Russian Government Arrests Thousands During Alexei Navalny Protests

Authorities in Russia have detained more than 5,000 people across 85 cities in the country on Sunday, as reported by CNN. According to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info, this is the most arrested since 2011, as the Russian government clamps down on protests demanding the release of politician Alexei Navalny, the jailed critic of Vladimir Putin.

The second weekend of protests saw thousands of Russians from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg voice their displeasure with the Kremlin and show support for Navalny. Events were held in a total of 120 cities across the large nation that spans 11 time zones, with each beginning at noon local time. Navalny has been held since he was arrested upon arrival in Russia on January 17, following months spent recovering in Germany after he was poisoned with the powerful nerve agent Novichok. The opposition leader has accused the Russian government of being behind the poisoning, which they have denied.

The 44-year-old is being held on charges of violating the conditions of a suspended three and 1/2 year sentence for fraud and faces jail time, as reported by Bloomberg. The United States and European Union have called for Navalny's release.

Woman holds a banner in support of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny at Pushkin Square on January 23, 2021 in Moscow, Russia.
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In Moscow, Navalny's wife Yulia was among the more than 1,600 people arrested, though she was later released. The capital city was effectively locked down, with the FSB building -- home of the Russian Federal Security Service -- and the Kremlin barricaded, with seven subway stops in the city center closed and bus routes limited in an effort to prevent protesters from gathering. Riot police wearing heavy-duty uniforms patrolled the streets while an innumerable number of vans were ready to transport those gathered to police stations.

Despite those efforts, Russians were still able to hold protests outside of the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center. The location in Moscow's northeastern Sokolniki neighborhood is where Navalny is being held before his trial next week. Those outside chanted "Let him go!" and "Russia without Putin!"

The protesters defied warnings from the Russian interior ministry to not take part in "unauthorized" gatherings. Organizers are required to file an appeal with local authorities at least 10 days in advance to receive permission for a legal protest. Officers were seen using stun guns on those who resisted arrest, a tactic not believed to have been employed in prior Navalny protests.

The protests come amidst declining approval ratings for Putin. The Russian president has come under fire for his government's handling of the coronavirus, as well as diminishing personal freedoms and declining incomes.