An extraordinary wave of antigovernment protests swept across Russia on Monday, as thousands of demonstrators gathered in more than 100 cities to denounce corruption and political stagnation despite official attempts to stifle the expression of outrage.
Riot police officers in large cities and small detained hundreds of participants, with more than 700 apprehended in Moscow and 300 in St. Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, an independent organization that tracks arrests. There were reports of about 100 detentions elsewhere across Russia.
In Moscow, the police arrested the Kremlin foe and anticorruption crusader Aleksei A. Navalny, the main architect of the protests on Monday and similar ones in March, as he left his apartment to attend the demonstration downtown. A Moscow court quickly sentenced him to 30 days in jail for organizing an unauthorized protest.
The recent outpourings of popular discontent, spurred on by Mr. Navalny, have been the biggest antigovernment demonstrations in Russia in years.
After witnessing the geographic sweep of the protests on Monday and the enthusiastic resolve of the mostly young participants in the face of a harsh police presence, some analysts came away saying that Russian politics was being reborn.
“I think we are seeing the beginning of a youth protest movement,” said Anatoly Golubovsky, a Russian historian surveying the crowd at one corner of Moscow’s Pushkin Square, which erupted in vigorous jeers of “Shame” whenever a phalanx of riot police officers rushed into the crowd to drag someone away.
Mr. Golubovsky ticked off cities across Russia where protesters had turned out: an estimated 4,000 in Novosibirsk, as well as in Omsk and other large Siberian cities. There were energetic demonstrations in Vladivostok in the Far East, and in large cities in southern Russia like Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar.
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“All these regions were considered to be very conservative and not politicized, very loyal to the power,” he said, referring to the Kremlin. “And they turned out to be politicized.”
It was difficult to assess the exact number of cities or people involved in the demonstrations across this vast continent of a country with 11 time zones. But the proliferation of protests and the predominantly youthful crowds seemed to indicate that Mr. Navalny had succeeded in broadening his movement beyond the more than 80 cities that took part in demonstrations in March.
The police detaining a protester in Moscow. Credit Pool photo by Evgeny Feldman
Officials had tried to prevent a repeat by vilifying Mr. Navalny and issuing thinly disguised threats of force and dire consequences for those attending demonstrations, as well as for their parents. Russian politics had been generally somnolent since mass protests in 2011 and 2012 were met with harsh prison sentences.
“I cannot remember, and old-timers, as they say, cannot remember, when was the last time in Russia that so many people attended demonstrations in different cities,” said Georgy Alburov, the deputy head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, started by Mr. Navalny.
As the crowd in Moscow surged this way and that to avoid the charging police officers, Mr. Alburov expressed a sense of accomplishment. “We are very happy that so many people share our views and are ready to go to demonstrations,” he said.
The protests were ostensibly focused on government corruption, but other issues, like economic doldrums and the mass demolition of apartments, brought people onto the street. Many participants said they were disgusted at the gradual dismantling of democracy in Russia, and of any semblance of a real opposition.
The opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in Vladimir, Russia, in April. He was detained on Monday in Moscow. Credit James Hill for The New York Times
“I came here not because of the corruption,” said Nikita Orlov, 18, a student in international law. “I came here because we have no democracy, our Parliament is not real, our politicians are not real and our mass media is not real.”
Those sentiments were not limited to Moscow.
In Naberezhnye Chelny, a usually dormant city of 500,000 that lies 600 miles east of Moscow, around 230 people turned out.
Officials authorized the rally, but, as in many cities, they relegated the protesters to a long-neglected park in the outskirts where they were practically hidden among the trees and anonymous apartment blocks.
Sergei Trokhin, one of the organizers in Naberezhnye Chelny, turned 20 on Monday. Two years ago, he was studying at a local college to become a construction worker, and said he ignored politics. That changed as economic hardships worsened in the town, which, like hundreds of towns across Russia, is heavily dependent on one industry: in this case, a truck factory.
“My mother didn’t get a raise for four years, while prices only grew,” Mr. Trokhin said, adding that the protests were about more than Mr. Navalny, even if the director of his college warned him that the protests would help Mr. Navalny “destroy Russia.”
The latest confrontation between Mr. Navalny, 41, and the Kremlin began on March 2, when he released a video depicting Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev as the crooked beneficiary of palaces, yachts and other luxuries paid for by some of Russia’s richest tycoons.
The demonstrations were also an effort by Mr. Navalny to force the Kremlin to let him run against President Vladimir V. Putin in the March 2018 presidential election, even if he has virtually zero chance of winning. A felony conviction, which Mr. Navalny has called politically motivated, bars him from running.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia during the State Prize awards ceremony at the Kremlin on Monday, marking Russia Day. Credit Pool photo by Natalia Kolesnikova
Mr. Navalny has plenty of critics. Sergei Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, accused him of “radicalizing” the protest movement and said on Facebook that he doubted the numbers had exceeded those of the March protests.
In Naberezhnye Chelny, some onlookers expressed skepticism, too. “Mr. Navalny is a thief, just like all of them,” said Dmitri Ivanov, 34, a factory manager. “Look at these people,” he said, pointing to the crowd. “They are just kids. They know nothing. They need to graduate from school first.”
Mr. Navalny called the rally on Russia Day, a national holiday, to underscore the idea that protesters are patriots, too. The Interior Ministry said that more than seven million people had participated in various celebrations around the country. That would dwarf the protest participation.
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In Moscow, officials organized historical re-enactments to celebrate Russian achievements from medieval times through World War II. The juxtaposition of the protests and the re-enactments caused some confusion.
A wall of sandbags erected across Tverskaya Street in Moscow, by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, seemed designed to block protesters but turned out to be part of the re-enactments. Walls of riot police officers and police vehicles lining the street were all too real.
At one point, men dressed as medieval knights held a sword fight in the middle of a street as chants of “Russia without Putin” erupted from protesters nearby.
On Pushkin Square, protesters were being physically carted off while a singer at a free Russia Day concert belted out a Russian version of “Those Were the Days.”
Mr. Navalny, jailed for 15 days for organizing the March protests, was sentenced to 30 days on similar charges this time after moving the Moscow demonstrations downtown, away from a street approved by the city.
Organizers in more than 200 cities filed requests to hold demonstrations on Monday. Around 120 were granted, 50 were rejected, and the fate of the rest was unclear. Some cities tried to play games with the organizers.
In Vladivostok, 4,000 miles east of Moscow and home to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, protesters were told that they could not rally on the central square opposite the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway because it had been booked by Cossacks, descendants of the fierce horsemen who secured the frontiers of the Russian Empire under the czar.
Cossacks wearing traditional uniforms near protesters in Vladivostok, Russia. The city authorities had rejected a request for a demonstration to be held by the train station, saying that it had already been booked by Cossacks, descendants of the fierce horsemen who secured the frontiers of the Russian Empire. Credit James Hill for The New York Times
In an unsubtle hint, the burly Cossacks who gathered in camouflage uniforms or czarist-era outfits put on a display of how to smash eggs with a horsewhip.
After gathering nearby to chant against corruption and to wave copies of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, the demonstrators paraded through narrow streets with Russian flags to an esplanade overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
“Russia without Putin,” they shouted. One banner said “Power must be changeable,” a reference to tightly controlled elections that mostly consolidate the power of Mr. Putin and his allies.
The rally broke up after riot police officers plunged into the crowd and dragged away protesters. At least 11 protesters were detained, according to OVD-Info.