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Thousands Of Russians Arrested In Anti-Putin Protests

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the second weekend in a row, thousands of people across Russia took to the streets to demand the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny was arrested two weeks ago after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with a nerve agent, an attack he blames on the Kremlin, which denies involvement. Human rights activists say more than 4,000 people have already been arrested nationwide.

NPR's Lucian Kim was at the Moscow protest today, and he is with us now to tell us more. Lucian, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you just start by telling us what you saw and what you heard from the protesters when you were out on the streets?

KIM: Sure. I mean, the first thing I saw were these metal barriers preventing people from going to the center of the city and just rows and rows of city buses and police trucks filled with riot police ready to go. And at one point, a group of riot policemen ran in my direction and swooped down on a young man who was just standing on the street and bundled him into one of these police trucks. The authorities had warned that any protest is illegal today and made clear that they weren't going to fool around.

I met one young man. He said his name is Andrei Katkov and that he's a manager in a trading company. And I asked him if he supports Alexei Navalny, and this is what he told me.

ANDREI KATKOV: I don't totally support Alexei Navalny, but I support political alternatives because without alternatives, our society does not have any future.

KIM: Now, this was a fairly typical response I got today. I didn't meet any ardent Navalny supporters, but people said they respect him for standing up for their rights and that they're coming out to show the government they can't be pushed around.

MARTIN: Now, this is the second weekend in a row when huge numbers of protesters have turned out in cities across the country. Does this feel like a turning point for Russia?

KIM: Well, Michel, the list of cities where there were protests today is really mind-boggling. There are dozens of cities, and many of them are so small, I'm not sure most Russians would know where they are. That list includes gritty industrial centers in the Urals and oil cities in Siberia and conservative towns in the Russian heartland. So this is a nationwide protest, and it seems only someone with the social media clout like Alexei Navalny would have ever been able to mobilize so many people.

That said, there's also a lot of economic pain in Russia now because of the pandemic and low demand for oil. But still, you know, we've been here before. Especially in Moscow, there have been much larger and much more sustained protests, and Vladimir Putin has shown that he's a survivor.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, I mean, he's been in power for more than 20 years. Do you have any sense of whether this is getting to him in any way? I mean, obviously, the crackdown, as you just described, has been, you know, fairly brutal and extremely aggressive. But do you have any sense of whether this is getting his attention in some way?

KIM: Well, I definitely think it's getting his attention. I think the main thing is that he has the security forces on his side, and he's been showing the Russian people just how well-equipped and prepared they are. This is about a massive show of force to stop any kind of protest from snowballing. But, of course, as we know, that can backfire. For now, Putin is still very firmly in charge. And we know he absolutely hates these street protests. His police have tried to decapitate Navalny's team by raiding their homes and bringing all sorts of charges against them. But one of Navalny's closest aides is still outside the country, and he's already posted on social media that the next rally will be on Tuesday, when Navalny gets a court hearing on alleged parole violations.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you so much.

KIM: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.