to control the crowd.
They had previously arrested most of Mr Navalny’s best aides and detained his wife, Julia Navalnaya, in protest on Saturday before releasing her hours later.
Yet videos circulating on social media capture remarkable clashes between protesters and police – an indication of new fearlessness among some Russians and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. In several cases, protesters can be seen watering police with snowballs, although in the past prosecutors have sought long prison sentences for people who threw objects at employees.
Chanting “shame” protesters in Moscow, they also threw snowballs at a passing government car. After stopping, people rushed to the car belonging to the Russian Internal Intelligence Agency and started kicking it. The driver suffered an eye injury in the attack, state media later reported.
State media reported that at least 39 law enforcement officers in Moscow were injured in Saturday’s events. There were also videos of officers viciously beating and kicking individual protesters, including in front of a Moscow prison where Mr Navalny is being held.
The question now is whether the intensity of the clashes will further strengthen the Russians – or ultimately dissuade them from heeding Navalny’s call for more protests.
Opinion polls in recent months – of uncertain value in a country saturated with state propaganda and where people are often afraid to speak – show that Mr Putin is not facing a serious challenge to his popularity from Mr Navalny, whose name was never allowed to appear on presidential ballots. Mr Putin has refused to give his name publicly.
A November poll by the independent and highly respected Levada Center found that only 2 percent of respondents cited Mr Navalny as their first choice when asked who to choose if the presidential election is to take place next Sunday. Fifty-five percent said Mr Putin.
Nevertheless, Mr Navalny’s dramatic return to Russia last Sunday – and his video report on Mr Putin’s alleged secret palace, which has been viewed more than 70 million times on YouTube – have boosted the opposition leader’s popularity across the country.
“I have never been a big supporter of Navalny, and yet I understand perfectly well that this is a very serious situation,” said Vitaly Blazhevich, a 57-year-old university lecturer, in a telephone interview about why he went to a rally for Mr. Bulk in the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China.
“There is always hope that something will change,” Mr Blazevic said.
Vasily Zimin, a 47-year-old partner in a Moscow law firm, slipped through the riot and said he had come to protest against growing corruption during Mr Putin’s time in power.
“How can you say ‘I can’t take more than that’ while sitting on your couch?” He said.
Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew E. Kramer contributed to reports from Moscow. Oleg Matnev and Sofia Kishkovski contributed to the research.