Putin critic Alexei Navalny jailed after calling for Moscow protests

More than 1,000 protesters were detained across Russia on Monday after the opposition leader Alexei Navalny raised the stakes in his battle with the Kremlin by calling on Muscovites to gatecrash a historical re-enactment fair being held on the Russian capital’s central street.

As the president, Vladimir Putin, spoke of national unity at a ceremony in the Kremlin, a few hundred metres away on Tverskaya Street cordons of riot police moved against protesters.

As of early evening, nearly 700 people had been detained in Moscow and as many as 900 in St Petersburg, according to rights groups. Police confirmed 650 detentions in the two cities. Smaller numbers of protesters were detained in other cities.

Navalny was arrested at his block of flats before he could even make his way to the protest. His Twitter account posted a photograph of two police cars and at least seven officers outside the building just before his arrest, along with the words: “Happy Russia Day!”

Late on Monday evening, a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to 30 days in prison for calling people to an unsanctioned rally.

The protest comes as Russia enters an election cycle, with a vote due next March expected to give Putin six more years in the Kremlin. Navalny, a lawyer turned anti-corruption campaigner, has announced his intention to stand, though few expect him to be allowed on to the ballot.

Navalny is popular among a minority of the population, and his support is growing. A protest in March against alleged corruption linked to the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, drew an estimated 60,000 people to the streets in cities across Russia.

Monday’s protest was the latest salvo in Navalny’s battle with the Kremlin, and was seen as a test of whether the event in March was a flash in the pan or the start of a sustained problem for the Kremlin before elections.

Crowds of mainly young protesters gathered on Tverskaya Street and shouted “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” for several hours. The street had been closed for celebrations to mark Russia Day, a public holiday, with thousands of people milling around amid Viking ships, medieval battle encampments and second world war hardware. Bearded warriors in golden cloaks, sword-wielding cossacks and tsarist officers carrying bayonets watched as modern-day riot police dragged protesters away.

Moscow authorities had made a rare concession to the opposition and given Navalny permission to hold the rally on a different street close to the city centre. Late on Sunday, however, Navalny said every company from which the organisers had tried to rent a stage and sound equipment had told them the mayor’s office had forbidden anyone from providing equipment for the rally.

Navalny announced he was moving the rally to Tverskaya Street, saying: “Compromise is possible, but not humiliation.” Some in the protest movement welcomed the decision as the only logical response to the obstacles imposed by the authorities, but others decried it as irresponsible because it put protesters at risk. About 2,000 people gathered at the initial protest venue.

Vladimir Chernikov, a top Moscow security official, said the Tverskaya Street protest was “100% provocation by indecent people who do not take responsibility for their words and actions”.

Alexander, a 19-year-old psychology student, said it was clear the authorities were not listening to the protesters and that he approved of the decision to raise the stakes. “We want to live in a normal country, and these monsters are stealing everything,” he said.

The riot police used kettling tactics to divide the crowd into sections, and picked off demonstrators who were chanting or those to whom they simply took a dislike, dragging them off to police vans. Some police used batons on the crowd.

Mikhail, who was dressed as a ninth-century Scandinavian warrior, said he was sad and irritated about the protest. “They’re like cockroaches, coming in here and spoiling our celebration,” he said, clutching a wooden shield as a group of riot police dragged several protesters from the nearby crowd, leading people to scatter. “They’ve damaged our stuff and ruined the day. I think the police have behaved impeccably.”

A woman who took shelter with her young child in one of the tents was more forceful, suggesting that the police should shoot the protesters. “We’ve come for a nice day out and look at these people. If they don’t like the government, they should fuck off to another country,” she said.

State television ignored the protests, focusing instead on a ceremony in the Kremlin in which Putin gave awards to schoolchildren and spoke about the consolidation of the country. “The state’s strength is down to political stability, unity of goals and the consolidation of the country,” said Putin. “Together we have been able to preserve and strengthen our sovereignty.”

Although Putin has not yet declared officially that he will stand for election in March, he is widely expected to seek and win another term that would see him rule until 2024. Navalny has travelled around the country setting up volunteer headquarters in many cities as part of his own bid for the presidency.

It is almost certain that he will not make it on to the ballot because of fears that his campaigning on anti-corruption issues will create too much “negative noise”. The authorities are split, however, on how to deal with the threat he poses. Some believe that if left to its own devices, his protest movement will fizzle out, while others think full-blown repression is the only course of action.

In April, assailants in Moscow threw green liquid in Navalny’s face, leaving him temporarily blinded in one eye. The authorities have not apprehended those responsible.

During the previous rally on 26 March, more than 1,000 people were detained in Moscow alone, including the Guardian journalist Alec Luhn. Most were released after a few hours, but some were given 15-day prison sentences, including Navalny. A few people have been given more serious jail terms, with one protester sentenced to 18 months in what appears to be an attempt to use random repression to deter people from protesting.