Russian police and state security operatives have arrested more than 1600 people as a wave of protests against Vladimir Putin’s inauguration marked the newly re-elected President’s fourth presidential term.
Likening the former KGB chief’s rule to the tyranny of the worst Tsars, the protesters were kicked, punched and rounded up in major cities across the country.
One of those grabbed at a Moscow protest was opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had only just began to address the crowd when black-uniformed police snatched him from the microphone.
Mr Putin won a landslide re-election victory in March, extending his grip over the world’s largest country at least until 2024, making him the longest-lasting leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who ruled for nearly 30 years.
He is due to be inaugurated on Monday in a Kremlin ceremony heavy on pomp and circumstance.
“If you think that he is not our Tsar, take to the streets of your cities,” Mr Navalny said in a statement issued ahead of the protests.
“We will force the authorities, made up of swindlers and thieves, to reckon with the millions of citizens who did not vote for Putin.”
Mr Navalny, who has been repeatedly detained and jailed for organising similar protests, had called for rallies in more than 90 towns and cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg.
That call was countered by mobs of Putin supporters who turned out in strength to rough up their idol’s critics.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin ally, branded Mr Navalny as “a political charlatan” and warned his supporters that their rallies were illegal and would not be tolerated.
“Putin has already been on his throne for 18 years!” one activist told a crowd in the city of Khabarovsk.
“We’ve ended up in a dead end over these 18 years. I don’t want to put up with this!”
Mr Putin, 65, has been in power, either as president or prime minister, since 2000.
Backed by state TV and the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating of around 80 per cent, he is lauded by supporters as a father-of-the-nation figure who has restored national pride and expanded Moscow’s global clout with interventions in Syria and Ukraine.
Mr Putin has dismissed Mr Navalny, who was barred from running in the presidential election on what he said was a trumped up pretext, as a troublemaker bent on sowing chaos on behalf of Washington.