Police detain more than 3,000 in Moscow and other cities, says a monitoring group, as tens of thousands of supporters of jailed Kremlin critic take to streets following his call to protest against President Vladimir Putin's rule.

Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021
Police detain a protester during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021 (AFP)

Russian police have arrested thousands of protesters who took to the streets in temperatures as low as minus-50 C to demand the release of Alexey Navalny, the country's top opposition figure.

The OVD-Info group, which monitors political arrests, said at least 1,167 people were detained in Moscow and more than 460 at another large demonstration in St Petersburg.

Overall, it said 3,068 people had been arrested in some 90 cities, revising the count downward from its earlier report of 3,445. The group did not give an explanation for its revision. Russian police did not provide arrest figures.

In Moscow, an estimated 15,000 demonstrators gathered in and around Pushkin Square in the city centre, where clashes with police broke out and demonstrators were roughly dragged off by helmeted riot officers to police buses and detention trucks.

Some were beaten with batons.

Police eventually pushed demonstrators out of the square. Thousands then regrouped along a wide boulevard about a kilometre (half-mile) away, many of them throwing snowballs at the police before dispersing.

Some later went to protest near the jail where Navalny is held. Police made an undetermined number of arrests there.

The protests stretched across Russia’s vast territory, from the island city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk north of Japan and the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, where temperatures plunged to minus-50 Celsius, to Russia’s more populous European cities.

Navalny's wife detained 

In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.

The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up. The Foreign Ministry questioned Reuters' crowd estimate, using sarcasm to suggest it was too high.

"Why not just immediately say 4 million?," it quipped on its official Telegram messenger channel.

In Moscow, a police public-address system repeatedly blared messages telling people not to gather closely because of pandemic health concerns and warning that the protest was unlawful.

Helmeted riot officers sporadically grabbed participants and pushed them into police buses.

Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya said she was detained at a demonstration in Moscow.

"Apologies for the poor quality. Very bad light in the police van," she wrote on Instagram with an accompanying photo.

Russia accuses US diplomats of publishing rally routes

Russia accused the US embassy in Moscow of publishing routes of planned demonstrations and demanded an explanation from American diplomats.

"Yesterday the US embassy in Moscow published 'protest routes' in Russian cities and tossed around information about a 'march on the Kremlin,'" Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook, adding: "US colleagues will have to explain themselves."

The US State Department condemned what it called "harsh tactics" used against protesters.

"We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement, calling for Navalny's "unconditional" release. 

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed concern over Russia's response to mass protests, saying he deplored "widespread arrests" and the "disproportionate use of force."

READ MORE: Russia rejects calls for Navalny’s release, disrupts protest plans

Pressure on Navalny's aides

Navalny, 44, put out the call for nationwide protests after he was detained last week on arrival to Russia from Germany where he had been recuperating from a near-fatal attack with the nerve agent Novichok.

Russian authorities ramped up pressure on Navalny's aides on the eve of the protests, handing short jail terms and fines to his close associates for violating protest legislation.

Russia's media watchdog had also issued a warning to social media platforms that hosted calls for a large turnout at Saturday's demonstrations.

Western support to Navalny

Navalny's arrest sparked sharp condemnation from the leaders of Western countries who echoed calls from the Russian opposition for his release.

Allies of Russia's leading opposition figure said they would take to the streets again next weekend despite police warnings that unsanctioned public events would be "immediately suppressed".

In the days leading up to Saturday's rallies, several key Navalny aides were taken into police custody for violating protest laws and handed short jail sentences to keep them away from the protests.

No plans to commit suicide

Navalny said on Friday he wanted it known that he had no plans to commit suicide in prison, as he issued a message of support to his followers on the eve of protests the authorities say are illegal. 

Navalny, in a message on Instagram via his lawyer, said he wanted people to know he was in good physical and mental health.

"Just in case, I am announcing that I don’t plan to either hang myself on a window grill or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon," the post said.

"I use the staircase very carefully. They measure my blood pressure every day and it’s like a cosmonaut’s so a sudden heart attack is ruled out. I know for a fact that there are many good people outside my prison and that help will come," he wrote. 

READ MORE: Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny remanded in custody

Strong online presence

Navalny, 44, rose to prominence around a decade ago and has become the central figure of Russia's opposition movement, leading large-scale street protests against corruption and electoral fraud.

He has a strong online presence and publishes investigations into the wealth of Russia's political elites on his YouTube channel with five million subscribers.

Many Navalny allies this week posted to social media to voice their support and call for participation in the rallies on Saturday.

Thousands of videos appeared on the TikTok app popular among teenagers, which has become an emerging medium for Russians to voice their political views.

Russia's media watchdog warned online platforms against encouraging minors to participate in the rallies or risk hefty fines.

The watchdog said on Friday that media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, removed content at its request.

Russia's most popular social network VKontakte blocked groups created to coordinate the protests in different cities.

The Russian Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, said on Friday it launched a criminal probe into the calls for unauthorised protests.

Arrested on arrival

Navalny returned to Russia last week after five months in Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning attack that he says was ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

A hastily organised court jailed the anti-graft campaigner for 30 days while he awaits trial for violating a suspended sentence he was handed in 2014.

Navalny faces a series of legal challenges that could see him receive real jail time.

After his arrest, his team released an investigation into a lavish Black Sea property allegedly owned by Putin, a claim the Kremlin denied.

The two-hour video report has been viewed more than 64 million times since its release on Tuesday, becoming the Kremlin critic's most-watched YouTube investigation.

Navalny's arrest drew widespread Western condemnation, with the United States, the European Union, France, and Canada all calling for his release.

READ MORE: Putin owns a secret $1 billion compound, claims Russian critic Navalny

Source: TRTWorld and agencies