The trigger for some of the biggest protests to sweep Russia in years was the arrest of opposition politician and Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, who was detained on his return to the country last month after surviving poisoning by a nerve agent.
The anger runs deeper, however. Some protesters, young and old, say they have also taken to the streets to vent their frustration over declining living standards and the perceived gap between a small, wealthy elite and ordinary people.
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Real incomes fell 3.5 percent last year, unemployment is at its highest since 2011 and the economy in 2020, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, is estimated to have suffered its sharpest contraction in 11 years.
Disenchantment over inequality was targeted by Navalny in a YouTube video, released shortly after his detention and viewed more than 106 million times, which showcased a 100 billion-rouble ($1.31bn) palace complex in southern Russia.
Navalny alleged its ultimate owner was President Vladimir Putin, an allegation the Kremlin denies. Since then, Putin’s former judo sparring partner has said he owned it.
Alexandra, who protested in Moscow on Jan. 23, said she was shocked by the video, especially at a time when medics were battling the coronavirus pandemic.
“I can imagine what kind of bonus doctors get: about 17,000 roubles ($223),” said the 24-year-old student, who declined to give her surname for fear of repercussions with the authorities.
“And it [the video] really got to me, it was the last straw, and I decided to protest,” Alexandra added.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of major cities across the country on January 23, and just over a week later, although numbers were smaller. Officials say protest leaders’ estimates of the crowds were exaggerated.
Police arrested thousands of people on both days, and over the weekend in central Moscow, hundreds of riot police were deployed to quell dissent.