Hundreds of people including top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were arrested today as thousands of Russians defied bans to stage protests across the country against corruption.
The protests, reckoned to be the biggest since a wave of anti-Kremlin demonstrations in 2011-2012, come a year before a presidential election that is President Vladmir Putin is expected to contest, running for what would be a fourth term.
Navalny had called for the marches after publishing a detailed report this month accusing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of controlling a property empire through a shadowy network of nonprofit organisations.
The report has been viewed over 11 million times on YouTube, but so far Medvedev has made no comment on the claims.
Opinion polls suggest the liberal opposition, which Navalny represents, has little chance of fielding a candidate capable of unseating Putin, who enjoys high ratings. But Navalny and his supporters hope to channel public discontent over official corruption to attract more support.
Today's march in Moscow was one of the biggest unauthorised demonstrations in recent years, with police putting turnout at 7,000-8,000 people.
Police detained Navalny, who has announced plans to run for president in the 2018 election, as he was walking to the protest, putting him in a police minibus.
The crowd briefly tried to block it from driving off, shouting "Shame!" and "Let him out!"
"Guys, I am all right, go on along Tverskaya," Navalny tweeted from the van.
Police said about 500 people had been arrested in Moscow, while OVD-Info, a website that monitors the detention of activists, said at least 700 had been detained, as well as dozens in other cities.
A spokeswoman for Navalny's Anti-corruption Foundation (FBK) said on Twitter thant he would be held overnight before being brought before a judge tomorrow.
Thousands of people filled central Pushkin Square, some shouting "Russia without Putin", referring to President Putin. Some climbed on to lamp posts and the monument to poet Alexander Pushkin, shouting "impeachment!"
Dozens of police vans and rows of riot officers were lined up as a police helicopter hovered overhead.
Police officers moved to detain protesters and clear the square, with some using truncheons and pepper spray to disperse the crowd, AFP correspondents said.
Police also searched FBK offices over alleged incitement to hatred, and "Everyone was detained and brought to the police," the organisation's spokeswoman Kira Iarmych said.
Despite the dramatic scenes in Moscow, state TV did not cover the protests, instead showing soap operas and nature films.
The United States condemned the arrests, saying the action was an affront to democratic values.
"We call on the government of Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement, adding that Washington was "troubled" to hear of the arrest of Navalny