Video report by ITV News Correspondent Neil Connery
Moscow was put on lockdown and more than 5,000 people were arrested across Russia at unauthorised protests demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, keeping up the wave of nationwide protests that have rattled the Kremlin.
The authorities mounted a massive effort to stem the tide of demonstrations after tens of thousands of people rallied across the country in one of the largest and most widespread shows of discontent the country has seen in years.
Yet despite threats of jail terms, warnings to social media groups and tight police cordons, the protests again engulfed cities across Russia’s 11 time zones on Sunday.
The 44-year-old Mr Navalny, an anti-corruption investigator who is President Vladimir Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested on January 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.
Poisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny kisses wife goodbye as he is arrested after arriving back in Moscow
Russian authorities have rejected the accusations.
He was arrested for allegedly violating his parole conditions by not reporting for meetings with law enforcement when he was recuperating in Germany.
On Sunday, police detained more than 5,000 people at protests in cities nationwide, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors political arrests.
In Moscow, authorities introduced unprecedented security measures in the city center, closing subway stations near the Kremlin, cutting bus traffic and ordering restaurants and shops to stay closed.
In the far eastern port of Vladivostok alone, more than 100 people were detained after protesters danced on the ice and rallied in the city centre.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hit out at the arrests, tweeting: "The UK condemns the Russian authorities’ indiscriminate and arbitrary arrest of peaceful protesters and journalists."
The Tory MP called on the Russian government "to respect people’s right to peaceful protest", adding media freedom "must be protected".
Mr Navalny’s team initially called for Sunday’s protest to be held on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square, home to the main headquarters of the Federal Security Service, which the opposition leader claims was responsible for his poisoning.
Facing police cordons around the square, the protest shifted to other central squares and streets.
Police were randomly picking up people and putting them into police buses, but thousands of protesters marched across the city center for hours, chanting “Putin, resign!” and" Putin, thief!” — a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for the Russian leader that was featured in a widely popular video released by Mr Navalny’s team.
“I’m not afraid, because we are the majority,” said Leonid Martynov, who took part in the protest.
“We mustn’t be scared by clubs because the truth is on our side.”
At one point, crowds of demonstrators walked toward the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Mr Navalny is being held.
They were met by phalanxes of riot police who pushed the march back and chased protesters through courtyards, detaining scores and beating some with clubs.
Still, demonstrators continued to march around the Russian capital, zigzagging around police cordons.
Protests also took place on Saturday, when more than 1,000 were arrested in Moscow, including Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia, who joined the protest.
“If we keep silent, they will come after any of us tomorrow,” she said on Instagram before turning out to protest.
On Sunday, Ms Navalnaya was again out protesting in Moscow.
Several thousand people marched across Russia’s second-largest city of St Petersburg, and occasional scuffles erupted as some demonstrators pushed back police who tried to make detentions. Nearly 800 were arrested.
Some of the biggest rallies were held in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk in eastern Siberia and Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
“I do not want my grandchildren to live in such a country,” said 55-year-old Vyacheslav Vorobyov, who turned out for a rally in Yekaterinburg. “I want them to live in a free country.”
As part of a multipronged effort by authorities to block the protests, courts have jailed Navalny’s associates and activists across the country over the past week. His brother Oleg, top aide Lyubov Sobol and three other people were put Friday under a two-month house arrest on charges of allegedly violating coronavirus restrictions during last weekend’s protests.
Prosecutors also demanded that social media platforms block calls to join the protests.
The Interior Ministry issued stern warnings to the public not to join the protests, saying participants could be charged with taking part in mass riots, which carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
Nearly 4,000 people were reportedly detained at demonstrations on January 23 calling for Mr Navalny’s release that took place in more than 100 Russian cities.
Soon after Mr Navalny’s arrest, his team released a two-hour video on his YouTube channel about the Black Sea residence purportedly built for Putin.
The video has been viewed over 100 million times, helping fuel discontent and inspiring a stream of sarcastic jokes on the internet amid an economic downturn.
Russia has seen extensive corruption during Mr Putin’s time in office while poverty has remained widespread.
Demonstrators in Moscow chanted “Aqua discotheque!” — a reference to one of the fancy amenities at the residence that also features a casino and a hookah lounge equipped for watching pole dances.
Mr Putin says neither he nor any of his close relatives own the property.
On Saturday, construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a longtime Putin confidant and his occasional judo sparring partner, claimed that he himself owned the property.
Mr Navalny fell into a coma on August 20 while on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow and the pilot diverted the plane so he could be treated in the city of Omsk.
He was transferred to a Berlin hospital two days later.
Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to the Novichok nerve agent.
Russian authorities have refused to open a full-fledged criminal inquiry, claiming a lack of evidence that he was poisoned.
Mr Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia earlier this month and jailed for 30 days on the request of Russia’s prison service, which alleged he had violated the probation of his suspended sentence from a 2014 money-laundering conviction that he has rejected as political revenge.
On Thursday, a Moscow court rejected Mr Navalny’s appeal to be released, and another hearing next week could turn his three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence into one he must serve in prison.