Over the weekend, thousands of Russians hit the streets to protest the arrest of Alexei Navalny, one of the harshest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government keeping him in power.
Photos show that demonstrations took place across the country, from Moscow in the west to Irkutsk in the southeast to the Sakha Republic in the north. The Associated Press reports that Russian police arrested more than 3,000 people across the country on Saturday alone.
The weekend protests were perhaps the most widespread display of opposition to Putin during his decade-plus in power. So, who is Navalny, and how did his arrest inspire so many to hit the streets?
Riot police clash with supporters of detained Russian opposition leader #AlexeiVavalny during demonstrations in Moscow, Russia 📷: Oleg Nikishin #RussiaProtests pic.twitter.com/6ltF7I8DaT— Getty Images News (@GettyImagesNews) January 23, 2021
Who is Alexei Nevalny?
Born in Moscow in 1976, Navalny has been one of the strongest pro-Democracy voices in Russia of his generation. He's the founder and leader of the "Russia for the Future Party," one of the largest opposition parties to Putin and the Kremlin and has sought political office in Russia several times.
Navalny has also published thousands of investigations on YouTube that expose corruption within the Russian government.
His work has been faced with stark criticism from Putin and the Kremlin. Navalny has been arrested several times and has twice been convicted of embezzlement and fraud charges that would prevent him from running for office in the future.
According to the Associated Press, Navalny says both convictions were politically motivated, as does the European Court of Human Rights.
Powerful images of mass protests across Russia Saturday demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. via @RFERL https://t.co/vl2ri3bLGf pic.twitter.com/XxOw2YzXhi— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) January 24, 2021
Navalny has also faced several physical attacks due to his politics. In 2017, he was partially blinded when he was splashed in the face with green chemicals. In 2019, while in jail, he was hospitalized after a suspected poisoning.
However, it was the latest attempt on Navalny's life that set into motion a string of events that led to Saturday's protests.
Navalny's latest poisoning and return to Russia
In August, Navalny fell ill while on a flight in Siberia. The pilot was able to land the plane in the Russian city of Omsk, and Navalny was quickly hospitalized. His condition continued to deteriorate, and his supporters were able to fly him to Germany, where he was placed in a coma for two weeks.
This pro-Navalny protest in Yakutsk in the negative 50C absolutely blows my mind pic.twitter.com/1vnTqxUvtT— Bakhti Nishanov (@b_nishanov) January 23, 2021
Navalny eventually recovered and later leaked a phone call in which a Russian agent admitted to poisoning him with a nerve agent. The Kremin has claimed the phone call was fake, but the stunning recording resonated with Putin's critics around the world.
Upon his full recovery, Navalny returned to Russia on Jan. 17 and was promptly arrested. His probation following a 2014 conviction had expired, and Russian officials accused him of appearing for required-check ins.
Russia's Investigative Committee has also opened new corruption charges against Navalny. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.
How Navalny's supporters have responded
Since his arrest, Navalny's supporters have taken to social media to demand his release and organize a protest movement. For days, terms like "Free Navalny" and "23 January" have trended on apps like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country on Saturday. In some instances, protests grew violent, with protesters pelted police with snowballs and officers responding with beatings.
Riot police charging the crowd at the #Navalny rally at Pushkin square in Moscow #Russia - big crowd not just on the square but in the adjacent streets as well. pic.twitter.com/NzNunYwK0C— Frederik Pleitgen (@fpleitgenCNN) January 23, 2021
In Moscow alone, 15,000 protests packed the streets. According to the Associated Press, Navalny's wife Yulia was among those arrested.