MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of Russians staged what a monitoring group called the country’s biggest political protest in eight years on Saturday, defying a crackdown to demand free elections to Moscow’s city legislature.
Police rounded up scores of people after the demonstration in Moscow and at another rally in St. Petersburg, and detained a leading opposition figure before it began. But the response from the authorities was milder than the previous week when more than 1,000 protesters were detained, sometimes violently.
The White Counter monitoring group said up to 60,000 people attended the Moscow rally, describing it as the biggest in Russia in eight years. Police put turnout at 20,000.
A month of demonstrations over elections for the Moscow city legislature have turned into the biggest sustained protest movement in Russia since 2011-2013, when protesters took to the streets against perceived electoral fraud.
Crowds at the rally in Moscow roared “down with the tsar!” and waved Russian flags. They are demanding that opposition-minded candidates be permitted to run in a city election next month after they were not allowed onto the ballot.
“The authorities have become brazen. It’s time to defend our rights,” said Natalya Plokhova, a recruiting consultant.
As the scenes unfolded in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin was shown on state television in a leather jacket at a biker show organized by the Night Wolves motorcycle club on the peninsula of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Putin and the Kremlin have so far avoided commenting on the unrest over the Moscow city elections.
OVD-Info, a monitoring body, said 229 people were arrested at Saturday’s demonstration in Moscow and 81 in St. Petersburg. A small number of other arrests took place in other cities, including Rostov-on-Don and Bryansk.
‘Russia will be free’
The Moscow protest was held with official permission, unlike last week’s demonstration. Afterward, hundreds of mostly young people chanting “Putin is a thief” began gathering near the presidential administration building, prompting masked riot police to ring off the area and detain dozens.
Authorities had earlier warned protesters not to continue protesting after the officially authorized event. Until that point the rally had largely passed without major incident, apart from isolated police detentions and a smoke grenade set off nearby.
Ahead of the rally, police detained hunger-striking opposition activist Lyubov Sobol. Masked men raided her office and the police said they had information that she and other activists were plotting a “provocation” at Saturday’s rally.
“I won’t make it to the protest. But you know what to do without me....Russia will be free!” Sobol wrote on Twitter.
Sobol was released by police late on Saturday, she said in a video posted on Twitter, adding her detention was linked to a rally from the week before.