In a rare showing of popular outrage and dissent, anti-corruption protests spread across Russia on Sunday.
Defying bulky riot police and officials warnings that the demonstrations were "unauthorised," thousands gathered in over 80 cities from the capital Moscow to Vladivostok, which borders the Sea of Japan on Russia's eastern coast.
The protests were called by prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny – who has proven to be a persistent adversary of Russia's elite. He was swept up by police moments after the protests began. He was quickly found guilty of "violation of public order" in a Moscow court on Monday, a day later.
The protests came after Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation published an expose on corruption by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and a close-knit network of his associates.
The investigation – posted directly to YouTube – quickly went viral, garnering over twelve million views since it was posted on March 2. It outlined in intricate detail how the Russian prime minister amassed a fortune totalling over 70 billion rubles ($1.2 billion), which Medvedev received as gifts from charitable organisations in exchange for his political influence.
The protests come at a taxing moment for Russia. A number of President Vladimir Putin's opponents have been assassinated in recent months. A lawmaker who had fled Russia was shot dead on a street in Kiev, Ukraine. A lawyer suspiciously fell from a fourth-floor window a day before he was expected to appear in court to represent the family of a Russian whistleblower who died in official custody.
Putin is also facing accusations of efforts by Russian intelligence to influence France’s upcoming election in favour of far-right Euroskeptic candidate Marine Le Pen, whom he met with in Moscow last week. The United States is also conducting a federal investigation into Donald Trump's possible connections to Russia.
Coming days after protests in Belarus were crushed by the Russia-supported government of Alexander Lukashenko – labelled by the US administration under George W Bush as the "last true dictatorship in Europe" – the latest Russian demonstrations mark the largest showing of popular defiance since the latter half of 2011, when over 50,000 took to the streets against corruption and election fraud.
Putin has occupied Russia's highest offices for nearly two decades. He held office as the president of Russia from 1999–2008. Putin was then prime minister from 2008 until 2012 when he was again elected for a third term as president.
The recent unrest is the most widespread seen on Russia's streets since 2011-2012 when allegations of voter fraud fueled massive protests challenging Putin. Following the 2012 presidential election, Russia's Central Elections Commission found over 11% of reported ballot recounts had irregularities.
One of the themes of last week's protests was hanging shoes from light posts and telephone wires. The symbolic act was a reference to the key link in Navalny's investigation - records of Medvedev's online shopping for running sneakers.
Putin stands to win a fifth term in March 2018 in an election in which Navalny has announced plans to run against the incumbent president. But it remains unclear if Navalny will be able to run after he was charged and convicted of embezzlement last February. Those charges, Navalny's supporters say, are politically motivated and they plan to launch an appeal.