Alexei Navalny has one thing going for him which many other critics of Vladimir Putin literally can’t say: he’s alive, or at least he was as of a few hours ago. The long time critic of the government in Moscow was among more than 700 people who were arrested as protesters spread out across multiple Russian cities and towns. Their chief complaint was continued reports of massive graft and corruption by the Prime Minister, which apparently came as news to some of them for reasons unknown. (Politico)

Russian police detained Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin critic who wants to take on Vladimir Putin in next year’s presidential elections, during the largest nationwide protests for more than five years.

Sunday’s opposition rallies, which had been called by Navalny over allegations that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev took over a $1 billion in bribes from state banks and wealthy businessmen, took place in more than 80 towns and cities across Russia, as furious protesters defied police bans on unsanctioned political gatherings.

More than 650 people were detained in Moscow, according to rights activists, including Navalny’s entire anti-corruption organization, and 130 in St. Petersburg. Protesters filled a square just a short walk from the Kremlin, plastering a statue of Alexander Pushkin, the country’s 19th-century national poet, with anti-government stickers and signs. “Put Medvedev on trial!” read one sign.

For what it’s worth, the State Department was quick to condemn the arrests. (Fox News)

The State Department condemned the arrest of an anti-Vladimir Putin critic and hundreds of other protesters who were demonstrating against the Kremlin Sunday.

“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

We need a story like this one every once in a while to remind us precisely how good we have it in the United States. Sure, we have horrible politicians in positions of power from time to time, but you can still go out and clog the public squares with thousands of people cursing at them without being sent to some gulag on the Arctic Circle or simply getting executed on the spot. In Russia, “unsanctioned gatherings” are not only frowned upon, but punished severely. (And good luck getting your protest “sanctioned” by the authorities.)

But the far more amazing feature of these protests is the fact that so many Russians are apparently only just now becoming aware of the level of corruption inside their government. The current round of accusations suggest that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pocketed more than $1B in bribes and kickbacks from businesses and state operated banks over the years. Sure… a billion dollars sounds like a lot, and people certainly have the right to be angry. But if they really want to get upset over this type of grifting, have any of them ever checked out Medvedev’s boss?

Vladimir Putin, according to more estimates than I can count, is regularly estimated to be worth in excess of $200B. And the man has never worked in the private sector. Where do you think all of that money came from? He’s been using both the Russian people and the world’s markets as his personal cash cows for a very long time.

Perhaps the majority of the people in Russia are simply too frightened (or sensible) to say much about it. Or I suppose it’s possible that a lot of them just don’t know. Reporters inside the country are saying that there was only “cursory” coverage of the protests on the local news and they were played down. But there’s a glimmer of hope that this situation is changing because most of these protest were driven by social media. The Russians have somehow either ignored or failed to shut down Twitter and other platforms thus far and people are starting to organize in large numbers.

Unfortunately it’s a bit early to get our hopes up. Even if the citizens are becoming better informed and more willing to raise their voices, it’s still all too easy to simply “disappear” in Russia if you are viewed as a troublemaker. That will probably keep a lot of other potential dissidents quiet and in their homes for the time being.