MOSCOW, VLADIVOSTOK – Thousands of opposition supporters marched in Moscow and the Russian far east port of Vladivostok on Saturday during a national day of protest over hardships caused by the global financial crisis.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party also drew thousands to rallies in support of government anti-crisis measures.
Nearly every major city had a street rally, making it a public action of unusual scale for the vast country. Though the protesters were relatively few in number, the Kremlin is sensitive to public criticism of its policies.
In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, the Communist Party led around 2,000 peaceful protesters, some carrying banners that read "Kremlin, we are against you", on an unsanctioned march under the watchful eye of police.
Last month, riot police in Vladivostok, where protests broke out over used car import tariffs imposed to defend domestic automakers, detained 100 people in a crackdown that highlighted official sensitivity to growing anger over the efficacy of its efforts to tackle the slowdown.
By sanctioning some protests the authorities appeared to acknowledge a need for the public to express its anger over hardships caused by rising unemployment and the rouble's fall against the dollar.
"We are against capitalism," said Nikolai Nikolayevich, 61, a former Defence Ministry worker at a 300-strong Communist rally in central Moscow. "But we are not radicals."
However, the authorities moved against unsanctioned protests by small opposition groups, arresting a prominent radical and 40 others in Moscow.
Writer Eduard Limonov, head of the outlawed National Bolshevik Party, and around 10 party activists were held after attempting to join an authorised Communist Party march.
A few kilometres (miles) away, some 100 members of chess champion Garry Kasparov's United Civic Front and allied liberal groups were attacked by young men wearing surgical masks and wielding flagpoles, a Reuters witness said.
Some of the protesters were bloodied in the fight. Minutes after they began dispersing, riot police arrived and began detaining those they suspected of taking part in the unsanctioned demonstration.
Forty-one people, including Limonov, were detained during the protests. He was due to appear in court on Saturday before being released, the head of the Moscow City Interior Ministry's Information Department, Viktor Biryukov, said by telephone.
Among those arrested were National Bolsheviks attending the Communists' demonstration and people in the area of the "March of Discontent" by Kasparov's allies, he said.
Limonov and Kasparov, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, are leaders of a coalition of small, scattered opposition groups called The Other Russia.
"The most important thing is solidarity," Denis Bilunov, executive director of Kasparov's United Civic Front, told Reuters by telephone.
He said his group had been in contact with protest organisers in the far east and would send representatives to Vladivostok.
In a separate protest that was also unauthorised, about 20 Limonov supporters, holding flares and setting off smoke bombs, rallied near a suburban Moscow metro station where a party member was found dead earlier this month.
Russian television coverage focused on efforts by United Russia, a Kremlin-backed political party, to counter the anti-government protests by organising rallies in support of the government bailout efforts in Russia's cities.
Around 3,000 people attended United Russia's rally in Vladivostok, most of them students and pensioners, doctors and teachers whose salaries are financed by budget money.
The government has pledged to spend over a trillion roubles to support the economy, which has been hit by mounting job losses and a fast-weakening rouble.
The currency has lost over a fifth of its value since November to adjust to a dive in commodity and oil prices.