MOSCOW — Riot police moved in at a rally in Moscow Saturday afternoon as thousands of people took to the streets to voice their discontent with the government of Vladimir Putin, just days before his inauguration for a fourth presidential term.
Thousands took part in the rally in Moscow's Pushkinskaya Square, where some protesters were detained by police and thrown into buses as the crowd chanted anti-Putin slogans.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who was barred from running in the 2018 presidential election, was detained within minutes of showing up to the rally and dragged away by police.
Navalny called on people demonstrate in nearly a hundred cities across the world's largest country to convey to Putin, who won a landslide victory in the March presidential election with over 76 percent of the vote, that he won't be allowed to rule "as a czar."
At the rally in Moscow, people in the crowd were seen holding up banners saying "I've had enough" and "I am against corruption," chanting "Putin is a thief" and "away with the czar."
Many also waved Russian flags as police stood by and helicopters hovered above.
"I want to live free in Russia where everyone will be equal," high school student Daniel, 17, who didn't want to reveal his last name, told NBC News when asked why he joined the protests.
As the crowd swelled, police swept in. Some protesters told Russia's TV Rain the detentions seemed random and heavy-handed. Protesters were shouting "shame on you" at police officers as people were being taken away.
Artist Ekaterina, 36, who also didn't want her last name shared, said she hoped the government would hear them.
"There is a big chunk of people who don’t agree with what’s happening in the country, who didn’t go out to vote, and who don’t consider the elections legitimate," she said.
Many told the media they were inspired by the events in Armenia, where a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience caused the long-time leader of the small Eastern European state to step down.
"Armenia has shown the people get to decide," one protester in Pushkinskaya Square told TV Rain.
Navalny had previously said Armenia should set "a good example for Russia" on how the persistence of people taking to the streets can drive change.
In a YouTube video viewed by nearly 3 million people ahead of the protests, the 41-year-old lawyer said 53 million Russians didn't vote for Putin in March and their interests need to be taken into consideration.
"They are different people, with different views, but as a whole, they have thoughts and ideas about Russia's future that differ from that of Putin," Navalny said. "Their opinions must be heard because they are the citizens of Russia too. Right now, they... we... are being ignored."
Rallies were expected to take place in 97 cities around Russia, with a number of them unsanctioned by authorities — including the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Navalny claims the rallies comply with the Russian constitution, but have been "illegally banned" by authorities.
Russian media reported Saturday that detentions took place at rallies throughout the country before the protest in the capital even began. Interfax news agency reported a number of Navalny's supporters were detained on Friday — a day ahead of the protests.
Overall, nearly 1,600 people were detained at anti-government rallies across Russia on Saturday, according to OVD-Info — a group that monitors political repression in Russia.
Navalny tweeted overnight that he was released from custody until his pending court date. He said he stands accused of organizing a protest rally and resisting police.
But while thousands took to the streets, the Kremlin was getting ready for Putin's inauguration on Monday in a ceremony that will likely be heavy on pomp and circumstance. Putin's election victory extended his lock on power to 24 years — longer than any Russian leader since Joseph Stalin.
Latest polls show the 65-year-old continues to enjoy an approval rating of over 80 percent, with many crediting him with having restored national pride and expanded Moscow’s global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine.
Critics like Navalny accuse Putin of overseeing a corrupt authoritarian system, while the financial well-being of millions of Russians continues to deteriorate.
Putin has dismissed Navalny as a troublemaker bent on sowing chaos on behalf of Washington.
The rally in Moscow brought back memories of violent clashes in 2012 — also ahead of Putin's inauguration. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested then, with many ending up in prison after trials that dragged on for years, resulting in Russian lawmakers passing new severe penalties for anyone taking part in unauthorized protests.
Saturday's protests also followed a peaceful rally attended by more than 12,000 people in Moscow earlier this week to protest the ban of popular messaging app Telegram.
The app was banned by Russia's communication watchdog last month over an encryption dispute, prompting an outcry from many Russians who felt the government was infringing on the free Internet.
The ban was enforced after app developers refused to comply with a court order to grant state security services access to its users’ encrypted messages for security purposes.
Protesters chanted slogans against Putin's government as they launched paper planes -- a reference to the app’s logo.
Navalny attended the rally and took to the stage, accusing the current government of rampant corruption and infringement of basic freedoms. "I won't take it," Navalny yelled out to the excited crowd. "We don't need a csar. Away with the csar," he said.
Yuliya Talmazan reported from London, Elena Holodny from Moscow.