1000s rally across Russia in new challenge to Kremlin

A young demonstrator is apprehended by riot police during a demonstration in downtown Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 12, 2017. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, aiming to repeat the nationwide protests that rattled the Kremlin three months ago, has called for a last-minute location change for a Moscow demonstration that could provoke confrontations with police. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands of protesters held anti-corruption rallies across Russia on Monday in a new show of defiance by an opposition that the Kremlin had once dismissed as ineffectual and marginalized.

More than a thousand were arrested — including opposition leader and protest organizer Alexei Navalny, who was seized outside his Moscow residence while heading to the rally in the city center and sentenced to 30 days in jail several hours later.

The Moscow protest was the most prominent in a string of more than 100 rallies in cities and towns stretching through all 11 of Russia’s time zones — from the Pacific to the European enclave of Kaliningrad — with many denouncing President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of angry demonstrators thronged to Tverskaya Street, a main avenue in the capital, chanting “Down with the czar” and singing the Russian national anthem.

The protests coincided with Russia Day, a national holiday that this year brought out historical re-enactors, some of them dressed in medieval costumes. At one point, the Moscow demonstration featured an unlikely scene of about 5,000 protesters rallying next to an enclosure with geese, a medieval catapult and bearded men in homemade tunics and carrying wooden shields.

The re-enactors watched the rally before riot police broke up the crowd and randomly seized the protesters.

Over 800 people were arrested in Moscow, while in St. Petersburg, about 500 were forced into police buses at an unsanctioned rally that drew up to 10,000 people. Navalny was taken to court Monday evening and sentenced to 30 days in jail shortly after midnight for repeated violations of the law on public gatherings.

“The scope of the rallies was amazing, and so many people came out,” Navalny told reporters shortly before he was sentenced, point to protest rallies held in towns which have not seen any public show of discontent for decades.

In his trademark humor, Navalny lamented on Twitter shortly before he was led out of the courtroom that he would have to skip a Depeche Mode concert while he is in jail.

The demonstrators appeared to skew predominantly younger — those who were born or grew up during Putin’s 17 years in power. Similar crowds turned out on March 26, rattling officials who had perceived the younger generation as largely apolitical.

Three 16-year-old girls brought sheets of paper to the Moscow protest and sat on the pavement to write the articles of the Russian Constitution on them; a nearby group of teenagers climbed atop of a tent with posters saying, “Corruption kills the future.” Other protesters scaled a scaffold and hung a sign saying, “Only revolution will defeat corruption.”

School and university staff who reportedly reprimanded their students for attending the March protests warned them against going to Monday’s rally.

Ivan Sukhoruchenkov, 19, attended anyway with four university classmates to protest what he described as “stagnation of the political system.”

“Change is always good,” Sukhoruchenkov said, adding that he and his friends were concerned about corruption — Navalny’s rallying cry — that “manifests itself in all areas: from traffic police to university professors.”

Navalny had called the anti-corruption demonstrations, and they drew crowds of several dozen to the 10,000 in St. Petersburg. Some of the rallies were sanctioned by authorities and peaceful, but police cracked down brutally on others.