JUDY WOODRUFF: Widespread protests broke out in cities across Russia's 11 time zones yesterday to denounce government corruption.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.
MARGARET WARNER: The sentence for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was handed down this morning in Moscow: 15 days in jail for resisting police. He was also fined 20,000 rubles, about $350, for organizing yesterday's mass protests against alleged government corruption.
ALEXEI NAVALNY, Russian Opposition Leader (through interpreter): I think yesterday's events have shown there is a large number of voters in Russia who support a candidate who speaks for the fight against corruption. These people demand political representation.
MARGARET WARNER: The demonstrations were the biggest show of defiance against President Vladimir Putin since 2012. Tens of thousands rallied in 99 cities, from St. Petersburg and Moscow in the west, to Chita in Siberia, to the far Pacific coast port of Vladivostok.
Navalny generated the protests, in part, to demand the resignation of Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev. Navalny released a video earlier this month showcasing myriad mansions, yachts and vineyards Medvedev allegedly has amassed. Hundreds of protesters were arrested yesterday in Moscow and elsewhere.
Today, the European Union called for their release. A Putin spokesman said: "The Kremlin respects people's civic stance and their right to voice their position. We can't express the same respect to those who consciously misled people and provoked illegal actions."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said today:
SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: The United States will monitor the situation. And we call on the government of Russia to immediately release all peaceful protesters.
MARGARET WARNER: For his part, Navalny has announced plans to challenge Putin for president in 2018. But his eligibility to do so is in question over previous criminal charges.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the protests, President Putin, and where this goes from here, I'm joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. She's a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. And among her books is a study of the Russian president titled "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin." And she joins me from New York.
Masha Gessen, thank you very much for joining us.
Ninety-nine cities, the biggest demonstrations in five years, just how significant was this?
MASHA GESSEN, The New York Times: It's even bigger than that. It's not just the biggest in five years.
It is the first time since 1993 that Russians have come out into the streets without an explicit permission from the government to do so. The main difference between the protests of 2011-2012 and these protests today is that they didn't have permits.
These were — the people who were coming out into the streets were very young people, for the most part, who knew that they were all risking arrest. It's an extraordinary event.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You say young people. Who are the people, mainly, who turned out?
MASHA GESSEN: Judging from the video and photo footage, from eyewitness accounts and from the arrest records, this is the youngest crowd we have seen in the streets.
A lot of these people, most of these people are under 30. And a lot of them are high school students. They are people who have never lived in Russia without Putin.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of this had to do with this video of Medvedev, the prime minister. What — why was that notable? What was it in that that triggered this reaction?
MASHA GESSEN: It's not just a video.
It's a huge investigative project carried out by Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption organization. So, they put together a story, and they put together a film that demonstrated and meticulously documented the scale of corruption on the part of Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was it about the scale of corruption? We mentioned some of it, the houses, the extravagant …
MASHA GESSEN: The houses, the 50 pairs of sneakers or however many he orders every month.
The — just, it's obscene. And I think that that's a really important aspect of it. It's not just that he has a lot of money. It's that he behaves obscenely with that amount of money. It is sort of — it is unimaginable. It is unimaginable indecency. And it has been made public.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Given the level of repression in Russia, Masha Gessen, what do protesters think they can accomplish?
MASHA GESSEN: I don't think these are protesters who have a specific goal in mind, as in, we're going to come out into the streets and get this done.
I think that, again, these are very young people, so they may not be fully aware of the threat that they are facing. The last protests in Russia five years ago ended in a massive crackdown and in dozens arrests of peaceful demonstrators who went to prison for years at a time.
So, I think it's likely that the same fate will face these young people. I think they may even need a greater crackdown to put an end to these protests, because these are young people who don't watch television and who won't be quite as afraid of jail, just because they are so young.
So, what I really fear is, if these protests continue, is the kind of violence in the streets that we haven't seen before in Russia.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You have mentioned a couple of times the threat that they face. I mean, how real is the threat? What could happen to these people if they continue to come out in the streets?
MASHA GESSEN: Well, what has happened to protesters in the past was that, basically, the government in 2012 put an end to a series of mass protests by changing laws, by making it possible to arrest anybody for protests, and by making basically a show of imprisoning not just protest leaders, and not specifically protest leaders, but activists, rank-and-file protest participants.
That gets across the idea that anybody who joins a protest without being an organizer, without being a visible leader, risks arrest, and not risks just arrest, but years in a Russian jail.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you see anything changing about this regime as a result of this level of public distrust of this government?
MASHA GESSEN: Well, yes and no.
They're — I mean, these protesters came out against corruption, which is a little bit different from coming out against — politically against this regime. Importantly, they were not protesting the war in Ukraine. They were not protesting the murder of opposition leaders.
They were protesting corruption. That does give the government an opportunity to take anti-corruption measures, to fire Medvedev, to fire somebody else who can be accused of corruption, to make a show of fighting corruption. Right?
I think these protesters at this point are stopping a little bit short of demanding an end to the Putin regime. Their demands are not explicitly political nature. They are really demanding good government. But that could change.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Masha Gessen, journalist and author, we thank you.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you.