Police beat protesters and arrested some 300 in mass rallies across Russia against a planned rise in the pension age.

Witnesses accused riot police of using excessive force and even of arresting children as thousands of supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny took to the streets.

Some were seen being hit with batons during scuffles before being dragged away to police cars.

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In Moscow demonstrators chanted “Putin is a thief”, “Russia will be free”, “Russia without Putin” and “down with the tsar”, while placards asked when the president himself would retire or simply read “Goodbye” with Vladmir Putin’s picture.

Demonstrations took place in more than 80 towns and cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg, urged on by Mr Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who is barred from state television and was earlier this year prevented from running for president against Mr Putin.

He had planned to lead today’s protest in Moscow but last month a court convicted him of breaking protest laws and jailed him for 30 days.

He said the move was designed to derail the protests.

The pension changes, which are going through parliament, have prompted widespread anger and knocked around 15 percentage points off Mr Putin’s popularity rating.

The plan raises the retirement age by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women.

The protests across Russia’s 11 time zones started in the far east and Siberia when it still was early morning in Moscow. There, a demonstration with an estimated 2,000 people ended in scuffles when riot police used barriers to stop people from marching to the Kremlin. 

OVD-Info, a rights organisation that monitors detentions, said 291 people had been detained by police in 19 towns and cities, including some of Navalny’s closest aides.

Factory worker Olga Sokolova, 52, said she was “dumbfounded” when the pension age proposal was introduced in June because she had hoped to retire from her physically taxing job at 55. 

Police used batons and blocked the protesters’ path in Moscow (AP)

“I can’t keep being afraid any more,” she said of her decision to risk detention by joining the Moscow rally. 

However, many of those who took part were young and decades away from retirement.

“I have come here to protest against the pension reform. I have to live in this country and I want to have hope for the future and a good old age,” said 22-year-old Nikolai Borodin.

Katya Shomnikova, 23, said: “They [the authorities] stole my future life. We will have to correct what’s been done. I want a better life for myself and my children.”

“The reform is a robbery of my parents and grandparents. Stealing our future, too. Right now the only thing we can do is protest,” 24-year-old Igor Panov said at the Moscow demonstration. 

Yegor Zhukov, 19, at the St Petersburg protest, said: “The state should have found the money it needed in the budget or through fighting corruption.” 

Popular opposition leader Yevgeny Roizman, a former mayor of Yekaterinburg, said on Twitter that a younger generation took the lead because middle-aged Russians were too scared to protest. 

The protests were also a challenge to the authorities who were hoping for a high turnout at regional elections today.

Raising the pension age is opposed both by older Russians, who fear they won’t live long enough to collect significant benefits, and by young adults worried that keeping people in the workforce longer will limit their own employment opportunities. 

Additional reporting by agencies

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