Russian police detained over 1,500 anti-Putin protesters on Saturday as tens of thousands demanded the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia was among those arrested, but she was later released.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent.
He said the poison was applied to his underpants by state security agents in August.
After he was detained, his friends released on 19 January on YouTube a damning video on Putin.
In the video which has garnered over 70 million views, Navalny accuses the maximum ruler of monumental corruption, including building a $1.35 billion palace and ownership of wineries.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday’s protests, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event.
But protesters defied the ban and bitter cold, and turned out in force.
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.
Some protesters chanted “Putin is a thief”, and “Disgrace” and “Freedom to Navalny!”
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 1,614 people, including 513 in Moscow and 212 in St Petersburg, had been detained across Russia.
It reported arrests at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up.
He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a U.S.-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
One Moscow protester, Sergei Radchenko, 53, said: “I’m tired of being afraid. I haven’t just turned up for myself and Navalny, but for my son because there is no future in this country.”
He added that he was frightened but felt strongly about what he called an out of control judicial system.