Thousands of supporters of Alexei Navalny have begun to protest in cities across Russia to call for the opposition leader’s release from jail.
Demonstrators gathered in cities and towns in Siberia and the far east with rallies in Moscow and St Petersburg expected to begin at 2pm local time (1100 GMT).
Police have made more than 167 arrests, according to the website OVD-Info, as the Kremlin attempts to break up the unsanctioned rallies by force. The protests are likely to be the country’s largest since 2017.
Several thousand protesters took to the streets in the far-eastern port city of Vladivostok, as well as hundreds more in nearby Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk. That region has been a hotbed of protest since last year’s arrest of the Khabarovsk governor, Sergei Furgal.
Video showed riot police with helmets and clubs rushing into a crowd in Vladivostok as authorities cleared the streets. Vladivostok is seven hours ahead of Moscow and the treatment of protesters there may indicate how they will be dealt with in the larger cities of European Russia.
Many more came out in cities across Siberia, with thousands in the city of Novosibirsk and hundreds in Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, and even dozens in Yakutsk, where temperatures dipped as low as -50C (-58F). In Irkutsk, protesters shouted: “We will not go!” Some in Omsk carried pairs of underpants in a reference to the suspected FSB poisoning of Navalny last August.
The largest opposition rallies are expected in Moscow and St Petersburg, where police have already cordoned off main squares to divert the crowds. Russian media have also reported sightings of heavy military vehicles on the outskirts of Moscow, although it was unclear if they were related to the protests.
Navalny’s allies have said the rallies are their best chance of convincing the Kremlin to free him.
Navalny was arrested on Sunday after returning from treatment abroad following the poisoning attempt, which was traced to Russia’s FSB security service. A parole board could reverse an earlier sentence and send him to a penal colony as early as the end of January.
The Moscow mayor’s office has told the public not to attend the rallies and the powerful investigative committee has opened a criminal investigation into a flood of calls on social networks, including TikTok, Facebook and others, for young people to join in.
Authorities claimed that social networks had complied with their demands to delete the content, saying TikTok had deleted 38% of posts promoting the rallies and that YouTube and VKontakte had each deleted 50% of similar posts appealing to underage protesters.
In remarks from a Moscow jail released on Friday night, Navalny told supporters he was in good spirits and, in case anything mysterious happened to him, that he was emotionally stable and not planning to harm himself. “I definitely know that outside of my prison there are many good people, and help is on the way,” he said.
Police have arrested Navalny’s press secretary, two lawyers and a top investigator who helped to prepare an investigation into a £1bn palace on the Black Sea they claim was bankrolled by Putin’s friends and state companies. As of Friday, the video of the investigation had been watched 50m times on YouTube.
Navalny supporters were also arrested in Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, Vladivostok and cities across Russia, as protest coordinators planned rallies in at least 65 cities and towns.
Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, said police threatened to break down her door while detaining her before the protests. She continued to tweet from custody, saying that attending the demonstrations was “everyone’s duty, if we want prosperity, freedom and the wellbeing of our country. And so that Alexei and all those illegally behind bars are set free.
“January 23rd should become legendary,” she wrote from a jail cell before signing off for the night.
Navalny could be sent to a prison colony if a parole board decides to revise a three-and-a-half-year sentence handed down in 2014. Russian investigators are also preparing criminal cases that could carry more than a decade of jail time if Navalny is charged.
Opposition rallies have attracted more young Russians, including many teenagers, since Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund began releasing online investigations into senior politicians and others close to Putin. In 2017, protests largely attended by young Russians shut down central Moscow’s Tverskaya Street after Navalny released an investigation into the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.
Influencers on TikTok and other social networks have come out in support of the rally, bringing warnings from Russia’s general prosecutor that the social networks should take down the content or face fines or other sanctions.
In one viral video, an English-language teacher, @neurolera, gives tips for how people can pretend they are American tourists if caught by police. “You are violating my human rights!” she says with a distinctly American intonation. And if all else failed, she added, then tell the police: “I’m gonna call my lawyer.”
On Friday, the Moscow city police department said it would prosecute anyone calling on people to join the protests “in the media, on the internet, and on social networks”. In particular, the city prosecutor singled out calls for “minors to participate in mass riots”.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, said on Friday that the investigation into Putin and the Black Sea mansion was a “lie” and a “cut-and-paste job”.