MOSCOW—Tens of thousands of Russians on Saturday flooded a broad boulevard in the Russian capital, calling for an end to political controls under President Vladimir Putin and decrying police violence in previous weeks.
The biggest protest movement in Moscow in years has gripped the capital in recent weeks as loyalty to Mr. Putin has been waning among Russians who have seen their living standards slip under the weight of chronic economic problems and Western sanctions.
Protest organizers and an independent monitoring group said approximately 50,000 people had joined the authorized march that took place behind police cordons with hundreds of armored riot police looking on. Police said 20,000 had attended the rally.
Demonstrations have been held weekly since July against city authorities’ decision to ban some independent opposition politicians from running in coming Moscow city council elections due to alleged violations committed while collecting signatures to put forth their candidacy.
But numbers swelled on Saturday after some of Russia’s most famous internet celebrities and musicians promised to attend the demonstrations and called on their millions of social-media followers to do the same.
“I’m outraged that Moscow is occupied by people in helmets and masks and we can’t get rid of them,” said Alexei Polikhovich, a political activist, speaking from a platform to the tens of thousands of people gathered under drizzling skies.
After the hourslong protest, crowds moved beyond police barricades toward the presidential administration in the heart of the city, where riot police detained at least 244 protesters and bystanders, according to OVD-info, which keeps track of detainees.
Other cities held protests in support of Moscow, including St. Petersburg, where 79 people were detained.
While rallies of past weeks have focused primarily on the coming city council elections, Saturday’s protest attracted opposition groups tired of what they call deteriorating freedoms under Mr. Putin.
“For a long time I’ve watched the situation in this country get worse and worse,” said Sergei Pushkaryov, 58, a businessman, who said he had protested against Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2012 after he worked as a vote observer and saw election violations in favor of the Kremlin leader.
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Much of the outrage on Russian social media this past week was directed at detentions of more than 1,000 people during previous demonstrations and at criminal cases city authorities have opened against nearly 10 participants. In one case, Samariddin Radjabov has been charged with engaging in mass disorder after he threw a plastic bottle at police officers.
Authorities have used other means to try to discourage the rallies. Some protesters detained by police in recent weeks have seen court bailiffs checking out their debts, and the Russian State University for the Humanities has warned students that participating in the rallies could lead to expulsion.
Attempts by city and federal authorities to quash the protests with brute police force and criminal cases have backfired, causing more people to attend the opposition rallies, despite efforts by state media to ignore the protests and paint those in attendance as traitors and hooligans. Some commentators have even alluded that the protesters are being paid by the U.S. to wreak havoc in Russia.
Earlier this week, a Russian court threatened to take away an infant from a couple that had attended a previous rally. Prosecutors alleged the couple had endangered their child by leaving him with a third person while they were at a protest on Aug. 3.
Moscow hasn’t seen demonstrations of this scale since numerous marches between 2011 and 2013, when police largely stood idly by, allowing activists to rally against election fraud in a 2011 parliamentary vote and a 2012 poll that re-elected Mr. Putin to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
This time, however, Russian authorities have been eager to stop the demonstrations as soon as possible to prevent them from piggybacking on other issues that have raised discontent in Russia, including falling living standards and endemic corruption. Support for Mr. Putin has fallen to 64% earlier this year, its lowest since 2013, though it has since recovered to 68%, according to Levada Center, a Moscow-based independent pollster.
Earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry took aim at the U.S., accusing Washington of interfering in domestic politics. The ministry summoned the head of the U.S. political section, Tim Richardson, to complain about what it said was a call to attend the protests. A page on the U.S. Embassy website showed the likely protest route, urging Americans to avoid the areas.
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