MOSCOW (AP) -- The Moscow police plan to stifle an opposition protest by clamping down on the center of the city backfired — not only did the massive demonstration take place, but it was spread throughout a wide swath of the city.
Moscow police always come out strong for unauthorized protest gatherings, but the plan for Sunday's demonstration demanding freedom for jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny was especially anathema symbolically.
It was to start on Lubyanka Square, where the Federal Security Service that Navalny accuses of poisoning him is headquartered, then march a half-kilometer to the presidential administration building, about as close to the levers of power that a protester could get without breaching the Kremlin's walls.
Police responded to the provocative plan by closing seven subway stations in the vicinity and restricting pedestrian traffic in a large trapezoid from Red Square to Lubyanka, an area that contains many tourist sights and some of the city's best shopping.
On Sunday, journalists were able to reach Lubyanka, but few people who looked like potential protesters could get there. An hour before the action was to start, Navalny's team told protesters via a messaging app to head to two still-open subway stations.
After police detained some protesters and drove others away from the stations, the Navalny team told people to go to the square fronted by three of the city's long-distance train stations. More detentions took place on the square and its fringes.
Thereafter, the throngs set out for the Matrosskaya Tishina jail, where Navalny is held. Once repelled by police there, many headed back to the stations area.
In all, a demonstration that could have been contained in a relatively small area and observed by few who weren't participating, the demonstrators spread their message across much of central Moscow, attracting considerable attention along the way with their chants of “Putin, resign!” and “Putin, thief!” — a reference to an opulent Black Sea estate reportedly built for the Russian leader that was featured in a widely popular video released by Navalny's team.
On surging main roads and even side streets, passing drivers laid on their horns and flashed victory signs out the window, indicating that support for Navalny and dismay with President Vladimir Putin has spread well beyond the mostly young people who were motivated to navigate the icy sidewalks.
Although Putin and other officials have likened the protesters to terrorists, what Muscovites saw from their windows as the throngs passed was a stream of people better-behaved than the average crowd of soccer fans. The only vandalism observed on the trek were slogans traced on snow-dusted car windows: “Putin is a thief” and “PTN PNKh,” the text-speak version of a profane insult of Putin.
More than 1,600 people were reportedly arrested in Moscow, including Navalny's wife, Yulia, but there were few visible attempts to provoke police. Many of those who were grabbed and forced into police vehicles seemingly were picked at random. Across the country, more than 5,000 people were detained.
As helmeted riot police chased some marchers into a subway station toward the end of the demonstration, a woman having a cigarette laughed and said: “Is today a Russian holiday?”
For the demonstrators it wasn't a holiday, but they may feel encouraged by how police tactics gave them an inadvertent opportunity to show their determination.