More than 600 people in St. Petersburg were among a total of almost 1,500 arrested across Russia. Police were intent on nullifying the pro-Navalny rallies as fears grow over the Kremlin critic's well-being.
More than 1,400 protesters were arrested in Russia on Wednesday as supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny took part in rallies in dozens of cities across the country.
The protesters called for the Kremlin critic's freedom as concerns endure over his deteriorating health after three weeks on a hunger strike.
Many of those arrested on Wednesday were seized before the protests had even got underway, including two of Navalny's most prominent associates in Moscow.
A woman defies a police officer during a protest in Ulan-Ude, the regional capital of Buryatia, near the Russia-Mongolia border
The protests took place on the same day that President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address, warning the West not to cross Russia's "red lines" while again making no mention of Navalny nor his plight.
In the capital, Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh and Lyubov Sobol, a top associate of the Kremlin critic, were detained by police on Wednesday morning.
Yarmysh, who was put under house arrest after pro-Navalny protests in January, was seized outside her apartment building when she went out during the one hour she is permitted to leave, her lawyer, Veronika Polyakova, said. Yarmysh was subsequently taken to a police station and charged with organizing an illegal gathering.
Sobol was forcibly removed from a taxi by uniformed police, according to her lawyer, Vladimir Voronin.
Navalny's organization called upon supporters to unite after reports over the weekend that his health had taken a serious turn for the worse.
"The situation with Alexei is indeed critical, and so we moved up the day of the mass protests," Vladimir Ashurkov, a close Navalny ally and executive director of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, told The Associated Press.
"Alexei's health has sharply deteriorated, and he is in a rather critical condition. Doctors are saying that he should be admitted into intensive care."
Navalny's team asked supporters to gather at Moscow's Manezh Square, right by the Kremlin walls, but police barricaded it off. Instead, a large crowd assembled at the nearby Russian State Library, while another lined up along Tverskaya Street, a main avenue that leads to the square. Both groups then proceeded to march along the streets of the Russian capital.
In President Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, police blocked off Palace Square, the vast area outside the Hermitage museum, forcing protesters to relocate along nearby Nevsky Prospekt.
Independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info reported 1,496 people had been arrested in 82 cities. The highest number of those arrests came in St. Petersburg, with 600 people taken in by police.
Meanwhile, The St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation warned students not to take part in the protests, threatening them with expulsion should they do so.
Further disruption to Navalny operations occurred elsewhere in Russia. The OVD-Info group reported that authorities searched the offices of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption in Yekaterinbrug and detained a Navalny-affiliated journalist in Khabarovsk.
Navalny, 44, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had been convalescing for five months after being poisoned by a nerve agent — an attack he blames on the Kremlin, though government officials have denied responsibility.
A Russian court deemed Navalny's stay in Germany illegal as it violated the terms of a suspended sentence he was handed for a 2014 embezzlement conviction and ordered him to serve two-and-a-half years in prison.
Navalny began his hunger strike to protest prison officials' refusal to let his doctors visit when he began experiencing severe back pain and a loss of feeling in his legs.
jsi/rc (AP, Reuters)