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Putin Critic Alexei Navalny Among Hundreds Arrested In Protests


A wave of anti-government protests hit Moscow and more than a hundred other cities across Russia today. Demonstrators defied a massive show of force by riot police to protest corruption under Vladimir Putin's regime.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Russian).

SHAPIRO: Security forces rounded up and roughed up hundreds of demonstrators. Among those under detention the protest organizer Alexei Navalny - he was stopped as he walked out of his house to join the demonstration. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly was out on Moscow's Pushkin Square and joins us now. Hi, Mary Louise.


SHAPIRO: Describe the crowds and what their message was.

KELLY: It was quite a day on Pushkin Square, which to set the stage is this vast open space in central Moscow about 10 minutes' walk from Red Square and the Kremlin. The crowd out today skewed young, which squares with the people who support Navalny. He tends to bring out teenagers. He brings out 20-somethings, even kids, people who subscribe to the message which Navalny is trying to sell. And the message is this. It is anti-corruption. What made today fascinating, among other things, was that not only was this the day of scheduled protests, but it happened on the day of a big Russian national holiday. This is Russia Day.

So as we were watching the crowds, it was hard to tell who was out for Navalny, who was out because they're just celebrating a day off work. And there was this slow reveal as protesters - somebody started chanting, somebody across the square would answer back, and someone would stand up, start waving a Russia flag, which Navalny had told his supporters to carry. You could look around you and start seeing, OK, there's a protester. There's a protester. And then they all surged together and the police were surging back.

SHAPIRO: And what did the police do? How did they respond?

KELLY: The police response was efficient. It was ruthless. It was somewhat terrifying to be in the middle of. I actually can play you a little bit of it. This is me in the thick of it out in Pushkin Square earlier today. And you'll hear the pop. This is where they're starting to fire rubber bullets into the crowd.


KELLY: It's about two dozen riot police moving in, dragging a protester to the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in Russian).

KELLY: The crowd, they're shouting, shame, shame. And they were dragging - I must have seen a couple of dozen people arrested today just from the vantage point I had on one side of the barricades on Pushkin Square.

SHAPIRO: This is not the first time that the opposition leader Navalny has called protests and they've ended in scenes like this. How much of a challenge does he represent to Vladimir Putin?

KELLY: Well, if you look at polls, he poses no serious threat in next year's presidential election. He's in fact technically not allowed to run. President Putin gets to decide who will be on the ballot and Navalny isn't on it. However, part of the strategy that we see unfolding here is this. Navalny is trying to build enough of a profile, enough of a following that if he is not on next year's ballot for the presidential election that election will not look legitimate. So that is the backdrop to the drama we saw today, is this trying to mobilize mass protests out there. And clearly the Kremlin was worried enough about it that they detained him before he could ever make it to the scene of the protests.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaking with us from Moscow. Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're welcome, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Late this evening in Russia, a court sentenced Alexei Navalny to 30 days in jail for violating the law and organizing rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE SONG, "ALONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.